Midweek Review
Rohana Weerasinghe’s musical art and philosophy

By Carlo Fonseka
Rohana Weerasinghe’s musical art endows him with the power to create beauty from sensuously pleasant sounds. His philosophy inspires him to deploy that power to promote the evolution of a joyous, humane, compassionate, peaceful society in the land of his birth. In this article written to celebrate the three decades of his prodigiously productive musical life, I will first explore the causal influences that might have contributed to his creative genius. Next, I will attempt an appraisal of his multifarious musical creations. Finally, I will examine the philosophy which guides his musical life and discuss his potential for providing leadership to the further development and refinement of Sinhala Music in the 21st century.


Before embarking upon our project let us take a quick look at our subject. Rohana was born in the little village called Ruwan Eliya in the Nuwara Eliya district on the 18th of February 1949, as the ninth in a family of nine children. As the youngest and reportedly the boniest child, Rohana seems to have become the pet of the family. His doting mother, Sepalin Weerasinghe, called him "dosiya" (that is, "sweetie"). Rohana, who adored his mother, says he often dreamed about buying a splendid gift for her with his first salary. The dream never came true. A day before he received his first salary in 1974, his mother suddenly died. His father, Henry Weerasinghe, Headman of Ruwan Eliya, perhaps having perceived his youngest son’s precocious talent for singing, arranged for a neighbour to accompany the boy on a harmonium when he sang. He bought Rohana a book containing the songs of the film called "Iranganee". Concerning the bringing up of children, the Weerasinghe couple evidently had a simple policy: "Have them. Love them. Let them be." Rohana has fond memories of his father who seems to have inspired even in his children the respectful awe due to a village Headman in those days. He had the traumatic experience of watching his father suffer from and die of cancer. Rohana was then 13 years old. Many years later he was to create a haunting melody on the theme of paternal love.


The first school Rohana attended was Good Shepherd Convent, Nuwara Eliya. (To digress: this is further evidence for my theory, elaborated elsewhere, that to make a significant contribution to Sinhala Music, a Christian influence has been a sine qua non) The child who began schooling at Nuwara Eliya, reached Welimada Central College by his performance at the All- Island Grade 5 Scholarship Examination. There he studied music with passion, but because of his general proficiency, he was regularly first in class. At Grade 8 he opted "to do arts" although he was eligible "to do science". By so doing, however, he incurred some paternal displeasure. Perhaps his father felt that his son’s high intelligence was literally going for a song. He may have rued the day he bought his son a book of songs! But young Rohana knew what he wanted from life. And he knew what to do to get it. As time passed he grew up into an intelligent, sensitive, headstrong, competitive, music-award-winning youth who finally gained admission to the Government College of Music in 1969.

College Life

At Music College Rohana’s activities were more political than musical; more romantic than academic. He was elected President of the Students’ Union in 1971. He wooed and won the heart of lovely Beatrice de Silva, a fellow student in the College of Dance. They married in 1977 and have two sons. Even as Bill Gates who entered Harvard University but dropped out to found Microsoft and become the richest man in the world, so Rohana dropped out of the Government College of Music to become the most astonishingly fertile music composer of our time. By the latest count, in rounded off numbers, his output includes some 2000 songs, music for 125 teledramas, 30 films and 20 dramas. All this - and more - has been produced in just 30 years out of his 50-odd years on earth. Such, then, is the remarkable phenomenon called Rohana Weerasinghe we are concerned here to understand in order that we may appreciate him all the more.

Causal influences

What makes Rohana Weerasinghe tick? A recent book titled "Eight Keys to Greatness" by Gene Landrum, explores the lives of 40 people including Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolph Hitler, Bill Gates, Walt Disney and Paul Robeson with the aim of ascertaining the early influences and personality traits that might have contributed to their later achievements. The study identifies eight personality characteristics which seem to determine the path to success. They are: charisma, competitiveness, confidence, drive, intuition, rebellion, risk-taking and tenacity.


Charisma is a quality that eludes precise definition, but it has to do with a person’s ability to persuade, influence and inspire people through personal interaction. To get to know Rohana is to become sensitive at once to his quiet style and magnetism. To watch him at work in a recording studio - as I have done many times - is to sense his power to elicit the enthusiastic co-operation of highly skilled professionals to do his work and fulfil his aim.


Beyond any manner of doubt Rohana is competitive. The world of music in which he operates is one where in order to survive you have to cut others throats before they cut yours. Rohana has not merely survived but excelled at the very top of his field for many years. He is a winner. And so far from cutting others throats, he has helped many a musical lame dog over a stile.


