Narada: The singer incomparable

Edmund Jayasuriya recalls a lasting friendship

Peace, peace! He is not dead, he doth not sleep. He hath awakened from the dream of life
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings
. - P.B. Shelley on the death of John Keats

When I sit down to type this note on Narada Disasekera, the singer, my friend and classmate, my mind goes back to the first half of the 50s when we were both students at Kalutara Maha Vidyalaya, the school by the Kalu Ganga. The school was then housed in a huge mansion called Alwis Walawwa around which was a sprawling garden of coconut and fruit trees.

Narada came to my class, Form II, from a school in Welipenna, a remote village of rubber plantations off Matugama. Afterwards, I remember Narada and his family came to live in a house by the school, just beyond the fence.

Unlike now, life at the time moved on at a comparatively slow pace; there was no hurry or rush and little competition. The result was that we had enough time to ponder and do things thoroughly taking our own time. Perhaps that was the reason why Narada did his thing in his own way, without the mad rush to beat the deadline and with deep concentration which almost amounted to meditation.

It was a voyage of discovery, a search for the roots and the profoundly substantial precision. Not that he reached it but throughout his life he strived at it, and it made all the difference. As Albert Camus says, “A man’s work is nothing but the slow trek to re-discover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

The television, computer, mobile phone and such gadgets of ‘civilization’ were still a long way off. During our time our forms of entertainment were only the radio and the newspaper. The radio transmission at the time was known as Radio Ceylon which broadcast for a couple of hours after 6 p.m. and our favourite programme was Siri Aiya’s Lama Pitiya. And Kamala Lama Samajaya in the Silumina was our favourite newspaper reading. Narada was a great fan of both modes.

Watching films was our other entertainment. We went to the New Imperial Theatre at Katukurunda, about two miles away from school, to watch films. It was there that we saw the Hindi classics of all time like Baiju Bawra, Mother India, Barsaat, Rattan, Deedar and Awara. It influenced Narada’s life in two ways; it helped to nurse a secret ambition of becoming an actor while he learnt the first lessons in singing from these maestros like Rafi, Mukesh, Atma, Munna Dai et al. We had to forego our lunch to save money to buy a ticket for the gallery at 55 cents!

I remember Narada performing the part of Dilip Kumar in Deedar after seeing the film one day. In the film Dilip was a blind singer and Narada did the part to perfection singing the relevant song, meri kahani bhulana vale, as well. Narada resembled Dilip Kumar along with his trademark strand of hair on the forehead and I believe that Narada secretly nursed the ambition to become an actor one day.
There are some lesser known facets in Narada’s life. He was a fine cricketer in school. As a fast bowler he resembled Harold Larwood who was one time the controversial fast bowler of the English team. In fact Narada was teasingly called Larwood by us.

He was great at mathematics too. He was, in fact, the best student in mathematics in our class. He was the favourite of our revered mathematics teacher Kandiah Ramanathan, and Narada once told me that his proficiency in mathematics did help him a lot in getting appointed as a technical officer at Radio Ceylon.

He was interested in English literature too. Our English teacher at the time was the famous English scholar and literary critic A.M.G. Sirimanne. I remember how Narada entertained us by acting parts of Shakespeare’s plays some of which like Macbeth, Hamlet and Julius Caesar were introduced to us by Mr. Sirimanne.

As the sun set beyond the horizon Narada and I used to sit under a kumbuk tree on the banks of the Kalu Ganga and discuss novels by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Hermann Hesse, our eyes glued to the ripples dancing in the evening sunlight. These memories are still vividly etched in my mind.

Much has been written about his repertoire and there is no need for repetition but I have recounted these lesser known facts about Narada because I believe he was essentially a product of this socio-cultural milieu.

Narada was a loner; he had only a few friends and he preferred solitude. He never went after fame, fame came to him but he was not really bothered about it. His repertoire was not extensive, but those few songs he sang will remain in public memory for a long time to come because they are essentially original.

He learnt his first lessons in music from our music teacher in school Simon Lokuliyana. Later when he was working at Radio Ceylon he was inspired by greats like Pattiarachchi, Edwin Samaradivakara, Somadasa Elvitigala, Dunstan de Silva et al.

Narada’s song ‘mulu hadin mama eyata pemkota’ was one I composed when I was just 18 years. Narada had passed his audition at Radio Ceylon at the time and he was given 15 minutes to sing three songs. He had got two songs composed by Karunaratne Abeysekera and Ananda Sarath Wimalaweera and he wished to sing one of mine not because I was an expert but simply as a token of our friendship.
But how did it become a landmark in the gamut of Sinhala songs?

There are several reasons for it. It deals with an eternal human emotion – lost love. Then there was the haunting melody that Kularatne Tennekoon composed. But above all, I believe, that Narada’s unique tonal rendering which emphasised the deeper nuances of each word mattered much for its success.

The fact that Narada was my classmate I consider a rare privilege in my life. On John Keats’ death Shelley said that Keats was not dead but had awakened from the dream of life, May Narada, who had awakened from the dream of life, attain the bliss of Nibbana!

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