A young man walks in with hair dishevelled, shirt hanging out loosely with a ladies’ umbrella in his hand. He is in a mighty hurry. He wants to tell me about the novel musical experiment he is trying out. This was sometime in late October 1966.
In the Arts column I was then writing to the Sunday Observer, I wrote of the birth of a Sinhala symphony – `The Sea’ based on man’s dependence on the sea and the hardships he undergoes in his struggle to live with the help of the sea.
That was my first meeting with the Master. Thereafter we met often over a period of over four decades. Apart from the vast strides he made in the musical world, the only change I noticed in the man as the years went by, was his thinning hair. He continued to be in a hurry. He cared little about his attire and felt most comfortable in rubber slippers or slip-on moccasins. He ignored whatever ailments he had. In later years there was no need to carry a ladies’ parasol – he had acquired a Volkswagen, if I remember right. He just concentrated on one thing – music.
Maestro Khemadasa was a man with determination. His greatest satisfaction was training the voices of rural lads and lasses. “How satisfying it was to find this sort of talent from the remotest areas and develop their voices to international standards. Some of them are fit to sing at the Sydney Opera House,” he used to tell me. Just last week, while in hospital he had confessed that he didn’t mind dying but was feeling sorry for the youth whom he was training. Tears flowed down their cheeks as they paid tribute to their great master singing excerpts from the opera, ‘Pirinivan Mangalyaya’ at his funeral at Independence Square last Monday.
Master achieved so much with no backing from the State or any other organization – just his will and courage. True he was appointed to numerous State institutions. One was the National Institute of Education, where he did not last more than a few months. When he found the bureaucrats were not interested in implementing his suggestions, he quit.
He had no place to rehearse. The garage at the BMICH vehicle park was his favourite spot. I have watched him creating some excellent operas and symphonies spending hours training raw talent amidst the hustle and bustle of the vehicle park. When he was unhappy with the progress, he would lose his temper – stop the rehearsal and threaten to walk out. The youngsters watched in silence. In two or three minutes he would be back at his harmonium.
Master never bothered about the awards and titles he collected. He appreciated them no doubt but did not crave them. He never expected anyone to address him as ‘Dr’ even after he received the honorary doctorate from the Ruhuna University. Others were happy that his talent had been recognized. He preferred everyone calling him ‘Master’.
While he was showered with accolades in Sri Lanka, he had invitations from foreign countries too to perform. Ten years back when he was invited by the Prague Symphony Orchestra to play at the summer festival, he was thrilled. “I consider it a great honour. As far as I can remember, this is the first time a Sri Lankan composer’s work has been selected for a prestigious presentation,” he told me. In fact, he was the first Asian to be honoured along with famous 17th century composers. He went ready to train the orchestra to play music from his production ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Once he went there, he did something completely new. He trained the orchestra to do a half-hour piece titled ‘A day before the spring’ which was greatly appreciated. He was fortunate in having two Czech musicians who could play the sitar and the tabla.
Over the past week, much has been written about his achievements. The print media devoted pages to discuss his accomplishments and the electronic media presented several programmes. He well deserved all of it. During his lifetime, he was one artiste about whose creations a columnist could genuinely write without bias or prejudice.
I distinctly remember working closely with him in at least two musical presentations sponsored by CTC ( I was then CTC’s Publicity Manager) – ‘Sangita Sanvada’ (Dialogue with a Composer) when he conducted a 30-member orchestra and 10 singers, and ‘Handunagaththoth oba ma’ (Khemadasa in Concert). It was a pleasure watching him striving to achieve excellence in his work. Until the last minute, he would go on effecting improvements.
He had the knack of attracting top western artistes to play under his baton. In early performances, Douglas Ferdinand led the orchestra. Lakshman Joseph de Saram who played regularly in the Khemadasa orchestra, paying a tribute to the Master wrote: “Premasiri Khemadasa stands out with his remarkable talent, uncompromising artistic integrity and undeniable ‘relevance’ to the cultural avant-garde of Sri Lanka. Today, he is deservedly hailed as a national icon”. How true!
Khemadasa was gravely ill three years ago with a kidney ailment. When the doctors in Kandy were reluctant to replace a kidney since they had not done it on anyone over 55, he insisted they should go ahead. That was the only way he could survive. He wanted them to take the chance. The doctors themselves were amazed at his recovery. For once he listened to the doctors. “I couldn’t afford to play the fool. I wanted to live and continue my mission,” he told me. The donor from Anuradhapura, Ambahera Gunaratana Thera came for the funeral. He was one of many monks who came forward offering to donate a kidney to Khemadasa. Three years after the surgery he got a heart ailment. Shortly after recovering from a heart attack, he was busy rehearsing ‘Agni’, his final opera presented a year ago.
Three years ago, Master received a permanent abode for his academy. After 12 years at the BMICH vehicle shed, he moved to the Jana Kala Kendraya at Battaramulla. As an initial step, he planned and implemented a one-year course for a batch of 50. He always maintained that talent cannot be picked based on O’ level and A’ level results. “You have to talk to them and find out whether they have an aptitude for music or dancing,” he insisted. ‘Agni’ proved him right.
He firmly believed that the music syllabus for schools was outdated and had to be drastically revised. “What happens today is in the name of music, children learn some archaic theories about music. What is more important is applied music – how music is creatively used in opera, ballet, theatre and film. Those are the living aspects of music rather than the age-old theories,” he argued. He presented his philosophy of music in a book – ‘Khemadasa Nyaya, Bhavitaya ha Aragalaya’ (Khemadasa – Theory, Practice and Struggle).
He was a great believer in helping upcoming artistes – if he was impressed by their approach and talent.
By the time Khemadasa bade goodbye at 72, he had achieved much. He had won recognition. He had given confidence to many a mature musician to master the art. He had built up a talented youth team of singers. He had given enough – and more to music fans. Of course, he was never satisfied with what he had done because he knew more could be done.
From ‘Golu Hadawatha’ to ‘Thunveni Yamaya’ and more, he has left us a legacy which Sri Lankan music lovers would cherish for ever.
Master – you will continue to entertain us through your creations though you are no more!