Midweek Review
Evolution of Sri Lanka's performing arts

by M. B. Mathmaluwe
Human nature views with suspicion, any new development or a departure from tradition, in any field of activity; it would try to ignore it as long as possible and consider the possible long-term repercussions of such changes as marginal pronouncements would be made that such movements, disturbing the tranquillity of the establishment as trivial and ephemeral, would fail to make an impact and, would soon pass off. When such activity could no longer be ignored, it may be scoffed at or may engender hostility; nowhere is this more evident than in the field of the Arts, where trends, fads and fashions come and go continually while some of these may stay on.

It is against this background that certain changes and new departures that have been taking place in recent times in the field of Sri Lankan performance arts — Drama, Films, Music —have to be viewed; it may be stated straight away, that nowhere have such rapid end extensive changes been taking place — creating, borrowing, innovating, adapting all the time, as in the Music Industry today. One has only to reflect for a moment upon the new trends in the Sri Lankan music scene to realise this; vast changes, extensive and unprecedented are taking place. In this field, the impetus given by the rapid development and proliferation of the electronic media is immeasurable, more so, with the advent of the TV after 1982. The easy availability of the TV, the cassette, the video tape and deck, the compact disc etc., has made a tremendous impact; like a resistless tidal wave, its repercussions have been felt far and wide and have spewed into the remotest corners of the island. Whatever it is going to be in the future, there could be no reversal of this trend.

Today, vast numbers are involved in the music industry and, equally vast sums of money are, apparently, changing hands among persons, groups and organisations engaged in it; also, it is no secret that some of our musicians, musical groups, vocalists, composers, lyric-writers and others providing the other accessories for it, like lighting, acoustics, performance venues, recording studios record bars etc., too, are earning very handsome remunerations; some of them are millionaires enjoying all the status and luxury that go with such big money for most of them, the day beings at night! today, musical shows can be dazzling extravaganzas bitter unbelievable glitter and panoply.

It would be useful to figure out some of the changes that have been taking place recently in the local music scene. Our musicians have not been slow to follow what is happening abroad in the relevant fields; nor have they hesitated to copy, adapt or, even take over wholesale, from outside, certain features hitherto absent in our systems, particularly, from the fast- moving ‘Pop’ and ‘Rock’ scenes both in the vocal and dance forms, often involving audience participation and, catering more to the young, often noisy and disorderly. Necessarily too, to bring out the full impact of these changes corresponding changes are being constantly made by introducing new and more sophisticated instruments and orchestral devices, making sharp departures from the more traditional musical instruments, familiar here for decades, ever since our musicians went to India to study at the feet of Gurus there. To the used to the North Indian ‘ragadari’ music, quiet and staid, slow-moving and even contemplative, the well-springs from which Sri Lankan musicians sought sustenance, the afore mentioned trends will seem alien and unacceptable.

Incidentally, the big money that our musicians and others in the industry make and the affluent circumstances of their lives today, explode the hitherto widely accepted eastern myth that those engaged in the Arts — serving the Muses — to make a living, must necessarily pass their lives in very straightened economic conditions: the old cynic observed. "The poet must go about the world as a beggar" (‘dillinduva aevidee Kivindu’) ‘and that the goddess of the Arts and the goddess of Wealth (‘Sarasavi’ and ‘Sirikata‘) shall never live in the same abode, which meant that if the poet must survive, he must have patronage offering him largesse. Today, these beliefs are no longer tenable; such are the changes that have taken place in the relationship between the artistes and the Muses; apart from the fame and prestige that some of our better known artistes enjoy at home, the achievements and standards reached and kept, in their respective fields, have been recognised in the highest relevant circles abroad and, some of them in the last few years have gained high honour — not to speak of the wealth that goes with such accolades — from them bringing much honour and fame to the country as to themselves. A few salient names deserve mention: Sarathchandra (Literature and Drama); Amaradeva (Music); these two have won the much-coverted Ramon Magsaysay Award; Lester James Pieris and Prasanna Vitana (Film); Joe Abeywickrame and Nita Fernando (Acting) earlier, there were Manjusri and George Keyt (Painting); also, it is not fair to gloss over the recognition won here and abroad by the enterprising, young singing duo Bhatiya and Santhush who have struck the performance stage like a tornado: they have won an Award at the International Music Competition at Kazakastan, and now, we are informed, they have been invited to sign an agreement with a foreign entertainment organisation, the Universal Music Publishers, the first time that such a thing has happened here! It seems, these last two, Bhatiya and Santhush, deserve a special word of comment as the component in this field, representing youth participation, pointing finger to the future. Here are two educated, personable young men, apparently coming from traditional homes, but who chose to break way completely from tradition and the well-trodden easier track. They have introduced something new and unconventional, fast-moving and, perhaps, a bit bizarre to the uninitiated, but which has found wide acceptance among the youth: now it looks this form of music has come to stay — trendy and populist.

