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Premasiri Khemadasa May his music live on!


Widely known as Master, Premasiri Khemadasa passed away on October 24, and was given a state funeral on October 27 attended by a large number of aficionados from every walk of life. He was instrumental in establishing some mainstream musical styles in Sri Lankan music tradition. Daily News Artscope tracks down the life and mission of the much acclaimed musician in retrospect.


Four decades of his life was dedicated to his muse. Music was the zeal of his existence and his expertise spanned a variety of fields from songs, theatre, and celluloid to the likes of opera. His legacy will be treasured for years as a rare gift in the art stream of the country.

Khemadasa led a simple life, caring a little about materialism and health. He was often seen murmuring continuously until he got his melody right. It may be ten times, and sometimes lapses over a hundred times.

He claimed to have had no formal education. However his creativity is the emblem of years of hard effort, which even some qualified musicians do not possess. His is not following the tradition, but attempting to establish what is not traditional: bridging East and West.

This was a painstaking task for Master, which earned him both friends and foes in the field. He was largely criticised to have condemned the Eastern music and following Western music. There are times he is verbally recorded to have condemned the Eastern music.

That is his philosophy, which he himself did not follow. He talked high of Western instruments, but he had an abode for the Eastern aesthete within himself. The Khemadasa musicology cannot be labelled as either Eastern or Western; it is the superb blend of Eastern Ragas with Western harmonies.

His experiment with musical styles around the world shared with the local folk tunes, Hindustani rhythm, Western melodies and many other forms of music combined together to make a unique form of style which he could boast as his own.

Self portrayal


Life and times of Master Khemadasa

Full name : Guruge Premasiri Khemadasa Perera
Born : 1937 January 25
Died : 2008 October 24
Place of Birth : Wadduwa - Thalpitiya
Schooling : Sri Sumangala College, Panadura, St. John College, Panadura
Profession : Founded Sangitha Manjariya in 1958
Spouse : Somalatha Perera
Daughters : Anupa Khemadasa ,Gayathri Khemadasa

Award timeline

1966 Senasuma Kothenada Eksath Lanka Rasika Sangamaya
1969 Golu Hadawatha Sarasavi and Radio Ceylon Magazine awards
1970 Narilatha Sarasavi award
1970 Mokada Vune Critic award
1973 Nidhanaya Critic award
1975 Ahas Gavva Critic award
1979 Bambaru Evith President’s award
1980 Vasanthe Davasak OCIC and President’s award
1982 Soldadu Unnehe President’s award (rejected)
1983 Vasanthathil Oru Vanavi OCIC award
1983 Ridee Nimnaya President’s award
1983 Sirith Virith State Drama Festival
1984 Thunveni Yamaya OCIC award
1985 Hima Kathara President’s award
1986 Yuganthaya OCIC and Sarasavi awards
1986 Makarakshaya State Drama Festival
1987 Maldeniye Simiyon OCIC award
1990 Sandakada Pahana Sarasavi award
1990 Siri Medura Sarasavi, OCIC and Swarna Sankha awards
1992 Dolosmahe Pahana Sarasavi award
1992 Madhu Samaya OCIC and Swarna Sankha awards
1994 Surabidena Swarna Sankha award
1995 Mee Haraka Swarna Sankha award
1996 Maruthaya Swarna Sankha award
1996 Dandubasnamanaya Sumathi tele award
1999 Julietge Bhoomikava OCIC and President’s award
2001 Rejana Sumathi tele award

Essential reading of Master

Master, Sangita Yuga Yathrikaya A collection of academic and creative articles written on Master Khemadasa, followed by interesting details of Master’s life..

Compiled by Samantha Herath, Buddhadasa Galappathi Lucien Bulathsinhala and Gamini Sumanasekara

He took this form of music to the world, enthralling local and foreign audience with his ballet, symphony, cantata and opera creations. Folk poem and traditional ragas, he said, should not be used as they are, but should be molded and modified to suit the contemporary setup. This philosophy was the key to his achievements.

Beri Sil
Kele Mal
Sinhala Avurudda
Maha Muhuda
Niyagaya haa Vessa
Mage Kale Mavni
Manasa Vila
Dora Mandala
Sahasra Yathra
Pirinivan Mangallaya
Nidan Mankollaya

He maintained his own distinctive features in his music score from Nandisena Cooray’s Sepatha Soya to Sanath Gunathilaka’s Ekamath Eka Rataka, (which is to be released towards next year) outshining his contemporaries. Jayantha Chandrasiri’s Dandubasnamanaya and Amarasiri Peiris’ vocal of Balanna Nanda May Numbe Guhavai (look, Nanda, this is your cave) in Jackson Anthony’s teleplay Esala Kaluwara are two examples for Master’s influence from folklore.

The outstanding melody gave prominence to the voice of the vocalist while minimising instrument contribution, conveying the theme of impermanence. Many do not know that this master musician was himself gifted with a melodious voice. He was a dab hand coaching the students to perform their voices properly, with his own voice.

Everyone, as Master felt, is born with a talented voice, and it needs to be trained. Although he did not directly admit, Buddhist philosophy played a major role in every inch of his creativity. His much famous cantata Pirinivan Mangallaya shows his influence from the oriental philosophy. All his creations contained more or less oriental themes. For him, Jataka stories had musical components, and Buddhist suttas have the capacity to tremble the earth if delivered in a proper melodic sense.

