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Maestro Premasiri Khemadasa:

Reminiscence of his real-life sonata

It is not so long ago we stood by his hospital bed. Master, as he is fondly known, had wanted everyone to be photographed by his bedside, before the memory power gradually gave up him. I am happy I could at least see him fast asleep, sometimes smiling in his own way, simply unaware of his friends by the bedside. The sad news brought me back to that portrait of his life engraved in memory.

Way back in early sixties, Premasiri Khemadasa was a sprouting young man in local music. He formed his own centre for experimental music titled as Sangeeth Manjari close to a Leftist political party office in Maradana. Here he went on experimenting on various forms of music with vocalists as well as instrumentalists.

The tradition-bound ways of musical expression was overshadowed gradually by his experiments. The results culminated in his symphonies such as Sinhala Avuruddha and Ape Kale Mavuni. He blended or harmonised instrumental music with the human sounds. His pioneering effort was effective in his very first Sinhala opera Kalemal and then in Bari Sil, which were hallmarks in his career.

Khemadasa: Creator of sublime music

Manasa Vila

Then this effort culminated in Manasa Vila, a satirical script written by the poet Sirilal Kodikara. The acid comments that ensued this effort brought unforeseen fortune to Khemadasa when he was sought after by local film as well as theatre directors.

He was first picked up to create the musical score for K A W Perera’s Sanasuma Kothanada, which showed the direction which one should turn in search for a fresh pasture, so far unseen. The lyric writers had the chance of working with Khemadasa, to the point that their efforts were not lost in the agony of fitting or fixing words for already tailored Hindi melodies.

Once the late lyric writer of much fame Dharmasiri Gamage said that the sensitive aesthetic judgment to his lyrics were given by Khemadasa, which is discernible in such songs as Hulan Kurullo and Ammavarune.

Lester James Peries obtained the service of Khemadasa, for his Golu Hadawata, where the most touching aspect happened to be the music soundtrack which can stand unwavering and independently. Quite a number of plays followed and Khemadasa was bestowed with many an award, the State award and Sarasaviya awards, and many more.

Musical talent

Stage plays such as Marat Sad, Angara Ganga and Aesop were some plays that exhibited his unique musical talent. Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Bambaru Evith also shows this link that expressed his insight in the capturing of life giving nuances via musical expression.

My personal touch and association grew up with our production of Aesop, where he ushered in a new area of creativity, which enabled the Kelaniya University to materialise the creative concept of ‘teaching and learning’ as followed in many foreign universities.

When he was onboard both as music director and teacher of creative communication to undergraduates, he never laid down strict regulations. However, we participants concluded that it was not a child’s play to work with ‘Khemadasa Master’ as he was over disciplined in the area entrusted to him. He was indefatigable and we as normal human beings were overtired.

The result was, however, splendid. I must admit as writer and director of the play Aesop that the sensitive musical creation stood up engulfing the spectator. As the Vice Chancellor of the period pointed out later, the play had enamoured him with its music, and made happy that he had the rare chance of rediscovering Khemadasa for one of our creative projects.

He immediately sent a letter thanking ‘Khemadasa Master’ for the lasting contribution, to the academic sphere. When Maestro Khemadasa was bestowed with a D.Litt by the Ruhuna University, we felt happy. Though a number of admirers used ‘Dr’ tag before his name, he loved to be called ‘Master’.

However at a time when bogus doctorates proliferate, here is a man who deserved it. What he contributed to the field of music and areas covered in musicology will remain. Several books are written about him and his contributions.

The late Cyril B Perera brought out the pioneer volume and titled it as Khemadasa nam vu Ohu. This was followed by a research study into the identity of his contribution, written by the well-known communicator Lucien Bulatsinhala.

The third in line is a Kelaniya University assignment by Upul Guruge. The poet Buddhadasa Galappatti, in association with several others, compiled a felicitation volume on various aspects of the Master.

The latest in the line of such volumes came out from Eric Illayapparachi, the writer of Agni the latest opera Khemadasa produced.

Khemadasa was a vigilant creative force swayed via humanism, which lay buried in the bottom of his heart. Even in his seventies, he showed signs of being vigilant and to the point of being an angry young man needing to overthrow some barriers of traditionalism.

I remember his great laughter, a symbol of his creative identity. If he disagrees over something, he would sternly look at you and laugh as loud as possible.

On the other hand, if he agrees, he would look aside and laugh as loud as possible. He had his own idiosyncrasies and fancies. There is no doubt that he was a committed musician loved by some and gruesomely hated by some others. As such, Khemadasa himself created a controversy.

He designed several radio and television discussion programmes to air his views on aspects on the music. I worked with him as the presenter and moderator. His was an attempt to re-establish a working definition with illustration drawn from foreign folklore and musical trends. While he saluted the folk melodies he denounced the over sentimentalism of the same.

I remember him once declaring the ritual Kankariya should be rediscovered and folk poems such as Tunsaranaya should be rediscovered in terms of modern musical insights and perspectives. For the student of music these are recorded in such radio programmes as Sangeetha Samalochana and tele discussion programmes such as Sarasata mada tele gi.

I hope these are preserved in the relevant archives for posterity. Those who were closer to him knew that he left no stone unturned in passing down his knowledge and skills to students who so desired to acquire it free of charge. As such he established the ‘Khemadasa Foundation’ in the BMICH premises and shared his capabilities.

I have often seen him with the mynah birds at wee hours. He would buy several buns, throw piece by piece to them, and watch smilingly how they enjoy the breakfast. This is the other side of Master’s real life sonata, which is only memory now.


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