Pradeep Ratnayake: giving a Sri Lankan identity for the sitar

by Malinda Seneviratne
I know very little about North Indian classical music. Sure, I know about the sa-ri-ga-ma etc., etc, and know the names of some of the raagas, but when it comes to informed listening and appreciation, my rasagnathavaya would certainly be found lacking. And yet, I do like this kind of music. Iíve been to concerts, listened to tapes and know who Ustad Alaudin Khan is, and of course the names of some of his students and yet I can say with confidence "I am a philistine". Even my listening is random, for I hardly ever turn the radio on, and almost never watch television. I read, though. And so I know of Pradeep Ratnayake. For me he has always been a name, a respected one too going by what people have had to write about the man and what my musically more enlightened friends have had to say about him.

I firmly believe that being born with a gift can only take one so far. Greatness of any kind requires also discipline, commitment and an uncompromising ethic of hard work. Pradeep Ratnayake is considered one of the finest if not the best exponents of the sitar born in this country. How did he get to this point? The following is a sketchy trace of his journey.

Pradeep did not come from a family of musicians. His father liked music and had been able to play the violin. He was what we call a good shravakaya, owning several record/spools of North Indian classical music. The only boy in a family of four children, Pradeepís first instrument had been the Hawaiian guitar, which his father bought for him when he was just 5 years old. His first teacher had been Patrick Rodrigo.

There had been other instruments in the house. "There was an esraj, a tabla and violin. These were my toys. I used to strum tunes on the esraj. Then my father bought me a small sitar."

There has been no turning back since then. He had been trained by the late D. A. Devage, a lecturer at the Aesthetic Institute who had studied his craft at Bhatkande Sangeet Viday Peet in Lucknow. Twelve years is long or short time for a student of music depending on who the student is and how he/she defines perfection. He had hardly finished school when he completed his visharada exams. There were of course other teachers and personalities who helped and encouraged the young man. Pradeep remembers with gratitude Prof. Sarachchandra, Prof. V. K. Samaranayake and Prof. Walter Marasinghe among those who saw his potential and encouraged him to pursue his music career.

I do not listen to radio much, but those who are regular listeners, especially if they like good music, might remember Pradeepís performances over SLBC. He had been just 10 years old when he appeared on Sarachchandraís "Kalpana" programme on SLBC for a half hour interview/recital. He also performed in programmes such as "Sandella" and "Masika Renguma" on SLBC. His first public concert had been at the Museum. In 1977 he had been invited by Dunstan Silva to play in front of Pundit Ravi Shankar at the Intercontinental Hotel. "He wanted to take me with him to Benares to study in his school," Pradeep recalled.

School, in the conventional sense of the term, had been a priority. After a few years at St. Thomasí Prep, Pradeep had moved to D. S. Senanayake College, where Mr. Alles, the Principal had got him involved in the schoolís music programme. He had found himself instructing older students in the sitar, training students for bhakthi geetha programmes and so on. He just didnít have time to concentrate on his school work. He left and joined Mahanama, since this was a school less well known for music. It was not to be. Naturally, with the recognition of talent comes demand for work.

Abandoned physical science degree

Still, Pradeep did well enough at the A/Ls in the mathematics stream to enter Colombo University. He abandoned his physical science degree in favour of further studies in music. He joined the orchestras of SLBC and Rupavahini around 1985 and remained until 1991.

In 1991 he had the opportunity to perform in Berlin, Bonn, Geneva, and Milan, accompanying Amaradeva playing to Sri Lankan expatriate audiences. In 1992, he accompanied Jagath Wickramasinghe when the latter took part in the Golden Kite Competition organised by the Asian Broadcast Unit. Over the years he has played for all the prominent music directors in the country, performing for teledramas, stage plays and films.

In 1992, he won a scholarship offered by the Council for Cultural Relations to study in Santiniketan. He finished with a First Class Distinction, scoring the highest marks ever received for a degree in Sitar at Santiniketan. After he returned, he joined the University of Sri Jayewardenapura as a visiting lecturer in the Language and Cultural Studies Department. The following year he joined the permanent staff. His teaching duties did not interfere with his experimentations or his performing career. In 1997 he arranged the first of his Pradeepanjali concerts.

"I wanted to do something of my own," he said. Who doesnít? But then again, how many succeed? We live in a country where declining standards and pure laziness has spawned imitators by the thousands. Today we have hundreds of visharadas, a good number of them not even half way skilled in the ancient art of imitation. Pradeep had been different. He was someone who had mastered North Indian classical music. He returned "home", meaning he decided to explore, discover or rediscover and develop that which is authentically ours in music.

Pradeep, very briefly, explained to me the idea that he has been working on, and developing through successive Pradeepanjali concerts. Made sense, but then again, my body is not made of or made for music. It was when he picked up his sitar and "demonstrated" that I realised how competent a teacher he was.

"You must know the theme music from ĎPatharpanchalií" he said. Of course, I watch films and Iíve watched many Satyajit Ray films. Pradeep played the tune. Then he played versions of the tune. For each version he had a name. I recognised that they were different from one another but yet retained something of the original. Then he played something that to my ear was unmistakably "Sinhala". I didnít need to listen any more. I knew what he was trying to say when he said he wanted to give a Sri Lankan identity for the sitar.

Pradeep Ratnayake is not just about teaching and concerts. He has put together several CDs. The first was Indrakeelaya, released by the Central Bank. His composition worked around four ideas; peace, conflict, lamentation and hope; in tune with the devastation caused by the LTTE attack and the determination associated with the rebuilding, all of which go way beyond a mere reconstruction of a building. I realised the truth of the ancient contention Pradeep quoted, "music begins where the song endsí. Words are simply poverty-stricken when it comes to articulating certain things.

"Sitar Gee Rava" is another collection and is Pradeepís tribute to the age-old favourites among Sinhala songs. "Roots" contains five original compositions. Pradeep intends to produced instrumental tributes to the great musicians of our country. His first attempt had been unfortunately stopped due to a legal problem regarding copyrights, which Pradeep humbly admits was his fault, although there had been no ill will or mal-intent on his part. He has not abandoned the project, however and this is good news, I believe.

Pradeepís first stint as a music director for a full lenth feature film came after Lester James Peiris heard Indrakeelaya. This is how he came to compose music for the soon-to-be-released "Wekande Walawwa". He had earlier composed the music for Satyajith Maitipeís award winning telefilm, Smarana Samapthiya. He was nominated, along with Rohana Weerasinghe (Sudu Sevaneli) and Khemadasa (Agnidahaya) for the Sarasaviya Award last year for his effort in Linton Semageís Mage Vam Atha. Maitipeís first film, Bora Diya Pokuna will also feature Pradeepís compositions. Pradeep has also composed music for Ravibandu Vidyapathiís ballet, Thrushna, staged last year.

Pradeep Ratnayake has performed all over the world, with prestigious orchestras and on his own. Having returned after completing his Master of Music degree at Santiniketan, Pradeep rejoined the university. On Friday January 23, Pradeep will be offering us the 6th version of his Pradeepanjali concert. The occasion is the 54th anniversary of Indiaís Republic Day, and the concert will be held at the Bishopís College Auditorium at 7.00 p.m.

We do not know what he will offer but it does not matter. He is obviously a man who is comfortable in many musical homes and cultures, but we can be sure that from somewhere in those secret spaces where the saptha svara resides, Pradeep will always gather the music signature that is "ours", as appropriate to audience and occasion.