Premakeerthi de Alwis and colours that remain unnamed
My maternal grandmother died on what would have been the 50th
birthday of her daughter, who had died at the age of 10. My father
mentioned it in passing and observed softly that it can take a long time
to get over someone’s death. This is true. People come into our lives
without notice, without bugle call and press release. They go without
saying anything sometimes. And they return in the same way.
I had grieved and done with grieving, I thought, for my friends who
died in the late eighties for the crime of having been born in the wrong
decade, but they returned and demanded fresh tears one inauspicious day
in the year 1998 as I watched a documentary about characters and events
captured in the telling recounting of the ouster of Salvadore Allende’s
democratically elected Government in Chile in 1973, Battle of Chile. The
sequel aptly titled Chile: Obstinate Memory was shot by the same
film-maker, Patricio Guzm n, in 1997. It called forth ghosts that had
refused to leave memory in terms of time’s dictates which I had thought
held but that is another story.
Today I am writing about a different arrival. It happened last
Saturday. Maharagama Youth Centre. A concert in aid of an artiste who
needed a kidney transplant. Sandakadapahana. Sunil Edirisinghe. There
was a poorvikaava (introductory) to each song, enlightening a full house
of circumstances that birthed composition, implication of thought or
some musical oddity. At one point the artiste spoke, in his
characteristic mildness, about a lyricist. Premakeerthi de Alwis. He
rattled off some of the better known compositions to which he, Sunil,
had added voice. He spoke wistfully about Premakeerthi. He didn’t
mention the circumstances of his absence, i.e. the fact of his
Premakeerti de Alwis
On July 31, 1989, exactly 21 years ago, a group of masked men led
Premakeerthi de Alwis, then a presenter attached to Rupavahini, out of
his house. He was shot dead. The murderers, without doubt, were members
of the deadly Deshapremi Janatha Vyaparaya (DJV) and that meant ‘JVP’
back then. His ‘crime’ apparently was that he had ‘announced’ at a Gam
Udawa. He was 42.
Today, Premakeerthi, had he been alive, would be 63. He was at the
time of his death a prolific lyricist and a much sought after one too.
Sunil mentioned Muniseku pita negi asaruweki (‘A horse riding a man’,
naturally about gambling) and Banen benda rajarata pedesinne (a poignant
song decrying cattle slaughter). I checked the Internet. I was stunned.
Readers don’t really know who writes the news stories they read in
newspapers because very few look at the bylines. It is the same with
lyricists. We know the songs by heart. We know who sings them. We don’t
really know who wrote them.
I found that most of my favourite Sinhala songs were penned by this
man. I realized too that while I do appreciate melody, it is to the
lyrics that I am more attached. I am not unappreciative of voice and
melody of course. I love the compositions of Rohana Weerasinghe, H M
Jayawardena and some of Khemadasa’s melodies. I can listen to Amaradeva
for hours. Victor Ratnayake’s voice makes me float. Gunadasa Kapuge
makes me sober. Sunil Ariyaratne enchants with what to my untrained ear
is the achievement of a pure tone. T M Jayaratne can make me cry. I
could go on. No, on second thoughts, I can’t. I can see Premakeerthi
with his grin, his caustic turn of phrase when irked and the music of
word conjugation, standing beside this orchestra of voices.
He gave me Aadaraye ulpatha voo amma (‘Mother, the Spring of Love’)
and Sihina sathak dutuwemi mama (I saw seven dreams), using Victor
Ratnayake. He made me laugh, though Freddie Silva’s rendering of Nikan
innepa kohoma koma hari gahapalla ban pethsam (Don’t waster time, write
petitions) and made me dance with Kundumanee (again by Freddie). I have
returned to TM’s Sithin ma noselee sitiddi kandula numba evidin (Tears,
you have come to alleviate the eye’s pain), Mervin Perera’s timeless
love song, Me nagaraya (This city - where we met and parted) and Oba
dedunna aakasaye (You are the rainbow in the sky), Milton
Mallawarachchi’s Sihinen oba mata penenavanam (If I see you in my
dreams) and hundreds more. Yes, I am aware that I’ve given ‘ownership’
to the singers. That’s a slip. They should belong, at least in part, to
the lyricist. And of course to the listener. To me.
In 1996, I joined a set of Peradeniya undergraduates on a bus going
to Colombo for a demonstration against proposed education reform. I was
not a student, but I identified with the cause and got permission from
the student activists organizing the protest. They were all JVPers.
There were in that bus students opposed to the JVP. They had
unsuccessfully tried to oust the JVP from the Arts Faculty Students’
Union. There was tension, but not too intense. On the way back to Kandy,
after being baton-charged and tear-gassed, the students did what they
usually do on long bus rides. They sang. The JVP boys used song to crow
over their rivals. The song was Kanda kenda karanu pinisa. It
essentially said that mountains will not be shaken, but those who try to
shake mountains will necessarily fall. The point was not lost and the
humour was taken in the right spirit. I am sure the JVPers would have
known that it was sung by Malini Bulathsinhala. I am sure also that they
would not have known that it was written by a person called Premakeerthi
The world and life are made of songs. They need to be written down.
Listening to Sunil Edirisinghe, I realized that there are hundreds of
songs that will not get written. Ever. We can’t name the colours that we
have not seen. We can’t write the songs that were meant to be written by
a particular pen. Premakeerthi de Alwis is dead.
I want to be silent for a while. Better still, I will go listen to
some songs. We need to be thankful for what we have.