When he introduced these foreign styles, he was scoffed at primarily for impossibility of grasping operas, symphonies, and cantatas. Music is a universal language, which transcends the mortal verbal order. They are not to be understood, but to be ‘felt’.

The Master had immense trust on words. If the wordings were appealing, any poem or lyric will become a libretto for him. He would consider it a treasure, though the Master claims the ownership of the libretto afterwards.

“It’s a matter of converting textual order into a musical interpretation. We should ‘feel’ the rhythm of words, and then only we enjoy the musical interpretation,” he was once quoted as saying to a few of his close associates.

“Once the musician started working on libretto, the librettist can no longer claim any rights. It belongs to the musician. Libretto is something, and score is something else. What you hear is the musician’s composing, not the librettist’s.”

He was not just a Master, but he was full of humanism whom even the kings could not buy. It was 1982, and he was awarded as the best music director for Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Soldadu Unnehe. Cameras panned in the direction of Master, who stood up at the announcement, and left the premises rejecting the award, protesting against the unfair imprisonment of Vijaya Kumaratunga.

Just as Opera, Cantata and Symphony, the word ‘Master’ is derived from Maestro in Italian. The word is used in respect for the music master. Khemadasa was the only ‘Master’ in Sri Lanka, which was not dropped even after he was conferred with a honourary doctorate by Ruhuna University. This epitomises Master’s stronghold as the unrivalled genius of our time. He knew it well, and it was one of his weak points to publicly leak out his self-pride with an occasional snobbish trait; that was him, every genius has an Achilles’ heel.

Once a private television channel was scheduled to telecast an opera theatre to mark the dawn of the millennium. All the arrangements were complete for the massive opera theatre with the rehearsals drawing to a close, when Master changed his mind at the eleventh hour, since something did not please him.

He gave up the project, but later compiled his last CD containing the untelecast opera theatre and Doramadalawa, one of his famous operas, and titled it as Doramadalaven Dambaranvellata (from Doramadala to Golden beach). Prof Sunanda Mahendra composed libretto for Dambaranwella (originally titled Sahasra Yathra) while Lucien Bulathsinhala did for Doramadalawa. His last creation was Agni Opera, libretto written by Eric Illeapparachchi, to celebrate his seventieth birthday.

Age was not a barrier to this small-made septuagenarian though ill health may have slowed his pace. He was jovial, always ready for a hearty laugh, and sometimes seemingly drowsy at banquets probably due to sleepless recording nights. He highly focused on creativity, until the memory started fading gradually.

Death has no reason to be proud of in taking over the virtuoso. As John Donne stated, it is but a short sleep, and the memory of this beloved autocrat in his own hard-fought realm will remain eternal.

Farewell, dear Master...

Quotable quotes while Master was alive

Premasiri Khemadasa has succeeded in solving the dilemma that faces all Asian artistes - how to exploit Western forms and techniques and still preserve one’s own national identity - this is so in the novel, in theatre, ballet, dance, music, painting, and even in architecture and so on.

- Lester James Peries (Khemadasa composed music to some of Peries’ films like Nidhanaya)


The Orchestration of the human voice as a musical instrument is an achievement that displays the inventive efficiencies of a pure musical genius.

- Dr W D Amaradeva (Sri Lanka’s master vocalist)


In a country littered with self marketed cultural dilettantes and desperados, Premasiri Khemadasa stands out with his remarkable talent, uncompromising artistic integrity.

- Lakshman Joseph de Saram (A veteran flautist)


The flirtation with western music is no mere bravura performance for him. For Khemadasa genuinely believed that if we are to broaden our aesthetic horizons, we should take our own music out to the wider world.

- The late Ajith Samaranayaka (Former Editor of Sunday Observer)


Maestro Khemadasa is one musician who is ready to undertake the socio-cultural context as his theme in musical interpretations.

- Prof. Sunanda Mahendra (Director of Master’s last stage play Aesop)


Although Khemadasa used western instruments, his melody well suited the rhythm of my stage play Mahasara. I do not know whether this is because this age-old legend portrays the traits of modernity. Khemadasa’s music seemed to have highlighted the essence of my play. (Translation)

- The late Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra (The foremost stage play director to distinguish Master’s capacity)


Khemadasa emphasised that one should not arrive at the conclusion that he knows the whole subject, just because of little knowledge. Music is a vast area studied widely in both Asia and Africa. It is a science. (Translation)

- Lucien Bulathsinhala(Librettist of Doramadalava)

Dr. Khemadasa had the pioneer attempt to build up a music tradition. He immensely had trust on folk music. (Translation)

- Nuwan Nayanajith(Critic of younger generation)


It’s common seeing him dozing off while watching either a film or a teleplay. However his evaluation turns out to be otherwise. He is capable of analysing every single element. (Translation)

- Dr. Ariyaratne Atugala(Chairman, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation. Some of his teleplays had Master’s musical touch)


The ocean is deep, the ocean is silent, full of deadly creatures… You will hear the birdsong, you will feel the wind’s rhythm… O dear boatman, Pedal your small boat… (Translation)

- Buddhadasa Galappatthi (Critic and poet)

With Lester and Sumithra Peries Conducting an orchestra
With Gamini Fonseka With Joe Abeywickrama
With two daughters

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