In praise of Amaradeva

On his 85th Birthday today


By Carlo Fonseka

Chairman / Arts Council of Sri Lanka

Question: Is there any man living in Sri Lanka today who – in the considered judgment of those best qualified to assess – is unarguably the greatest in his chosen vocation, reckoning from the time that Vijaya, the wayward prince of the lion race (Sinhalese) of Indian origin reputedly landed on Lanka in 483 B.C.? Answer: Yes. He is Wannakuwattawaduge Don Amaradeva, known to fame as Amaradeva. But Professor Sunil Ariyaratne, the distinguished scholarly authority on Sinhala musical history, bringing a higher order of comprehension into the matter, dissents radically from this judgment. He contends that it is sensible to inquire who was our greatest writer or poet or king but not who was our greatest musician. Why not? Because – so he argues – though the 2,500 years of our recorded history has seen many writers of the calibre of Vidya Chakrawarthi and Gurulugomi, poets such as Thotagamuwe Rahula and Weththewe Veedagama, and kings of the stature of Dutugemunu and Parakramabahu, until the first decades of the 20th century "musicians" were not even a recognised species in our cultural history. Therefore, Prof. Ariyaratne concludes, it is not meaningful to call Amaradeva our greatest musician[U1], for he is in reality the Creator of Sinhala music. Happily the Creator is with us in flesh and blood, very much alive and still singing for his supper. Nor has he sung in vain. Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) opined that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." Amaradeva’s biography is indeed co-extensive and identical with the history of Sinhala music. This admiring eulogy of his life and work is written to mark his 85th birthday which falls on 5 December 2012 (today).

Born again

Named W. D. Albert Perera, the fourth of the five children of W. D. Jinoris (a Buddhist) and B. M. W. Mendis (a Methodist) was born again as W. D. Amaradeva by the courtesy of Prof. Ediriweera Sarathchandra, the un-anointed Czar of the Sinhalese arts in the middle decades of the 20th century. Sarathchandra’s formal musical education consisted of a brief stint at Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan in 1939. In due course he came to propound the view that the bedrock of Sinhala music should be the North Indian ragas. Paradoxically, his musical guru Tagore publicly and proudly proclaimed that he was a synthesis of three cultures – Hindu, Mohammedan and British. Anyone at all familiar with Tagore’s songs cannot fail to sense that they are not just variations of pure North Indian ragas. Why Sarathchandra zeroed in on North Indian ragas as the foundation of Sinhala music is puzzling. It is true that right through its history Sri Lanka has been profoundly influenced by its geographical, political, social and cultural connection with India. Even so, Sinhalese culture is emphatically not a variety of Indian culture. Sinhala music as we know it today has a recognizably distinct identity of its own significantly different from Indian ragas.

Philosophy of music

In Amaradeva’s seminal theoretical work titled Nada Siththam published in 1989, which sets forth his philosophy of music, he concedes that the major influence on the music of the Sinhalese must inevitably be Indian rather than any other; and oriental rather than occidental. He hastens to add, however, that this does not and must not mean the submergence of our distinct musical identity in the Indian ragadhari tradition. The distinction is subtle and difficult to pin down. In the introduction that Prof. Sarathchandra wrote to Amaradeva’s Nada Siththam in 1989 he professed the belief that the highest expression of Amaradeva’s musical genius, up until then at any rate, is to be found in the two plays Vessanthara and Lomahansa and that he has consciously based their music on Indian ragas. However that may be, few would deny that the music for which Amaradeva is loved most by the vast majority of his listeners is enshrined in some of his art songs. And for my part, I cannot avoid the conclusion that these songs represent the perfection of the musical tradition initiated by Amaradeva’s senior musical contemporaries Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha. To me at least, the essence of this tradition is a certain musical eclecticism, and not hardcore North Indian ragas. Indeed, the citation of the Magsaysay Award Amaradeva received in 2001 declares that "his music reflects a unique synthesis of the country’s varied heritage, combining the influences of North Indian ragas, Sinhalese folk melodies and Portuguese waltzes and hymns among many others" and that "the Foundation recognises his life of dazzling creativity in expression of the rich heritage and protean vitality of Sri Lankan music." Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne in his eulogy for Amaradeva after he received the Magsaysay Award remarks that to survey the range of Amaradeva’s music is to realize how much he has imbibed from the music of North India, South India, indigenous Sri Lanka, Europe, Latin America and the Christian Church.