Looking at these changes and innovations constantly taking place in these fields, whatever could be said for or against them, it cannot be said that our artistes are afraid to try new forms, new devices and experiment. All this shows that the field is very much alive and in seething ferment, constantly reaching out for new fulfilment. This is very desirable for, it is well-known that this is one field where change, innovation, borrowing, adaptation, in addition to creation are a sign of good health because, the professionals engaged in it must look out for newer and newer experiences for, Art, in the final analysis, is a manifestation of a nation’s aesthetic sense and taste, a product of its feelings and values which again, have their roots in the nation’s civilization, culture, moral and intellectual attainment: it would be peculiar to that nation and its genius. No two nations’ systems of Art would be exactly alike.

Here are two observations made on this matter by two intellectuals: one, a professional Art critic and connoisseur, Eric Newton and, the other an academic, nevertheless, a laymen, Javaharlal Nehru:

"Roughly speaking, the story of Art is the story of two unconnected groups of artistes with two quite different points of view: there is the oriental group and the European group."

— Eric Newton: "European Painting and Sculpture".

"In Art as in music, there is a gulf which separates the eastern from the western concept.... for, in Indian Art there is always a religious urge, a looking beyond."

— Javaharlal Nehru: "The Discovery of India". P. 219.

Thus, there is a clear distinction between the European system of Art and the eastern System: the great divide, it seems, is in their concepts the important lesson one has to draw from this is that, when artistes borrow from anywhere, more so, from the west, intelligent adaptation of what they borrow, is very necessary, or else, it will not harmoniously blend and integrate with the indigenous. So long as this is done, with the borrowed feature given the national identity, it is not correct to say that these new forms are spurious or alien and unacceptable to our culture. This is advisedly stated here because, like water seeking its own level, what is crude, vulgar and bizarre by local standards will, before long, be rejected — the immutable law of nature will apply here as well: only the fittest, the most wholesome and worthwhile will survive.

It has been said that until the North Indian ‘ragadari’ melodies began to be used for songs and recitals in our stage-plays in the early decades of the last Century (the advent of Ghouse Master marks this important watershed) — at the instance of Playwrights like John de Silva, we had no national musical tradition to speak of, as our own: the folk songs and the few Vannams that existed were found inadequate and, even primitive, with their severely limited range of notes to meet the needs of the new style of stage-plays that were developing and which the new audiences were clamouring for. In any case, this new development marked the beginning of a new phase living, vibrant musical tradition; our students still go to the Indian music schools and universities and, it is they who return and decree the tastes and forms. From the east, therefore, it was from the Indian Classical and its derivative streams that our musicians have been borrowing while, from the west, it is noticed, that it is from the populist trends of ‘Pop’, ‘Rock’ and ‘Rap’ and not from the classical that our artistes have sought inspiration. Though the former influences have been knocking on our doors for a long time, it received admission only recently with the rapid expansion of the electronic media and, of course, with the growth of communication and travel facilities, promoting the co-mingling of peoples and cultures more freely. The latter musical trends, ‘Pop’, ‘Rock’, ‘Rap’ etc., with their near-savage dance rhythms that are really complementary to them, starting as a trickle, have now grown into a stream and, may soon be an inundation! This cannot be stopped because, as said earlier, this is how growth in the communication media (and, that includes any living language, as well) takes place: there is no stopping that with man-made constraints.

It seems, in the contemporary musical scene, just as Bhatiya and Santhush, referred to afore, are doing, other melody-makers, lyric-writers, vocalists etc., are continually experimenting, trying out new forms, devices and variations offering fresh material to their audiences: for instance, there is that music director and choreographer in a hurry, Premasiri Khemadasa, who is tirelessly experimenting with the Opera art form, so familiar in the west, as a component of performance arts, but not so well-known here; Khemadasa seems to have taken upon himself this venture a mission. This art-form he is trying to popularise, is a departure both from Sarathchandra’s genre of Drama adapted from the old indigenous Folk-play and also, from Chitrasena’s Musical-play derived from the North Indian stage. This kind of experimenting can sometimes bring about surprising results: for instance, there is that song which seems to have taken its listeners by storm

"Oba apple malak vaagei,

Sundara vasantha kaale....etc., etc."

Here is a young lyric-writer (Kelum Sri Maal) who has not been afraid to choose and deploy words, unconventional and sometimes colloquial with daring and freshness, with the popular composer, Rohana Weerasinghe writing the music for it very imaginatively, using the drums to maximum effect, while Amarasiri Pieris renders it with feeling in his rich, resonating voice. They have all combined to produce a totally satisfying experience. For healthy growth in this field, fresh approach is necessary where sounds and language can easily wear-out threadbare into ineffective cliches with repeated and long use and those in this field must be enterprising and talented enough to avoid this if they are to offer their audiences fresh creations to titillate their jading ‘taste-buds’.

In the country today, there is much emerging young talent aching to flower. If one were to go by the fierce competition among them in this field, amateurism — why speak of mediocrity? — has absolutely no chance of survival: it is the best that reaches the surface and the truly talented that can hope to remain there.