Khemadasa: A Genre of Music
By Priyangwada Perera
“Musicians want to be the loud voice for so many quiet hearts,” said Billy Joel. If you ask me to choose one piece of music that would always ring in my head, stay in my heart, I would have to say it is from the movie Golu Hadawatha. The flutes, violins, sitars one after the other join in and each piece blends with the piano barely heard, you cannot help but get goosebumps. I want to choose between the flute and the violin and the sitars challenge me. In the quiet and mute heart of the lover in Lester James Peries’ masterpiece Golu Hadawatha, it is Master Premasiri Khemadasa’s music score that gives voice.
You hear a mere background music score of a movie which was screened before you were born and today, many years later, you are moved to tears. That is the magic of Master Khemadasa. “Before Master Khemadasa, Sri Lanka had music and we had musicians. Even after him, we still have music and have musicians. But with Master Khemadasa the musician, there was a genesis of a ‘new music’,” said Jayantha Chandrasiri, the star director who has aced the stage, small screen and silver screen. “In movies his music was new, in teledramas and even in normal songs we hear, his music had an unmistakable trademark: A novelty that was not yet recognised or established even at the world level. He knew it before it hit Sri Lanka,” he said.
Created his own brand of music
What better man to speak of the Master’s expertise in all forms of stage and screen? Chandrasiri has worked with the great Master Khemadasa from times not known to many of us. “Master Khemadasa won the State Music Award for Best Music in Stage plays in 1988 for my stage play Mora. Master’s was an exceptional contribution to my teledramas especially Veda Hamine and Dandubasnamanaya.”
We do not need Chandrasiri or the beloved Master to tell us that music is as sound and memorable outside the teledramas, even in isolation. If you heard them once, no matter how many years ago there is little chance of you not being able to recall where you have heard it from. Pradeepa Dharmadasa’s Doovillen Heduna Liye and Malini Bulathsinghala’s Sandaken Daharin from Veda Hamine should be heard with earphones on, to hear each note, each blend. It was Master Khemadasa who did the music score for Chandrasiri’s films as well.
How can one man prove to be such a genius in every aspect of music? Chandrasiri did not have to say much since Master Khemadasa’s music spoke it loud. “Before Sri Lankan or the world film music evolved, Master grasped it. I would simply say that we cannot associate a genre to Master Khemadasa’s music. Master Khemadasa is a genre itself.”
Music exceeding movie quality
We had to speak to emeritus Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne who is one treasure trove of aesthetics. “In the 70 plus years of Lankan cinema, Master Khemadasa remains unparalleled. Uncontested.
I think I can say that Master Khemadasa’s predecessors, contemporaries, those who came after him, nobody managed to grasp the soul of cinema music. Only a handful even tried,” he said. Prof. Ariyaratne pointed out that Master Khemadasa’s best compositions came in Golu Hadawatha and Nidhanaya where there were no songs. “This is his magic. It is not about putting a tune to make a song.
Movies such as Hansa Vilak, Bambaru Ewith and Ahas Gawwa will always stay in our hearts. Some of the films he did the music score for, were very average in terms of their aesthetics. After all, the music has to go with the movie and its requirements. But even those movies, the Master filled with heavenly compositions of songs. In Sirimedura, Master’s composition Kanyavi, the song has become the essence of the movie. The song is embraced even in isolation. Master Kemadasa is exceptional, excellent, and incomparable,” he said.
Experimenting with western music
Emeritus Prof. Ariyaratne also pointed out how Master Khemadasa’s creative research in music took him to new heights. “Till then, our music was 99 per cent inspired by the North Indian Hindustani classical music. But the Master looked at the West. Explored and experimented. Sinhala Avurudda, Maha Muhuda, Rain,Drought, and Mage Kaalaye Mauni were his symphonies. His operas Manasavila and Doramadala are exceptional. Master’s Cantatas Pirinivan Mangallaya and Nidhan Mankollaya where human voice is the expression are all novel experiences. To take a western concept and localise it is no simple task.
Nobody tried those waters after him. In 1966, Prof. Siri Gunasinghe openly praised Master Khemadasa’s background music score in the movie Senasuma Kotheneda and Master Khemadasa realised that the musician in him was now accepted. His music in movies and stage plays plus teledramas will always be remembered.
Not many would know that the great Amarasiri Peiris and Master Khemadasa were friends since 1965, when Peiris was a student at Hewood. “I used to write notation for Sir’s [Master Khemadasa’s] compositions. Sir would play and I would jot down the notation. He would come to the studio and I used to play the violin in the orchestra. For Prof. Ediriweera Sarchchandra’s Mahasara, songs at Radio Ceylon, I would be there,” Peiris reminisced.
A man ahead of his time
“Sir composed my first song, Landune, which was for a cassette called Pahan Tharuwa. The song which won me several awards including the President’s Award, Sarasavi and Swarna Sankha, was Kanyavi, from the movie Sirimedura was Master’s composition. Lucien Bulathsinhala lyrics.” Peiris said that Master Khemadasa worked alongside Thiloka Sundarie Kariyawasam at the National Institute of Education (NIE) making music syllabuses and improving music education. Even at recordings, the Master would see that the Orchestra is fed and well taken care of.
“We would go after work from Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) for recordings and work till 6 a.m. next day. If it was for a film, we went on for about five days working full 24 hours. He would tell the production managers that we need rest. He was bold and brave. Always spoke for us. His symphonies and cantatas were requested from Germany. Master was a man ahead of his times,” Peiris said. Whenever a foreign dignitary arrived, even when the Queen came, Master Khemadasa would be chosen to entertain them.
Guruge Premasiri Khemadasa Perera was born on 25 January 1937, in Thalpitiya, Wadduwa. Schooled at Sri Sumangala and St. John’s Colleges Panadura, he was married to Somalatha Perera. Father of two daughters – Anupa and Gayathri Khemadasa – his dream, his passion was music. On October 24 2008, when he heaved his last breath, he had a wealth of students he raised under Khemadasa Foundation. Speaking to us, one of his daughters, Gayathri said that her father was compassionate.
“Be it a human, an animal or bird, he deeply felt for them. He used to feed them. He would give it all. He was very passionate and wanted others to learn. That is why he has many students. So now, the Foundation has taken up the task of teaching music his way. We teach Lankans here and abroad via zoom. We volunteer at children’s homes and elders’ homes, all in the name of our father. It is to take his legacy forward that I have decided to stay in Sri Lanka.”
The best tribute you can pay the great maestro is to go and listen to a collection of Master’s songs online. Just the way I did, writing this piece and I can only warn you it will transform you. You would want him back and that ache of knowing he is gone will pain you. But it is worth the pain. It is only right that we pay tribute by finding the soul of Khemadasa in his masterpieces. Rest in peace, Master.
(pix courtesy Gayathri Khemadasa)