Amaradeva’s musical synthesis is a wonderful amalgam. Nothing musical in the human family is alien to him. Everything musical in the world is grist to his mill. It is his prodigious musical eclecticism that has made him what he is. Indeed, as already noted above, he has brought to perfection the musical tradition initiated by Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha who set out to create a music of our own perceptibly distinct from Indian music. To adapt Sir Isaac Newton’s famous phrase to our present purpose, Amaradeva went further in that quest than his two senior contemporaries "by standing on the shoulders of [those] giants." One of them gave Sri Lanka its national anthem. The other gave Sri Lanka its "national song" – Olu Pipeela.


Amaradeva himself has composed and sung some of the best songs ever created in the universe of Sinhala music. Dr. Lester James Peries, the Founding Father of Sinhala cinema, judged that Amaradeva’s voice "is the greatest musical instrument we have in this country." The magic of his voice, the exquisite combinations and permutations of notes that comprise his melodic creations, the pristine perfection of his pitch and his impeccable phrasing add up to make him an absolutely unique vocal artiste. In its strictest sense "absolutely unique" means "the sole existing specimen". And that is precisely what he is. In the Kingdom of Sinhala Music Amaradeva has long been the anointed sovereign. It is true to say that the more we know him the more we love him; but the more we know of him, the less there is that is both original and significant that we have to say about him. So all one can do at this point in time is to ask rhetorically: "When comes such another?" and answer: "Never."


It so happens that my first appreciation of Amaradeva was written in 1983 as a contribution to a celebratory volume titled "Amaradeva Prathisanvedaya" published by the University of Sri Jayawardenapura. The article won the unqualified approval of the great man himself. My thesis was that what made Amaradeva unique was the embodiment in him in high degree of five attributes which are rare even separately. I identified them as first, his vast store of musical knowledge; second, his astounding creative talent; third, his mellifluous voice; fourth, his virtuosity as a violinist; and fifth, his exquisite sensitivity to lyrical poetry. I have lost count of the number of times this essay has been reprinted during the past three decades. Thereafter from time to time I have written eulogistic essays on various aspects of his life and work because I had nothing but praise to offer him. Somerset Maugham famously said that "people ask you for criticism but they only want praise." In Amaradeva’s case praise is the only thing anyone can give him. Although I took up my pen to write a piece in praise of him one more time, for the life of me there is nothing really new I can say. And when I reread the pieces I had written about him, I realised how truly Harvard University Professor John Kenneth Galbraith spoke when he said that "much of what is called scholarship is in practice the plagiarism of oneself or other people." So in what follows I am going to openly plagiarise myself. Those who have cared to read what I wrote about Amaradeva in the past should continue to read only if they don’t have a better way of spending time. To pay homage to Amaradeva the undisputed Sovereign in the world of Sinhala music at this stage of his life is surely in Shakespearean language: "To guard a title that was rich before / To gild refined gold, to paint the lily / To throw perfume on the violet / To smooth the ice or to add another hue / Unto the rainbow …" This is, indeed, "wasteful and ridiculous excess."

Biology of Music

Even so, let me explore once again the question of why we love Amaradeva. Given my background of knowledge and experience in biology, that is something I feel qualified to do. After all, there must be some reasons grounded in biology for the emotion we feel for him. We love him for his music. Jay Chou, the best selling Chinese pop star recently said: "… even when my female fans approach me they don’t tell me that I am handsome. They tell me they like my music. It is my music that has charmed them." What then is the biological function of music? What is music good for? Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882), the Father of Modern Biology, gave the answer[U6]. But allow me to keep you in suspense for a moment before revealing precisely what that answer is.

First let us ask the question of the relevance of Darwin’s work to the question of Amaradeva’s unquestionable appeal to members of both sexes. That Charles Darwin’s name is inextricably associated with the theory of biological evolution is common knowledge. His famous book, The Origin of Species was published in 1859. One implication of the theory of evolution is that we humans – Homo sapiens— are one of the 193 living species of monkeys and apes. That we humans are part and parcel of the web of life is implicit in the Buddhist world view. This is reflected in the oft repeated incantation, "may all beings be happy, healthy and well." In the orthodox Western religious outlook, however, man is a unique being specially created by Almighty God in his own image. In an inspired moment of poetic truth, Shakespeare made Hamlet exclaim, "what a piece of work is Man … the paragon of animals." That was about 250 years before Charles Darwin marshalled the scientific evidence that man is beyond any manner of doubt a member of the animal kingdom.

