Where music is
concerned, no fine line can be drawn to separate Sri Lanka from India and
the rest of the world. In fact, through the ages, all of Sri Lanka's fine
arts evolved as part of the Greater Indian Tradition. In modern times new
art forms came from the West, so that Portuguese lullabies and Christian
hymns joined North Indian ragas and Buddhist chants as part of the island's
musical heritage. All the while, Sri Lanka's village folk created songs and
dances reflecting their own more isolated lives.
So what, exactly, is Sri Lankan music? This question began to matter in 1948
when Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, emerged as an independent nation. Happily, this
is about the time that K. W. D. Amaradeva began his musical career. For many
Sri Lankans, he has provided the answer.
Born Albert Perrera, Amaradeva came early to music. His father, a carpenter,
played the violin. By the age of seven, young Albert was playing the violin
too. He quickly mastered the Bengali tunes then in vogue and from his older
brother learned the rudiments of the classical North Indian raga. A prodigy,
he became a star at local recitals and gained early renown as a singer of
Buddhist devotional songs. By thirteen, he was performing on the radio. By
nineteen, he was playing the violin, singing, and composing incidental music
for the film "Asokamala." Little wonder that he left school to pursue a life
Finding work at Radio Ceylon, Perrera emerged as a brilliant innovator in
Sinhalese music and was soon welcomed into the company of leading artists
and intellectuals. Sensing the young man's genius, some of them raised a
fund to send him to India for classical training. At the Bhathkande
Institute of Music in Lucknow, Perrera sat at the feet of India's music
masters and won first prize in an all-India violin competition. He returned
to Sri Lanka in 1958 as Amaradeva, the name he would make famous.
Issues of national identity now preoccupied many Sri Lankans. In the spirit
of the times, Amaradeva began arranging and performing indigenous folk
songs, embellishing them with Indian ragas and thus elevating them from
simple tunes to more sophisticated compositions. In other innovations, he
experimented with Western harmony and counterpoint and with South Indian and
Tamil musical forms. With lyricist Mahagama Sekera, he explored ways to wed
the cadences of classical Sinhalese poetry to the new music. In time,
Amaradeva's music came to reflect an entire spectrum of borrowed and
indigenous influences, a uniquely Sri Lankan synthesis.
A prodigious creative artist, Amaradeva has composed music for ballet, film,
the stage, and countless radio and television programs. He has written over
one thousand songs-melodious, lyrical, haunting songs of patriotism, beauty,
faith, passion, and love. For over fifty years now he has also been
performing his songs over radio and television, in concert, and on
gramophone records, audiotapes, and CDs. Amaradeva's fluid, resonant voice
long ago overshadowed his violin. Today, Sri Lankans need only turn on their
radios to hear it daily. "He sings so beautifully," says one admirer, "one
has to stop everything and listen."
Music, says Pandith Amaradeva, "is the finest of the fine arts." His music
is both very fine and widely loved. Sri Lankans say it is music that
transcends ethnicity, class, and age. Or as his friend Ediriweera
Sarachchandra put it, it is music that "speaks to the soul of the nation."
In electing K. W. D. Amaradeva to receive the 2001 Ramon Magsaysay Award for
Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of
trustees recognizes his life of dazzling creativity in expression of the
rich heritage and protean vitality of Sri Lankan music.