On a Wednesday afternoon we are at the home of Pandit W.D. Amaradeva, in a cosy sitting room, anticipating the moment when we could meet the legend in person and hear from him of his life’s journey. As we wait, we catch a glimpse of what he has accumulated over the years – a collection [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Pandit Amaradeva strikes a note from the past


On a Wednesday afternoon we are at the home of Pandit W.D. Amaradeva, in a cosy sitting room, anticipating the moment when we could meet the legend in person and hear from him of his life’s journey.

Pandit Amaradeva: Strumming his mando-harp. Pix by M.D.Nissanka

As we wait, we catch a glimpse of what he has accumulated over the years – a collection of awards, some musical instruments – a tabla, serpina, violin, and notably the small ‘mando-harp’.

Pandit Amaradeva is often seen on stage with this musical instrument that he himself created, combining the mandolin and the harp.

The music genius, Pandit Amaradeva arrives.  He brings his palms together to say ‘Auybowan,’ with a smile. He sits with us to give us a brief recap of his journey – from his humble beginnings to his rise to fame.

Born in Koralawella Moratuwa on December 5, 1927, he was named W.D. Albert Perera and only adopted the name Amaradeva years later, on a suggestion made by Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra who advised him to take on a Sri Lankan name.

As a child, he was fond of music. Musical instruments were part of his life. His father was a most sought after carpenter in Koralawella and had many music teachers visiting him to get their violins repaired. As he turned seven, he was gifted his first musical instrument – a violin that his father had crafted for his birthday.

Having received his primary education at Koralawella Saddharmodaya Patashala, he later joined Sri Sumangala Panadura. He switched schools – to Kalutara Vidyalaya on the advice of his school’s music guru, W.J. Fernando who expressed his willingness to groom him.

During his childhood, young Amaradeva, used to sing in the church choir with his mother who was a Methodist. “I sang Vesak songs at the temple too,” he recalls.

Meeting master Mohamed Ghouse, the Sri Lankan classical music veteran at the age of 18 was the turning point in his life, he says. Young Amaradeva who served as a member of Ghouse’ Master’s orchestra, was taken to South India to assist the master direct music for the Sri Lankan film, Asokamala.

“When I first saw the film I was surprised to see my name appearing on the screen with the Assistant Music Director title. I was so surprised at a title as ‘big’ as that. That was the turning point in my life,” he reiterates.

Apart from assisting Ghouse Master, Amaradeva acted as the hermit in the film.  “They were also looking for a voice for the hermit’s song, and I got the chance to sing there as well,” he says, reminiscing how headlines in the local newspapers referred to him as the ‘Koralawelley thapasaya.’

In the years that followed, his musical career flourished and he found himself working side by side with pioneers in the arts such as Sunil Shantha, Chitrasena and Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra.

His encounter with Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra was another milestone in his career, according to Amaradeva, as the professor, assisted by Lankadeepa Editor D.B Dhanapala, was instrumental in getting him a scholarship, to study at the famous Bhatkhande Music College in Lucknow, India.

It was in October 1953 that he took wing to Lucknow at the age of 20 to pursue a five-year study programme to earn the degrees of Sangeet Visharad Diploma and Vadya Visharad Diploma. While in India, he had the opportunity to study violin under the well known Indian violinist V.G. Jog. V.G stands for Vishnu Govind, he is quick enough to clarify.

“Once, in Lucknow, I remember I played on the violin, one of the melody patterns (a raga) played by Pandit Ravi Shankar. Hearing that, Pandit Ravi Shankar told my master V.G, ‘Jog, your disciple is a shark!” As he recalls this incident, we see him transform into the world of music- his deep voice resonating as he gave voice to the raga.

On his return, he was Music Director for the famous Chitrasena ballets such as Karadiya and Nala Damayanthi and of other ballets like Pabawathie, Vessanthara, Bawakadathurawa, and films such as Ranmuthu Duwa, Delowak Athara, Ransalu and Gamperaliya.

Pandit Amaradeva’s contributions to Sri Lanka’s classical music industry is colossal- he crafted a Sri Lankan idiom of music by incorporating Sri Lankan folk music into classical ragas.

In doing so, he went against the trend at that time where much of the Sinhala movie songs were mere imitations of Indian melodies with Sinhala lyrics.

Felicitating a maestroSri Lanka’s classical music fans will have the opportunity to connect with this legendary musician during the forthcoming Pandit Amaradeva Felicitation Musical Festival to be held from December 5-8 at the BMICH.

The musical festival will feature his concert  Sasara Wasana Thuru together with a classical resonance concert by renowned Indian and Sri Lankan musicians and two classical music workshops by the veteran Indian musicians Pandit Anindo Chatterjee and Shri Purbayan Chatterjee to be held at the Indian Cultural Centre.

“I wanted to change that. There was a cultural transformation taking place at that time, people, like myself were changing names. My attempt to revolutionise the music field was also in response to that.

Although we had a good folk culture, we did not have a developed musical tradition of our own. We did not have local musical instruments to play a melody even though we had a rich percussion tradition in Sri Lanka in the form of bera (drums).

But all instruments like the sitar, tabla and violin came from other countries. I wanted to fill this void. So, I started composing music for my country,” he says, explaining inspired by classical music and folklore, he decided to create a genre unique to Sri Lanka.

According to Pandit Amaradeva, this Sri Lankan folk music mixed Indian classical style was well received by his fans including the younger generation at that time.

Indian classical music was the predominant source of inspiration for Pandit Amaradeva, yet one cannot help being influenced by other types of music as well, he says.

“We are working with 12 notes after all; so when you mix up these 12 notes, sometimes various other sounds too get created,” he says recalling how a person who watched Chitrasena’s Nala Damayathi performed in Australia, noticed an element of  the Western tune, Three Coins in the Fountain, in the ballet.

“I remember in the article he wrote, this person questioned as to how Three Coins in the Fountain crept into this 3000-year-old story,” he says adding that such a coincidence is possible, when you are only working with 12 notes.

Pandit Amaradeva has many awards and honours tucked under his belt. The Philippine Ramon Magsaysay Award, India’s Padma Sri Award, Sri Lankan President’s Award for Kalakeerthi, Deshamanya, the prestigious Chevalier honour awarded by the French Government are just to name a few. In 1972, he composed music for the Maldivian National Anthem at the request of the Maldivian Government.

As part of a generation that followed their passion with hard work and dedication rather than seeking fame overnight, this music genius was able to earn a popularity that lasted for generations.

Decades after, he still remains in the limelight inspiring his audience, both young and old with his performances.

“I get so inspired when I see my audience. That is the reason why I have classical music concerts every year. It gives me an opportunity to connect with my audience.

There is no retirement for an artiste who follows a passion,” he says adding that this artiste- fan synergy is very important. “Without an audience, you are like a fish out of water,” he says.

And this is why in every concert, Pandit Amaradeva pays tribute to his faithful audience with the special dedication, Suhada Oba Hada Mandala!

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