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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.