Features
Artistry and Carlo Fonseka
V. Basnayake

Artistry is the production of behaviours and works which are meant to move people. Carlo Fonseka has been a lifelong artist in the way he behaves towards his colleagues and students and the public. Artistic works are usually well thought out, polished and then produced. Carlo Fonseka showed this even in his customary physiology lectures to medical students, and very markedly in his public speeches. When he was asked to deliver the funeral oration for Ediriweera Sarachchandra, he wrote out every word of it and practised delivering it a dozen times before he actually appeared at the cremation site.

One of his main lines in art was popular music of the serious sort. He wrote the lyrics and the melody for them. A lifetime’s work in this line has now given us a CD entitled Raththaran Duwe containing 19 songs. No. 10, Sarasaviyen — Iparani Kelaniye (From the University of Kelaniya), a song of commitment to devoted medical practice, is sung by a group of medical students of that university, with music arranged by Pradeep, Ratnayake.

Maker, User, Fulfilment

Art is a contrived object or performance produced for the purpose of arousing feelings in oneself or in others or both. The artist (art-maker) contrives, the art-user (rasika) goes to it in order to get art-fulfilment. Feelings being a basic need of man, art falls into the category of basic human needs. Whether the artistic object or performance is put to practical use is a secondary matter. Half of the secret of artistry lies in the contrivance part of it - the skill that has gone into the making of the artistic object or performance. The rest of the secret lies in the depth of the feelings aroused, giving rise to a sense of meaningfulness and even of "magic" and "spirituality". A poet or musician will get a speck of an idea for a poem or song but he will thereafter spend a lot of time and effort to turn it into a work of art. Carlo Fonseka began his aesthetic output with an experience in his teens when a pet parrot flew out of the cage. He turned this experience into his first lyric and song (No. 12, Yanna Giyawe — Let it go) but the process of doing so was effortful and prolonged.

Tolstoyan

The similarity between the explicitly stated concept of art by Tolstoy in his book What is Art? (1898, reprinted in Penguin Classics 1995) and the concept of art which is implicit in the work of Carlo Fonseka is worth dwelling on. Tolstoy’s concept may, for convenience, be described with the acronym SIP. S is for Sincerity (truthfulness) and Sanity (goodness); I is for Infect (the word is Tolstoy’s, people must be deeply aroused by the work) and Individuality (not a copy of somebody else’s work); and P is for People (people at large, not for an elite) and Personal experience (by the artist of what he is trying to communicate). Every one of these characteristics can be seen in Carlo Fonseka’s work. He is a Tolstoyan in spirit; it is almost as if he had lived in a Tolstoy Farm, as Gandhi did in South Africa in the 1890s.

In all the 19 songs in the CD, the lyrics are in Sinhalese, and they are sung by an array of distinguished singers of Sinhalese songs accompanied by a chorus and instrumentalists. In the account below, the translations in English are mine.

Sanity and Sincerity. Carlo Fonseka’s work in diverse fields — academic, literary, musical — gives the impression that he has a maxim which guides him:— Whatever you choose to do, do it deeply. The first song is Sambuddha Raja (a song of Worship of the Lord Buddha), sung by Pandit Amaradeva, and the seventh is a Christmas Carol, Jesu Upan Da (Christmas day), sung by Anton Charles. Both are full of goodness. The final song, Pathum Pathanne Ne (about Non-attachment) is from Tissa Abeysekera’s film Viragaya and it is sung by Nanda Malini.

Infect. All the lyrics have the power of sinking deeply into the listener and moving him. The power of the lyric to do so is enhanced by the music, and the most powerful aspect of the music which does this is typically the straightforward cadence in the last two bars of the piece.

People. Socialistic sentiments come out strongly in No. 8, Dhanayata Aiy Thadi Aasaa? (Why love riches so much?) and No. 9, Ran Molay (Golden brains, referring to Dr. N. M. Perera and the work of the LSSP to increase the welfare of working people), sung by Pandit Amaradeva and Edward Jayakody respectively.

Tolstoy was in favour of folk song because it appealed to a wide spectrum of people including the peasantry, unlike sophisticated music’ such as symphonies which appealed to the elite. Even today with more education of the masses, the symphony remains an elite kind of music — now for the educated elite, not an aristocratic elite. Carlo Fonseka’s songs are simplistic, like folk songs, and not like Lieder. His talent is one of the "heart" rather than of "head" and "hand". The lyric comes first, the music which supports it comes second. This is the case in all Sinhala popular music too, and Carlo Fonseka’s is no exception. The pianist who at a medical concert once played a transcription of the melody of his Minipiree (No.6, Granddaughter, sung on the CD by Indrani Perera) side by side with Chopin’s Ecossaises may hopefully be forgiven for leaving the lyric out.

Personal experience. Each and every one of the songs gives the impression to the listener that it comes from Carlo Fonseka’s personal experience. Eleven of the 19 songs are about personal relationships - including those relating to his family and a forgotten love of his teens. One of the lyrics (No. 14) is by Eileen Siriwardhana, the well-known poetess and writer; the music is by Carlo Fonseka. It is an ode to her lamented husband, Mr. D. B. I. P. S. Siriwardhana. These songs are sung by a number of singers including Hirantha de Silva, Sunil Edirisinghe, Amarasiri Pieris, Deepika Priyadarshani, Victor Ratnayake, Rohana Weerasinghe, Neela Wickramasinghe and Lakshman Wijesekera. The title of the CD, Raththaran Duwe (Golden daughter, sung by Nanda Malini and Rohana Weerasinghe) is about his daughter’s going-away after marriage.

Carlo Fonseka’s CD is one that I personally will make it a point to include in the set of CDs to which I listen regularly in rotation. It is sure to ensure a worthy aesthetic experience for the day.

 

 

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