|Friday, 13 September 2002|
Khemadasa: a rebel with a cause
by J. B. Dissanayake, University of Colombo
If I ever met a man full of passion, patience and also impatience, that is Premasiri Khemadasa. He has infinite patience to sit at the piano, usually in the early hours of the morning, to compose a musical piece unheard of before. He creates. He changes. He innovates. He experiments. Nothing can stop him except his own desire to do better. His passion for creation knows no limits.
He is equally impatient: he leaves no stone unturned as it were. Ideas keep on banging on his imagination until they get transformed into the medium of sound. Then he becomes impatient again to move into his next experiment. All this he did with a passion that is found in no other musician in this country. Khemadasa has no equal. When someone speaks of the 'Master' everyone knows that it's Khemadasa that they have in mind.
Khemadasa is certainly a rebel. But he is a rebel with a cause. His cause is to create something new. He is a trail-blazer. He is one who is born with an innate desire to experiment with beauty: beauty of sound and rhythm. According to students of Indian aesthetics, some men are born with this innate capacity to create and they call it 'va:sana:' Khemadasa is a man full of va:sana: : originality to create and recreate.
Sound, produced by the human voice as well as by musical instruments, is what he experiments with. He showed us what human voice can do. It can do wonders. Human voice, Khemadasa keeps on telling us, is the best musical instrument man possesses.
Young men and women whom he trained manipulated their voices, with utmost finesse and control, to create something musically beautiful.
His passion was to create a new world of music, a world of music that can be legitimately be called 'our own', distinctively Sri Lankan. Nurtured in both schools of music, Eastern and Western, Khemadasa was impatient till he brought into fusion the best of both worlds into one harmonious whole. In that sense, Khemadasa is an innovator without peers. He made the word 'Master' or 'Maestro' really meaningful.
Before Khemadasa began to rebel against the musical establishment of this country, he began to rebel against injustice. He got his first taste of injustice at his school in Panadura where, in spite of his exceptional talents, the principal refused to give him the 'double' promotion that he deserved. He had come first in the class but the principal gave a 'double promotion' to the one who had become the seventh!
His rebellious temperament found expression in another way: Marxist ideals which were gaining ground in the country just before independence. His house in Wadduwa had become a centre of Marxist political activity where he had the chance to meet Samasamajists of the calibre of Leslie Goonawardhana who fought for a just society: sama sama:ja.
The first musical instrument that enlivened Khemadasa's passion for music is the flute. On the very day he had to sit for the Senior School Certificate examination, he was asked to come to the Radio Ceylon for an interview. He finished his first paper much ahead of time, picked up his flute, jumped over the hall-wall of the examination hall and darted towards the broadcasting station, never to return to school life again.
Khemadasa attended no university. He matured in the so-called University of Life, where he struggled hard, fighting against all odds, to create a new brand of music that can be genuinely identified as Sri Lankan. Today he is honoured by the Ruhuna University where he will be conferred a Doctor of Letters and it is an honour that Khemadasa amply deserves for his dedicated work of almost half a century.
A Sri Lankan connoisseur of music, be it in the field of the cinema, theatre, opera, teledrama or the symphony, cannot simply by pass Khemadasa. His presence is everywhere, mostly as a trail-blazer.
He not only made his connoisseurs enjoy his creations but made them think of the path that Sri Lankans have to take if they wish to make a distinctive contribution to the world of music at large.
Khemadasa is a man with infinite passion. He knows no fear. He is a man who will not bend his head to power. A musician who combines all these qualities is, in the full sense of the word, 'a maestro' who will take the connoisseur from a mundane world into a world of magical charm where sounds blend with supreme finesse, sensitivity and artistry. May I, in all humility, wish this Great Man, Maha Purisa, longevity to do more for our nation:
ciram ji:vatu maha purisa
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