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.
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
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.