Sapu’s Lingering Lyrics
By Priyangwada Perera
In his village Walathara, the school was just two to three houses away from his home. When Yovada Thampava, the Buddhist chant was being uttered half way, children would jump over the short wall and run at top speed. The ones to enter first were the winners. Instead of the short road, he used to take the longest road home. He would watch the little fish smile at him from the waters nearby. Then he would run back to the thick forest. Eating whatever fruits he found in the jungle, he would get scolded by this mother when he came home with his tummy full. This is the same boy we meet in his beautiful song Issara Man Giya Pasala Erila.
Born in Dehigahawatta in 1944, Kumaradasa Saputhanthri’s father was a Storekeeper in the Army. Saputhanthri was born after their return to Beruwala, Walathara. He passed his SSC and Advanced Level exams from Walathara Maha Vidyalaya. He did his higher studies at Jethavana Vishvavidyalaya Pirivena. It was associated with Vidyalankara University and students got to qualify for that university.
However, at the end of the 60s, Saputhanthri made good friends with his university mates who were active members of the JVP. He was very involved with the mission and travelled the country with his comrades. This change of focus made him discard the hopes of graduation. He abandoned his education and chose politics. Hiding in jungles, surviving without getting killed; it was his writer-cousin Karunaratne Saputhanthri who helped him hide and helped him find a job. That was the at end of 1973 and it was the time he became a music enthusiast.
Saputhanthri found his way to Sudarshi Hall. The great Dayananda Gunawardana was in charge. There, Saputhanthri also met undergrads from Heywood. Rohana Weerasinghe, Edward Jayakody, Bandula Wijeweera, Kularatne Ariyawansa were among them. When these friends got teaching appointments, Saputhanthri ended up at the concerts held at their different schools. Being their great friend, he enjoyed the long rides to schools in Nuwara Eliya, Badulla and Bandarawela with his friends. He came back to Sudarshi and met Sunil Edirisinghe who was working at the Printing Corporation. Saputhanthri was already known for Edward Jayakody’s songs.
The beauty of it is that Saputhanthri is a rare expert in putting lyrics to the tune. Rohana Weerasinghe would send him a melody, a dummy with some funny lines he had put to the tune. Saputhanthri would listen and magically stud them with words so perfect that we never dream these were songs done the topsy turvy way. Maarambari, Paata Dedunu, and Hansa Rajini by Edirisinghe which is a song with the least number of words are some examples of his genius.
Saputhanthri’s first song was when Weerasinghe got an invitation to do four new songs at Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC.) Weerasinghe gave one to Kularatne Ariyawansa, one to Saputhanthri, to Saman Athaudahetti and so on.
The first song he wrote for Edirisinghe was Chandra Madala Bedda Vatin. The humble Saputhanthri said that too was written to melody. It became super popular and the second one Paata Dedunu Sedila was also done the same way. This is when Edirisinghe became an iconic name and they became bosom friends.
Saputhanthri joined the SLBC and got invited to write songs for their programmes and by the end of his tenure he had written at least 600-700 songs. He has done three books named Malin Malata, Mal Maavathe and Sapumal Suvandamaya. The latter was edited by Pamada Suharshi, his daughter.
Writing for almost 50 years, he left SLBC and started a job in printing. His wife Kumari Jayakody, daughter Pamada and son Lakrivi Sulara Saputhanthri both successful professionals are Saputhanthri’s strength.
Saputhanthri said, “With no particular place or academy to train you in being a lyricist, one becomes a successful songwriter. While you learn something, any ordinary person can use his or her experiences; what one feels and is sensitive to. If one can use his/her skill to transform one’s own experiences to songs that is the beauty of it. If those experiences can be turned into making a song that has universal appeal, that is the success of a lyricist,” Saputhanthri said.
We often complain that songs we get to hear now, most often don’t have substance. How would Saputhanthri explain this, we asked. “Yes, the kinds of songs which were written in yesteryear no longer come up. In some sense it is as if we cannot write those kinds of songs any more. Maybe because deep down we feel that era is over where people could feel such sentiments. We no longer have such recipients, such a ground where these seeds of these songs can fall, take root and bear fruit. I don’t mean to say all are the same. There are some, a small group of people who still crave for these. However, I think the songs we have written in the past are enough to satiate them. So I choose to let things rest there. Writing something like that is also difficult now,” Saputhanthri said.
Unlike those days, creating a new song is a costly affair. It takes a good Rs150,000 to do one song. Having written 600-700 songs, one would think Saputhanthri could be a millionaire. But the wonder of Saputhanthri is that he never took money for his lyrics. Singers who got him to write lyrics would vouch for it. There was not a day he put a price tag on his heavenly words. He would not even ask for money. He has quite literally ‘single handedly’ contributed to make an entire galaxy of stars and yet not taken a cent. We had to ask him that. “Oh, no. I never tell them how much money I need for a song. I have never written for money. I wrote for friendship. The singers also had no money. Those days, SLBC paid the singer Rs 35 for four songs. The orchestra comprised three or four. They had to be given food and paid. All of that may have cost Rs 1,000 those days,” he recalled.
“Now, it is extremely hard to have a song of ours reach our audience. FM channels hardly play our songs. So, we have taken the backseat and let those who can do this, to continue. It is the songs of the ‘Those who are capable’ that we get to hear these days. I never asked for money, I was not given money. But later on, when times got better and singers became established and had their individual concerts and earned well, they gave me money,” the truthful man said. “Sunil Edirisinghe, still helps me in whichever way I need, he puts money in my account. So does Edward Jayakody. Those two have sung the most of my songs and even now they put my share in the bank. Rohana Weerasinghe as well who has the copyrights for his songs is entitled to some money when his work is aired on media. Out of that, he puts a portion to my account. Out of his internet sharing, caller and ringtone use, I am given a portion.”
Can he choose one favourite out of all his songs, we wondered. “Out of the songs I have written, what shattered me the most was Ran Malak Lesa. I attended the funeral of an Army soldier in my village. I came back home and I could not sleep.” Tossing and turning the whole night, in the middle of the night he wrote a few lines of this song. Another half the next day and the rest in another three days. “I went to Kularatne Ariyawansa at Singlanka and he got it done with Rohana. I also like Hade Kothenaka Ho,” he said.
Can one be a professional lyricist in the country now, we asked. He said, “It was very hard to become a lyricist those days. No books, no university diplomas, no courses. Our era the 70s,80s and 90s did it the hard way but many who followed changed the essence of lyric writing. There are different ways to become popular now. We prefer to sit and watch,” Saputhanthri said.
“In the name of love, before the last of my tears dry up, I beg you – leave behind my memory,” writes Saputhanthri. Beg as he might, he would never be forgotten.