Sex Appeal

More relevant to our present purpose is the book Darwin published in 1871 titled The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. In this book he suggested that some features of every animal have evolved to make it sexually attractive to members of the opposite sex of its species. The classic example of this biological truism is the peacock’s tail. Careful observations by zoologists show that peahens choose their sexual partners by the size and shape of the tails of male birds. This makes biological sense because the larger the tail the healthier the male bird and therefore the better its chance of siring healthy offspring. According to Darwin, what their tail is to peacocks, the ability to sing is to humans. That good singing is sexy will be denied only by the 4% or so of every population who manifest the condition called "amusia". In Shakespeare’s phrase these unfortunates are "not moved with concord of sweet sounds." The sex appeal of good singing is too well known in this age of sexual liberation to require elaborate documentation. Elvis Presley was a living legend. Thousands of young women yearned to be with him. The evolutionary biologist Dr. Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico has studied this phenomenon in depth. He cites the case of rock guitarist and singer Jimi Hendrix who had sex with hundreds of young female fans for the mere asking. The singer Robert Plant said, "I was always on my way to love. Always…" For the edification of those who are doubtful about the reason for the sexual demand for good singers let it be pointed out that peacocks with gorgeous tails, are in high demand among peahens. There is evidence of the sexual appeal of singing from certain other species too. Zoologists have discovered that several species of birds, whales, and one of Man’s closest evolutionary cousins, the gibbons, also indulge in singing as part of their courtship. There is ample reason to conclude that the females of these species respond most favourably to the best singers. To quote another Shakespearean insight, music may be the "food of love" and "the man who hath no music in himself … is fit for treason, stratagems, spoils …" But he is certainly not fit for love.

Uniting power

Another function attributed to music is that it serves to bind bands of people together into united tribes. In the modern world national anthems bind people together. Traditionally soldiers have marched to war to the beat of drums. In the remote past music appears to have played a very important role in determining the character and direction of whole civilisations. In ancient China, Egypt, India and Greece, the role music played in shaping society was well recognised and appreciated. If music in fact served to bind members of a tribe together then the more musical a tribe the more closely its members would be bonded and this solidarity would have conferred on them an evolutionary advantage over less musical tribes in the struggle for existence.


Finally let us see whether, and if so to what extent, these Darwinian insights are applicable to Amaradeva. In 1927 he was born into a culture which was essentially Victorian in manners and morals. (In Britain, Victorian morals were dominant from the middle to the end of the 19th century. Overt Victorian morals were so austere that even piano legs were not left unclothed). Men with a strong sexuality were labelled "beasts" and their sexuality was a source of guilt and shame to them. So they endeavoured to repress their sexual feelings. The emphasis was on the utmost rectitude in matters of sexual behaviour and morals.

In the Sri Lankan world of music, unlike in the West, the human counterparts of peacocks with splendid tails were not expected to reap the biological rewards of their magnificent singing. Restraint was the name of the game they played. Renowned musician Dunstan De Silva has recorded that "audiences raved over Amaradeva’s violin playing and singing." At a private sitting at the residence of the Indian High Commissioner, one of India’s famous vocalists, Suchitra Mitra, had been moved to ecstasy by Amaradeva’s singing. She had said "Amaradeva just goes on singing in perfect ‘sur’ and ‘tal’ that gushes out from his throat like water from a fountain." That there were hundreds of thousands who shared Suchitra Mitra’s feelings cannot be proved; lack of proof makes it no less true.

As to Amaradeva’s role in uniting the nation to which he and we belong by the magic of his music, there cannot be any manner of doubt. The melody he created for Dalton Alwis’s lyric "sasara wasana thuru" and the exquisite style with which he vocally performed it made Amaradeva the noblest promoter of patriotism in our nation. His song "rathna deepa janma bhoomi" has assumed the unofficial status of Sri Lanka’s other national anthem! Amaradeva says: "I routinely sing it as the last item in my musical concerts; and audiences invariably, spontaneously and enthusiastically join in as I sing it. On such occasions I feel one with them." When Amaradeva feels one with us, we feel one with him. We love him because we love ourselves.

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