Celebrating Rathna Sri Wijesinghe: Lyrical Poet



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by Carlo Fonseka


As one who is neither widely nor deeply read in Sinhala literature, my personal impression is that among those born into the world of Sinhala poetry in the second half of the 20th century, Rathna Sri Wijesinghe is the most celebrated. He has proved to be more than a writer of verse endowed with a vivid imagination and a facile command of the language of poetry; he has also mastered the grammar and idiom of the lyrics of the Sinhala art song, the most popular art form in our culture in our time. Nor is that all. By natural inclination and conscious choice, he has emerged as the unvarying contemporary artistic champion of the poor and the dispossessed in our country. He has used his gifts to write political poems and songs. On public platforms he has given (poetic) voice to the struggle for social justice. The values that manifestly inspire him are fraternity, generosity and justice for all irrespective of race and class and creed and gender. His outlook is avowedly socialist. It is perhaps in the fitness of things that he was born in 1953, just a few weeks before the Great Hartal which briefly shook capitalism in Sri Lanka.


Biographical Sketch


Born on June 2 in that crucial year 1953, Rathna Sri lost his mother (Manick Hamine) when he was just 13 months old and his father (Walter Mendis Wijesinghe) when he was seven years old. His maternal grandfather to whom he became very close after he had lost his mother, also died soon after the death of Rathna Sri’s father. Thus Rathna Sri seems to have been decreed by fate to experience existential loneliness, which can be a terrifying thing.


Schooling


Intelligent and smart, Rathna Sri was obliged to change schools a number of times in early childhood. He settled down for a few years at Sri Sumangala Central School, Panadura where he wrote his first prize winning poem in 1967 at the age of 14. Then on the results of a highly competitive selective examination, he found himself in the prestigious Richmond College in Galle. The boy’s heart was in the arts but well-meaning elders persuaded him that science, specially the biological stream, is likely to be much more lucrative than the arts in time to come. So Rathna Sri appeared for the University Entrance Examination as a candidate in the biological science stream. Unsurprisingly, he failed to gain university entrance, because even at that time he was compulsively reading and continuously scribbling poetry when he was not messing around with infantile revolutionary boys. In 1975 he managed to become an assistant teacher of science and maths and thereby earn his subsistence. That was also the year when Rathna Sri experienced the intense joy of hearing one of his lyrics sung on radio by the renowned singer Gunadasa Kapuge. This was the first of literally hundreds of his lyrics which would be aired on the electronic media in the future. In 1975 Rathna Sri fell in love with comely Shirani Hemamali Peries. He married her in 1977, and lived happily for some 35 years. She inspired some of his most memorable poetry. She gave life to his two daughters, Sammani and Sandeepani, and having nurtured them to adulthood, Hemamali died prematurely —oh so prematurely — last year. Poetic injustice it surely must be to have lost his mother, father, favorite grandfather and life’s loyal partner so peremptorily and summarily! But Rathna Sri managed to retain his sanity and his will to live by writing poetry. In the face of death there is nothing we can do. Communicating to others who care to listen, our feelings about our experience of losing people we dearly love may perhaps serve some human purpose. One thing literature does is to enlarge our range of experience. However that may be, to return to our biographical sketch, in 1977 Rathna Sri took the GCE (A/L) in arts subjects and secured three A’s and a B and qualified to enter University. Unsurprisingly one of the A’s was for his beloved mother tongue which he knows like the back of his hand. In 1983 he completed his formal education and emerged as a trained teacher with an Honors Degree in Sinhala. In the meantime his first book of poems - biyanowanaiyandi- saw the light of day in 1979.


Poems and Songs


In his first book of poems Rathna Sri set forth his philosophy of art as it applied to poetry and song. The function of the poet, he says, is to lay bare social reality in all its naked harshness, to tell it like it really is, but in an aesthetically pleasing way. The economic, political and social structure of our society as presently constituted is, he says, oppressive to the dispossessed. In Rathna Sri’s view it is the duty of the poet to help end the oppression and liberate human beings to enable them to reach their full human potential. In this endeavor as of now Rathna Sri has published six books of poetry, six books of songs and seven publications in the field of children’s literature. He has also published four collections of pieces he wrote to newspapers as a columnist.