Unlike Rohana who was a last-born, many people who have achieved greatness happen to have been first borns. Firstborns, of course, are routinely made a fuss of. The theory is that being made a fuss of induces the ‘great I am’ feeling which often triggers off the impulse to achieve greatness. In his book Landrum suggests that the critical factor here might not be the birth order but the way a child is treated by its family. As already noted, the fact that bonny Rohana was born last in a large family made him everybody’s favourite. So he grew up with the feeling that he was the fine fellow he has turned out to be. His mother’s practice of habitually calling him "sweetie" must have convinced the kid that he was excessively sweet. His father’s engagement of a man to accompany him on a harmonium when he sang, must have persuaded the kid that he was extra-ordinarily gifted musically. Early in life he won a scholarship and a competition. He had every reason to have high self-esteem and confidence.

Drive, intuition, rebellion

That Rohana has drive needs no elaboration. He is a musical workaholic whose demonic energy drives other people crazy. The creation of music is not a rational activity; it is quintessentially an intuitive activity which often defies reason. Heaven knows where the concord of sweet sounds comes from! Considering the relentless output of music that has emanated from his creative intelligence, Rohana must be regarded as a fount of intuition. A rebellious streak has been a constant aspect of his personality. When the bright scholarship winner who was always top of his class opted ‘to do arts’ instead of science he was rebelling against conventional and even paternal wisdom. In the College of Music he emerged as a natural leader of students fighting for their rights. Later when he was a member of Maestro Premasiri Khemadasa’s orchestra he rebelled and broke with him permanently, on a matter of principle. One of his gut reactions seems to have been: "No guts; no glory!"

Risk-taking, tenacity

Risk-taking came to him naturally. As a schoolboy when he opted for dicey ‘arts’ against safe ‘science’ he was taking a risk. When he dropped out of Music College; when he quit stable government jobs; he was taking risks. Indeed every time he presents an artistic creation to the world he is taking a risk. For you never can tell that it will not be a flop which might ruin you. But Rohana goes serenely on because he has tenacity, perseverance and persistence. These propel him to perfection.


Clearly, therefore, Rohana manifests in high degree the characteristics that Landrum discovered in those who had achieved greatness. Nor is that all. Among other social characteristics, Landrum found that the vast majority of great achievers had a self-employed father and that they had a parent or sibling die before the subject’s 21st birthday. Rohana shares these features too. The conclusion seems inescapable: Rohana Weerasinghe was destined to become great.

Needless to say the above characteristics are not specific to great achievers in any particular field like music. They are general attributes common to great achievers in every field. Given his attributes Rohana would have reached the top if he took seriously to, say, politics instead of music. It is the great good fortune of lovers of Sinhala Music that Rohana’s creative genius came to be pressed into the service of music and not politics. Recently Rohana Weerasinghe was seduced to lend his prestigious name to a party political enterprise. In retrospect, I for one, rejoice in the fact that neither Rohana nor Sinhala Music suffered any permanent damage from his brief indiscretion.

Appraisal of Rohana’s Musical Creations

To review comprehensively, let alone appraise critically, Rohana’s assembled body of musical creations, one would have to be familiar with some 2000 songs and the music he has created for 125 teledramas, 30 films and 20 dramas. To be a competent judge of his work one should have a knowledge of several kinds of music, lyrical poetry and the role of music in film, teledrama and drama. I fail all these tests. Professor Sunil Ariyaratne is the only one who will pass those tests and it is to him we have to turn for a finaI judgement on Rohana’s musical creations. My appraisal of Rohana’s work will have to be very general and inevitably superficial. What is beyond dispute is his seemingly infinite capacity to create beautiful melodies. His unadorned business card simply says: "Rohana Weerasinghe, Music Composer and Director". Composing and directing music has been, indeed, his business. This is not to say that there is no art in his work. A relevant story about Charlie Chaplin comes to mind. The Motion Picture Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar for what it described as "the incalculable effect he has had on making motion pictures the art form of this century". In accepting the Award Chaplin said: "I went into this business for money, and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth." As with Charlie Chaplin so with Rohana Weerasinghe! But having said that, I should hasten to add that Rohana is anything but mercenary or exploitative.

To me personally he has been extremely generous. The point I am seeking to make is that his creative genius enables him to supply on demand music of surpassing quality in massive quantity. If proof were needed, just consider the fact that he has set to music over 2000 lyrics which have been sung by over a hundred singers including Pundit Amaradeva, Nanda Malini, Victor Ratnayake, Sunil Edirisinghe, Edward Jayakody, Sanath Nandasiri and Neela Wickremasinghe. (For comparison, the collective output of the four Beatles between 1962 and 1977 added up to less than 200 songs.) The song genre, of course, has not been taken too seriously by classical musicians the world over. No doubt they regarded mere songs as being unworthy of their best creative energy. In Western music it was Franz Schubert who almost single-handedly elevated the song to a position of musical respectability.

