Navigating the musical sea with Prinivan Mangalyaya

The Island
August 13, 2016, 12:00 pm
Anoja Weerasinghe

Dusk was slowly falling upon Abhina Academy of Performing Arts in Bellanvila, as the timbre of musically-bent sailors of the Sri Lanka Navy filled the tranquil environs in reverence to Lord Buddha. Rehearsing for the cantata pirinivan mangalyaya, originally created by the doyen of Lankan music, Premasiri Khemadasa were the naval voices fine-tuned by his musician daughter Gayathri Khemadasa. Caught in a melodious reverie, we spoke to the talent behind the ambitious musical feat which is to come alive soon at the Nelum Pokuna theatre.

On notifying the unusual earth tremors, Bhikku Ananda who functions as a valet to Lord Buddha approached him. After paying the due respect by worshipping His feet, inquired the reason behind those unusual signals of the mother earth.

Thus our Lord has answered: ‘Ananda, the mother earth has shaken herself on two occasions earlier, that of my birth and attainment of Buddhahood by defeating Vasavarthi Maara (the death) under the Bo tree. When the day nearing of my demise, the mother earth has started releasing her tremors again…’

Thus goes the English rendering of an extract from Pirinivan Mangalyaya, original verses of which were composed during the time of the Kandyan kingdom by an unknown folk poet based on the popular Parinirvana Sutta. They were collected and published by J.E. Sedaraman. The original Pali sutta is a reportage of the demise of Lord Buddha and the rituals which followed afterwards, written in hyperbolic and metaphorical language.

Master- the Lankan

Musical Prophet

Translating a Buddhist stanza or a folk poem to a musical masterpiece in the form of a cantata calls for not only a musical brilliance but a blessing showered by divine intervention, a samsaric faculty manifested at every birth in this mortal world… Our very own doyen of Lankan music, Premasiri Khemadasa, revered as ‘Master’ personifies this samsaric musical journey. In the words of Prof. Carol Fonseka, ‘Maestro PK is a musical prophet in this country because he has been the harbinger of the shape that Sinhala music will take when it liberates itself-as it must- from the tyranny of the traditional art song’. (Source- ‘The Musical genius of Premasiri Khemadasa’, Master: The Musical Sailor of Timeless Seas, 2002)

25 years ago when this ‘musical prophet’ embarked on labours alien to the country (and still alien to many) including his first opera Manasavila followed by Doramadala and the cantata Pirinivan Mangalyaya, he was scorned off by so called musical pundits. He was denounced for attempting to forge a genre ‘neither western nor traditionally Sri Lankan. As eminent musician Lakshman Joseph de Saram in his work ‘Maestro of Lanka’s avant-garde culture’ notes, ‘Khemadasa was neither writing western music nor trying to improve on Sri Lanka’s traditional music. His was and is, an innovative, constantly evolving expression of the modern day experience of Sri Lanka set in a global context. It is accessible to anyone capable of appreciating music regardless of ethnic, social or political affiliation.’ As the doyen of the Sinhala cinema, Dr. Lester James Peries encapsulates the musical wizard, ‘a remarkable range of symphonies or tone poems, operas based on folk tales or jataka stories, music for films, ballets and TV series, poured out of an inexhaustible fund of creativity.’ (Khemadasa: The innovator of Sinhala music).

Keeping a legacy alive

Keeping the flame of Master Khemadasa’s ‘inexhaustible fund of creativity’ alive is daughter, Gayathri Khemadasa who has evolved her distinct style and making waves as a music director and composer. Having first watched her father turning out his exquisite musical delight, Pirivinan Mangalyaya as a 13-year-old, many years later Gayathri has put her musical mettle on test by bringing it back to life through the hearty timbre of a group of ‘sailors’. “Several parties have shown their interest in a reproduction of thathatha’s masterpiece, Pirinivan Mangalyaya. It is not only one of his greatest labours but also his only cantata and the world’s first Buddhist cantata. It was eminent artiste Anoja Weerasinghe who suggested that we (Khemadasa Foundation) do it with the Sri Lanka Navy. She was actually the catalyst of this whole project,” explained Gayathri.

Music for learning and


Partnering with SL Navy was perceived as finding a vehicle of educating the rural youth on musical genres such as opera and cantata says Gayathri who bemoans that despite these genres found in our local music syllabi, many are ignorant of them. “Hardly anybody knows what they are, including some of the professionals I must say! One of the reasons why internationally acclaimed opera singer Kishani Jayasinghe got so harassed during her performance on the Independence Day is because of public ignorance,” observes Gayathri who adds that one of the ambitious tasks aspired to achieve through this project is to take these forms of music around the country and to use music as the language of education, reconciliation and as means of widening musical horizons as well.