Mahagama Sekara


How, we wonder, did Rathna Sri learn to write poems and songs? It seems to me that Mahagama Sekara, perhaps the most admired, popular and influential writer of poems and songs in the 20th century has served as Rathna Sri’s model. It is on record that young Rathna Sri wrote to Sekara and that the great man promptly responded and warmly encouraged him to write. Indeed, Sekara seems to have mentored Rathna Sri and some regard Rathna Sri as the literary reincarnation of Mahagama Sekara! There cannot be any degree of doubt, therefore, as to what Rathna Sri has been seeking to achieve in his creative work. He is, however, not a mere shadow of the master because Rathna Sri is a poet with a clear social vision and mission and he is less committed than Sekara was to the proposition that art should be for art’s sake. In Rathna Sri’s most serious (non-fictional) writing up to date, he collaborated with Prof. Sucharitha Gamlath in 1994 to produce a critical analysis of Mahgama Sekara’s attitude to social reality.


Wassane


In the judgment of many discerning critics Wassane appears to be the most valuable book of poetry Rathna Sri has produced up to date. It came out in 1985 but surprisingly it failed to win the State Literary Award for Sinhala poetry in that year. I have a vague memory that there was a raging controversy in the newspapers about the matter which went on for months and years. But I was not sufficiently interested to follow it closely. What I do know is that in 1990 Rathna Sri brought out a second edition of Wassane, the first time in living memory — I am told — that a second edition of a book of Sinhala poetry became necessary in our country. In a preface Rathna Sri wrote to the second edition he underlined this fact and openly rejoiced in it. For it signaled that Rathna Sri Wijesinghe had made it to the top in the world of Sinhala poetry.


What makes Rathna Sri tick?


For the general reader the important question is: What makes Rathna Sri the poet and lyricist tick? Those who are qualified to judge seem to be of the opinion that Rathna Sri the poet is immeasurably superior to Rathna Sri the song writer. And his superiority as a poet derives from his absolute familiarity with the tradition of Sinhalese literature from classical to more modern times. In his Landmarks of Sinhalese Literature Martin Wickramasinghe has documented the major works of prose and verse in our tradition. Rathna Sri has immersed himself in works of that tradition from Kaysilumina and Amavatura to those of more recent times. To focus on poetry, Rathna Sri can quote from memory long passages from Muvadevdavata, Sassadavata, Kaysilumina, Sri RahulaSalalihini Sandeshaya and Kavyaseksara and Vattave’s Guttila Kavya. Rathna Sri seems to have absorbed the essence of these works into the psychological sub structure of his mind. To the initiated, his allusions to these works in his poetry are said to be sublimely evocative of the tradition.


Songs


As for his songs, they are necessarily more popular than profound. Gunadasa Kapuge surely was to Rathna Sri what Friedrich Engels was to Karl Marx. Pandit Amaradeva, a great admirer of Rathna Sri as a lyricist, has set to music and sung many of his lyrics. Apart from Kapuge and Amaradevaa host of singers of the first rank like Karunarathna Divulgane, Sunil Edirisinghe, Pradeepa Dharmadasa, Deepika Priyadarshani, Janaka Wickramasinghe and many others have sung his lyrics. This has made him very famous. On the other hand, for an up-and-coming singer to have a song written by Rathna Sri in their album is a mark of distinction. One young writer Samudra Wetthasinghe in a learned essay has opined that the song writer in Rathna Sri might have killed the poet in him! The high point of Rathna Sri’s fame as a writer of songs came in the 1980’s when Pandit Amaradeva set to music and sang a sentimental song called Sudu Neluma Ko, the lyric of which was written by Rathna Sri. Amaradeva’s performance of that song is said to have .brought tears to the eyes of everyone in the world of Sinhala Music.


Concluding Remarks


As I said in the beginning, no poet born in the second half of the 20th century has been so celebrated as Rathna Sri Wijesinghe. In 2005 when Rathna Sri was barely 50 years of age, a multiple-author book of 400 pages about his life and work was published. It is called Rathna Sri Nava Kaviye Chandodaya. It has been edited by Samudra Wetthasinghe. It is a fairly full survey of Rathna Sri’s life and work. As it happened, I was present at the launch of the book and I purchased a copy of it at the entrance to the auditorium. Believe it or not! I went into the auditorium and opened the book haphazardly and lo and behold I saw my own composition Rattharan Duwe quoted in it. I was over the moon. I jumped to the conclusion that I — a mere old medic — had made it even in the world of Sinhala music, and was worthy enough to be quoted in a scholarly book on Rathna Sri Wijesinghe! As soon as I went home, I lost no time in sitting down and reading the lengthy article with utmost care. My heart sank when I discovered that according to this critic my song was a superb example of how a song should not be written. He compared it learnedly with the lyrics of a song on a similar theme written by Rathna Sri. He demonstrated what a superior song writer Rathna Sri was when compared to me. Committed as I am to follow the evidence and reason wherever they might lead, I had to accept the judgment of the critic. I resolved then and there that the cobbler should stick to his last and that I should never produce another album. So Rattharan Duwe my first album of songs shall also be my last.


Carlo Fonseka


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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