Pic Courtesy www.mahagamasekera.org
In the twenty years that have passed since that bus ride they have talked about it on a few occasions. No one said ‘Mahagama Sekera Kandayama’. Indeed no one mentioned the lyricist most featured in their singing. Songs are associated with singer, not composer or lyricist, for whatever reason. Pundit Amaradeva of course mentions his friend with affection every now and again, using the title of a song, ‘Gee pothai, mee vithai’ (the book of songs and the wine) to refer to himself and Sekera. He has not and others have not done much to sit Sekera right where he belongs – by the vocalist’s side. Metaphorically, of course. For whatever reason.
One day in the early 1990s a group of young boys got into a bus in Ampara. They were going to Kandy. They were returning after visiting a friend in Kumarigama. They were all seated at the back of the bus/coach. Somewhere near Uhana they began to sing. They didn’t stop singing until they reached Hunnasgiriya, except when the bus stopped for lunch. From Uhana to Digana, non-stop, they sang their favorite Amaradeva songs. Without repeating. That was about 3-4 hours of singing. When the bus stopped for lunch, a fellow passenger was overheard referring to them as Amaradeva Kandayama (The Amaradeva Group).
Perhaps it is because Sekera was so versatile and because composing lyrics was just one of many genres of literature and art that he indulged in. Perhaps it is because Sekera left us 38 years ago and Amaradeva is still alive (and may he live long, much longer!). Perhaps there’s a deeper and more politically pregnant reason. We know for a fact that there is a deliberate ‘absenting’ of other lyricists such as W.A. Abeysinghe, Sunil Sarath Perera and Karunaratne Abeysekera while the compositions of Mahinda Algama and Arisen Ahubudu have been butchered by deliberate erasure of key lines. If the philosophy embedded in what could be called his ultimate composition, Prabuddha, is anything to go by, Sekera would have treated all this with equanimity.
The fact remains that even as we love Amaradeva’s songs for melody and rendering, we remember them and return to them again and again, especially as we grow older, because of the words. That’s Sekera, not Amaradeva. There were others who lent voice to his words, especially Nanda Malini. Amitha Wedisinghe sings a few while others like Victor Ratnayake, Sunil Edirisinghe, Edward Jayakody, Milton Perera, Sisira and Indrani Senaratne, Rupa Indumathie, Wijeratne Warakagoda, Sujatha Attanayake and Narada Disasekera have one or two. If he was anyone’s gee potha, then, it was Amaradeva’s not least of all because it was Amaradeva who composed melodies to most of the songs sung by other artists.
Out of some 130 songs, Amaradeva has sung 63 and composed melodies to a dozen or so more.
We can write about Sekera’s poetry, his films, his novels and short stories, his plays, his paintings, his photography, his children’s literature or his unpublished PhD dissertation. If anyone bothered to just peruse all this, he/she would be astounded by his productivity. We can talk of his impact on various literary genres or on art in general. In each area one would find something that has helped the development of the particular form of art, a work that gets referenced in the discourse and in the creative work of those who came later.
We can look for his mark in our cultural sensibilities and we may very well find that much of what we cherish carries elements of his creative signature. That’s a doctoral dissertation right there waiting to be written. Perhaps it is because Sekera is so vast and so deep that he is not mentioned. Indeed it would be a disservice to reduce the man to a particular song or his association with a particular artist. Sekera had long arms; he embraced a lot.
We began with song and lyric. Let’s end there. He had words that spoke of many things and to many occasions. It is hard to pick one song, one line, one word that captures the man or rather who he is to me. It is easy to go for Ma Mala Pasu (After I die), considering this moment of commemoration. But let’s go with Siripa Piyume from Lester James Peries’ 1967 film ‘Ransalu’. Sekera had suggested that Amaradeva think of pirith when composing the melody. He was inspired, we are told, by the sight of Samanala Kandaor Siri Pada while flying into Katunayake Airport, just like the great Arahats may have, as he imagines (maha rahatun vadi maga osse).
‘Sitha kimide lovthuru suwande’
And the mind immerses itself in transcendental fragrance.
Read Sekera and that is how it feels. To me. Right now. A song, yes, but a fragrance too.