Where music meets yoga

The versatile artiste, Anoja Weerasinghe credits Master Khemadasa for being a prophet of globalization long before the term became a household one. “He took immense pains to share his knowledge with budding artistes from all corners of the island, very often at his expense. He believed that national boundaries need to be transcended if we are to enrich our own schools of music,” reflected the artiste who reminisced Maestro striving to share this knowledge in ‘makeshift studios’. “Such was his thirst to mould another generation oblivious to Spartan conditions.”

For Anoja who returned from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA), the only platform to practise what she learnt was Master’s musical efforts. “I had the blessing of being part of the pirinivan mangalyaya when the cantata was performed in Buddhagaya. It was a phenomenal experience,” recalls Anoja with misty eyes. Anoja who is acclaimed as one of the finest yoga gurus in the country today, chuckles recalling her own ignorance 25 years ago. “When Master sent us to Aunty Ouida (Ouida Keuneman ) for yoga as we were rehearsing for pirinivan mangalyaya we thought that was madness as we were ignorant of the notion ‘flexi body will render a better voice’! Anoja has not only been gracious to lend her space at ‘Abhina Academy’ in Bellanvila, for the rehearsing of the cantata with around 30 naval officers, drawn from its orchestra and some from other branches of the SL Navy but also to train the vocalists in yoga.

Sailing high

The band master of the SL Navy, Shantha Rupasinghe is credited along with Director of Music, SL Navy, Jude Peiris for their unfailing support in this endeavour. The musical line up comprising ten popular songs rendered music by Master Khemadasa will be a prelude to the cantata, explains the Band Master who is honoured to be part of this musical feat. “It is a challenge as well to do justice to a musical genius,” smiles Rupasinghe who is joined in by Damian Fernando, one of the musical stars SL Navy boasts of. “For me this is like a dream,” says the vocalist who is grateful to Gayathri for taking them to musical heights unknown before and to Anoja for opening doors to the world of yoga. “All together, this is a phenomenal experience,” he adds.

Gayathri and Anoja are grateful to all that have made this musical feat a reality. “We are very grateful to the Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Ravi Wijeygunaratne and also the Chief-of-Staff, Rear Admiral S.S. Ranasinghe, who are both artistically bent and gave their unstinted support,” said Anoja who was endorsed by Gayathri who also extended her thanks to Priyantha Gamage before whom was the Herculean task of writing the music for the cantata. “There was nothing written and we had to piece it together by listening to the few remaining recordings. Nihari Wickramarachchi who is one of my father’s students who sang in the cantata when it was first performed too helped us immensely.”

An inspiring exercise

For the gifted musician, with her father’s DNA in her, the musical labour is indeed a challenge. “I find this cantata a unique piece and it is the world’s first Buddhist cantata. I’ve heard many cantatas during my studies and living abroad but this is one which stands out in every aspect- the way voices are used and the manner in which my father lavishly used the Lankan music idiom in the fabric of his work,” explains the musician for whom the prime challenge was to train the voices. “Some of them had never sung and most of them had sung only songs. Training the entire group on how to use the voice and to project it was challenge not forgetting the orchestra because reading notes and playing is a different cup of tea altogether.”

Gayathri applauds the group for their enthusiasm and zest for learning. “I’m honoured to have had this opportunity as the experience has been a learning experience for me as well.” The experience offers inspiration for many professionals outside SL Navy as well says the musician who lauds the commitment and the discipline displayed by the group. At the same time she bemoans that although the country claims a lot of talent only a privileged few have the opportunity of leaning it the right way.

Making the unknown known

True to her celebrated father’s vision, Gayathri believes in ‘listening and making the unknown, known’. “Anything is distant when one has not acquainted oneself with the work,” reflects the globally exposed musician who calls for an open mind to appreciate any kind of art. “The experience is less if we go thinking we know what to expect. Let the art take you in its journey and you will be able to go to places you would have never imagined of,” says smiling Gayathri who goes on to note that if we did not seek new musical ideas and new ventures in life, we would be still ‘living in caves, tapping the walls and calling that resonance music’.

Master Khemadasa’s daughter brimming with life is confident that she will do justice to the creation of her musical wizard of a father. However she admits that her father would have never expected her to ‘repeat things as a parrot’ either. “Thaththa was someone who took the best from resources and talents that were available and changed things continuously. As Lord Buddha said we never step on the same water twice….”

Pic credit: Saman Abeysiriwardene and Gayathri Khemadasa


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