Ranbanda Seneviratne: You did not forsake us there where the Yoda Ela bends

by Malinda Seneviratne
There is a song written by Malini Jayaratne which her husband, T. M. Jayaratne sings. It makes the poignant statement that not enough songs have been written about the love a father has for his child: piya senehasata kav gee liya una madi. True. There are countless mau guna gee in Sinhala where the virtues of motherhood and the particularly sacred love of a mother are celebrated. Little of the father, even though Sarachchandra in a postscript to the father-son denouement in Sinhabahu, says it better than most.

Malini Jayaratne’s song ends like this: amma varun pamanada mathu budu vanne (is it that only mothers are marked for Buddhahood?). Among the countless songs about the mother there are a few which stand out for capturing in a recognisable idiom that which most of us know intimately, the first truths we become cognisant of: the warm refuge and unconditional love of a mother. To me Ranbanda Seneviratne’s davasak pela nethi hene (sung by Gunadasa Kapuge) stands among the finest tributes to a mother’s love.

He claims that even as his wife’s love wafted away (birindakage senehe giya yoda ele nemme), he felt again and again the fragrance of his mother’s tenderness (obe senehasa suwanda didee denuna mata amme). And he asks (well knowing the answer) if she will be by the gate would he were to flee the stormy insults raging in the city, abandoning his crown as he runs to her.

Like most people, I have known Ranbanda Seneviratne only through his lyrics. He was not a prolific lyricist but whatever he wrote had the rare quality of clinging on, decorating our sensibilities as they mature over time. He would be the first to admit, I am sure, that the composition and the voice are as important as the words and their arrangement. Still, there is something about the man, as discovered through his lyrics, that touched, a quality which made a deep indent in the normal course of diurnal pursuits on December 5th, when I heard that he had passed away.

He was by profession a lawyer and by all accounts one with a racy turn of speech. He appeared for famed skyjacker Sepala Ekanayake and defended those accused in the forged ration book case in the early eighties. I am sure he would have won many friends and admirers during the course of performing his professional duties, but again it was through his "stage presence" over visual and audio media that he became our friend.

Apart from the song alluded to above (which by the way helped propel Gunadasa Kapuge to stardom), there are three others which mark him as a song-writer who drew deep from our soil, a task which only those who have not slashed away their roots can accomplish: ula leno, sumano (both sung by Kapuge) and veedi sarana landune (by Amarasiri Peiris). The haunting melody in ula leno certainly enhances the theme of solitude, but it is from the lyrical genius of the poet that the song soars and settles deep in our hearts. Sumano speaks about personal loss, the death of the girl Sumana. Ranbanda draws a melancholic brush over the entire landscape he describes and invites us to reflect as though the loss is ours not his.

Mala hiru eliyen kokku giyado

Mihintala gala peththe

Piruvata enda pettiyaka thiyala

Pan dekaka eli medde

Madatiya veteddi handa kelathena ela

Edande ismatte

Sumano.... numba ey neththe

(Did the storks take wing over Mihintale in the twilight?

Draped in white cradeled between the light of two lamps in a coffin you lie

Below the edanda the moon wavers as madatiya seeds fall upon the ela,

Sumano...why are you not here?)

Ranbanda hails from Mihintale. There are probably many instances and incidents which stand witness to the fact that he never lost touch with his village and everything the word gama entails. To me, the idiomatic usage of language says all. I have met others from similar backgrounds who not only turned their backs on their history and heritage but went as far as attacking these things virulently, sometimes taking cover behind academic "imperatives".

For most people, cultural roots comprise a thorny crown which has to be done away with as soon as possible. Ranbanda lived differently. He thought differently. Today, no one wants to be called Banda, they would go instead for Bandara, the former having been bestowed with all kinds of derogatory meanings over the years. Few Bandas carry their names with pride, M. D. Banda being a rare exception.

Ranbanda Seneviratne went further. He called himself a bayya from Mihintale and did so with a great sense of pride. This bayya unlike most who are ashamed of their bayya past, was well read and familiar with the cultural and literary traditions from all corners of the world. I believe he was able to absorb their richness so well only because he was comfortable with who he was. And this is also why he, even in his limited output, could emerge as a poet who had a personal lyrical signature, evident both in these songs as well as his one collection, "dukata kiyana kavi".

Veedi Sarana Landune, as the title suggests is a meditation about a prostitute and the double standards applied by society in general to castigate them. In the following lines Ranbanda unequivocally makes clear his political position with respect to such women: "Lema pamanak lovata penena, laya nopenena landune; kuhumbuvekuta varadak nethi, varadakara landune" (Girl, whose breasts are naked to the world but whose heart remains unseen; girl, who wouldn’t hurt an ant, but is always at fault"!).

My colleague Prabath Sahabandu likened Ranbanda to a handloom cloth, "its beauty and character lies in its coarseness" and of course in the cultural idiom woven into it. He was clearly a man who felt deeply about social injustice. Remarking on the changes that have occurred in our society, he had once said, "There was a time when a dog lying dead on the road would attract a crowd of around 50 people; Today if fifty people lay dead on the road, not a dog would come by to take a look".

Our people have had akala maha vehi (off-season thunderstorms) raining on them for far too long. We have not been blessed with many who could shelter us from these downpours until the rain ceased. Ranbanda has done his best. He wanted his last rites to be performed in Anuradhapura as one would expect. If his "remains" stir the discontent in our hearts and unsettle us enough to agitate for our own personal Mihintales, he would live long and his spirit would find rest once more.

Ratna Sri Wijesinghe in a glowing tribute to the man, refers to a poem titled kageda me le pellama (Whose are these blood stains?), quoting the following:

Whose are these blood stains,

A man’s? a beast’s?

Whose is this shirt, torn and riddled with holes?

Was their a scream, sobs, pleading not to kill?

Who knows, dear god,

Whoever it was, was it not a man

Who lay there bleeding?

That man is still bleeding. That man comes from a village, is conscious and proud of his heritage, recognises his father and mother and is recognisable from the hordes who are valiantly divesting themselves of their identity. Ranbanda Seneviratne identified the worth of this man. It is the generational task of our times to stop the bleeding.