At the present stage of evolution of Sinhala Music, the song happens to be its highest art form. To Pundit Amaradeva, winner of a Magsaysay Award in 2001, must go the credit for elevating the art song to the overwhelmingly popular art form of post-independence Sri Lanka. Among his successors Pundit Amaradeva has identified Rohana Weerasinghe as the peerless composer in the world of Sinhala Music. Why, then, you may wonder, is Rohana Weerasinghe not more in the musical limelight than he is? The answer is that although officially he is ranked as a supergrade vocalist, he is not eager to sing. For my part, I love his singing and I commissioned him to sing (with Nanda Malini) a song I had composed. In addition to his orchestration of it, his husky voice filled with heartbreak helped to bring me my three minutes of musical glory. But, as I say, Rohana does not care very much to sing. Sunil Edirisinghe has evolved as his singing alter ego.

The musical collaboration and friendship between Rohana Weerasinghe and Sunil Edirisinghe brings to my mind an aspect of the association between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For all his intellectual brilliance Marx could not have immortalised himself by writing ‘Des Kapital’ if Engels had not provided him with the capital to live and write. For all his singing talent, Sunil Edirisinghe would not have been so celebrated today if he had not received the backing of Rohana Weerasinghe’s inexhaustible musical capital. Rohana Weerasinghe has been Friedrich Engels to Sunil Edirisinghe’s Karl Marx. Sunil has been the first to acknowledge his permanent debt to Rohana.

Rohana’s art

The art Rohana specializes in has to do with setting a given lyric to music. When words are sung the question concerning the dominant element arises: is it the words or is it the music? There is no universally accepted answer, but in the art song of Sinhala Music, both are generally assumed to be equally important. Rohana is exceptionally skilled at creating melodies that match the words to a nicety. A perfect example is the song called "Kaviya Oba" sung by Deepika Priyadarshani. Its lyric was written by Sunil R. Gamage. Rohana has intellectually internalised the sense of the words and imposed on them a melody that induces the conviction that the lyric and music were meant for each other. For the fullest appreciation of Rohana’s music an understanding of the words is essential. And it is only a singer who understands the words in the marrow of his bones that can render the song in an emotionally convincing way. This is because the words carry with them their own specific nuances of meaning and imagery. Rohana has the surpassing skill to use the various elements of music - melody, rhythm, harmony, tone colour and form - to communicate the emotional essence of the message of the lyric. To the initiated in the tradition the effect is profoundly satisfying. Rohana has the capacity to draw upon the resources of four musical traditions to serve his art. The base is the north Indian raga system adopted and suitably adapted to our ethos. An example is the song ‘Yamuna Gan Thera’ sung by Nanda Malini. His second source of inspiration are the perennial Sinhala folk songs. My favourite example of a melody based upon the pattern of a folk song is ‘Aney mehema thanhavak’ sung by Sunil Edirisinghe. He is adept at pressing Kaffirinna music to the service of his art. The hit ‘Aju thapara lahila’ sung by Deepika Priyadarshani is a fine example. Church music, Western country music and the Negro sorrow-songs (or blues) have also influenced him. Nanda Malini’s ‘Tharuda nidana maha ra’ exemplifies this influence. The truth is that Rohana Weerasinghe is musically eclectic and because he is a musician, nothing musical is alien to him. He is in fact a globalised musician with his feet firmly in his motherland. That is why he is not wildly swayed by every passing musical wind.


When it comes to the effective deployment and use of various tone colours of different instruments for any musical purpose Rohana Weerasinghe has no equal in the world of Sinhala Music. Recently he orchestrated and presented to the public a selection of Pundit Amaradeva’s compositions. So touched and moved was the Pundit that he publicly exclaimed that he had not realised how beautiful his own music was until Rohana Weerasinghe interpreted it instrumentally.

Film and drama music

In the arena of music for films and drama, although Rohana Weerasinghe has won almost every available official award, his performance has been somewhat amateurish. The entertainment value of teledramas such as ‘Yasorawaya’, ‘Irapaya’, ‘Du daruwo’, ‘Bhagya’ and ‘Itipahana’ has been greatly enhanced by his music. Even in these the impact often comes from the magic of the theme song or some other incidental song. Perhaps it is fair to say that whereas Rohana Weerasinghe has mastered the art song, hitherto he has only doctored the music in film and drama.

His philosophy of music

That music can affect the inner feelings and outer behaviour of most people is widely acknowledged. So music can shape the character of individuals and the mind-set of societies. Music has an influence on health and Music Therapy is a recognised scientific art. Rohana Weerasinghe is a traditionalist who is modern in outlook and musically eclectic. He is widely travelled and sensitive to international trends. His musical creations imply that he believes that an artist has to be morally responsible and socially constructive. In the last analysis a musical composition is the expression of the mental and emotional state of the composer and Rohana is a humane, compassionate, sensitive human being. By his genius in the creation of music he has commanded the admiration and respect of lovers of Sinhala Music, the reigning art form in our country. The exquisite pattern of sounds generated in his mind and heart seem to me to represent in modern form the best in our traditional culture. Of his generation of musicians none is better equipped than he to raise Sinhala Music from the level of the perfect art song to a higher stage of evolution in this century.