27th January 2002

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In tune with the past

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti
Traditional musical instruments are scattered around compelling us to weave our way through the living room. Youthful voices ring out and the entire room pulsates with song and dance. Feet that were moving to a drumbeat come to a sudden halt and the dramatized folk version of a 'bambara kepeema' or the gathering of honeycombs comes to a momentary stop as we intrude upon the youngsters in earnest rehearsal. 

A rehearsal of folk drama and song at maestro Lionel Ranwala's residence, a man who lives and breathes Sri Lankan rhythms could indeed be an exhilarating experience. And with him, you can capture the very essence of what is truly Sri Lankan, better still, what we call Sri Lankan sounds.

At his Thalangama abode, the exponent himself and a group of 80 students are dedicated to the task of reviving the dying folk song, drama and dance with a view to embarking on a journey in search of a Sri Lankan musical identity based on folk music.

The silver-haired connoisseur tells me that his entire life was spent in pursuance of this cherished goal- creating a musical tradition that is essentially our own. He laments that it was only the late W.B. Makuloluwa who realized the cost of imitating the Indian tradition and lack of initiative on our part to create something of our own .This is why he opted to work with the future generation. 

"I have no wish to curse the darkness but I want to try and dispel it by at least lighting a few lamps of creativity and wisdom," he says. He hopes to impart knowledge and instil the disciplines of folk art in youth, with the fervent hope that they would create a Maha Sampradaya or great tradition of music in the coming years. 

Hence, the creation of the Thalama Foundation which undertakes to train youth who are genuinely interested in folk art, free of charge.The course, the first of its kind funded by the Ministry of Samurdhi offers a wide range of subjects including folk music, dancing, theatre, television and traditional drums, this being the first time that a certificate course has been introduced for traditional drumming. 

"The oft repeated comment is that youth have no appreciation of what is Sri Lankan, and that they have no feeling for their cultural identity. Take India. There are diverse traditions such as Karnataka and Hindustani. Each country has evolved its own tradition. We, Sri Lankans, know about the Hungarian, British and Spanish traditions but do we know what is ours, or why we haven't one? That's the issue we try to address through these courses," he explains.

And the proud teacher of these young enthusiasts says that they attend the six-month course for the sheer love of the art. "This would not make them financially stable, this would not win them instant stardom. It is a long journey of preserving what is ours with the ultimate ideal being the creation of a Sinhala musical tradition. This is why it becomes a sacrifice on their part as well," he notes.

"What I teach them is that we should keep our windows open for the winds of change, absorb what is not ours so that we may nurture our own. There is a need for a distinct identity. We should absorb the various techniques, but not their tunes. Our tunes are a reflection of our heartbeat," he explains.

For this purpose, more than 3000 sources painstakingly gathered by C. de S. Kulathilake and W.B. Makuloluwa over the years have been recorded and stored at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Ranwala laments that nobody so far had attempted to use them to create something novel. 

"The complaints are many that we have no tradition of music. But none has ever tried to create one," critiques the maestro. 

Prof. Ratanajankar once observed that wannam, kavi, ashtaka, sthothra which are the main sources of the Sri Lankan music tradition, need to be conserved and developed into a local tradition with folk tunes as the foundation. And that is what Lionel Ranwala has been attempting to do for the past four decades, and now with his dedicated young group belonging to Thalama.

Hela Kala Mangalyaya, a celebration of folk song and dance organized by Sahurda Asapuwa, a group of creative youths in the Madolkele village in Gampaha where Lionel Ranwala and his students will display their artistic finesse will be held today from 7 p.m. onwards.

Young pioneers

Admittedly, these youth know that it is a long way off before they reach a high point in their careers as professional artistes. But it does not deter them. Most of them have come to the city in search of an opportunity to study what is ours and have discovered that in Ranwala's work.

Janaka Jaminda Bandara (24) claims that he was fascinated with the opportunity to study traditional drumming professionally. This youth from Horowpathana, one of the leading men in Ranwala's troupe began his artistic journey with street dramas. After meeting Ranwala, he decided to dedicate himself to the task of conserving folk art traditions.

"All of us might not make it big and only a few might become exponents. But we believe that collectively we can achieve greater things if we forget pursuing individual goals," he says.

Wasantha Madurangani (28) is the most senior among Ranwala's dedicated group of students, having been with him for more than 12 years. Having obtained her Visharada qualification, Wasantha is glad that she is a party to the process of evolving something great.

"I learned Indian music but for a long time did not know what was essentially ours. I feel that an identity has to be evolved in music and with our education and experience, we are well-equipped to do that."

Recalling the days when she joined the folk theatre, Wasantha observes that young people now are more receptive to what they do than a decade ago.

Sahan Ranwala, 24, son of Lionel Ranwala, is more or less the live wire in the Thalama operation. He is responsible for choreography, co-ordination and most aspects of the presentation process. In his own words, he is "the odd job man".

A television presenter by profession, Sahan believes that there should be someone to carry his father's mantle and to achieve what the previous generation could not. 

"Many scoffed at the Thalama concept earlier, stating that youth were no longer attracted to folk theatre and music. We have proved our detractors wrong. Folk music and theatre for many decades were not available to the people, so how can they appreciate something that is not available? Our effort is to popularize folk art, specially theatre and songs so that people can feel proud about our traditions and come forward to nurture them," says a hopeful Sahan.

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