December 11, 2011

Evolution of Sinhalese Art Song - Gee Rasa Vinisa: Seminal Discourse on Classic Song

By Ranga Chandrarathne

(By courtesy of, 01st May 2011)

I had the privilege of taking part in a discourse on classic songs recently held at the University of Wayamba. Although several speakers gave lectures on diverse aspects of Sinhala song from the Nurthi Gee (songs in drama) to the modern classical and semi-classical songs, what struck me most were the lectures by actor Nissanka Diddeniya and WA Abeysinghe.

With his enigmatic demonstrations, Nissanka Diddeniya traced back the evolution of the Nurthi Gee or drama songs in Sri Lanka. The era in which drama songs flourished was the time when John de Silva made dramas. One of the prominent features of John de Silva's drama was the vital role the song played in the plot. Songs were primarily used to intensify the zest. The canon of songs produced in the period are still popular.

For instance, the song Danno Buddunge (About the Buddha) sung by W D Ameradeva is one such song which epitomises the quintessential characteristics of drama song. Though it is of little literary value, the combination of lyrics with music produces the intended effect on the listeners. However, the importance of Nurthi Gee lies not in their literary or artistic value but in its place in Sinhalese song as the precursor to the modern Sinhala song.

W A Abeysinghe stressed on literary value of the songs. For instance, he pointed out those songs such as Danno Buddunge remains popular not purely on account of its literary value but on the overall effect it generates. He pointed out that the lasting value of a song lies in the rich literary value of the lyrics and not merely on account of its ability to please the audience.

Art song

The birth of modern art song marks a seminal trajectory in the evolution of song as a distinct art form. It primarily rejected two popular notions in the mid 16th century polyphony, more than one melody is played or sung simultaneously. Firstly, it was believed that a given piece of vocal music could be played at different times in any number of alternative ways (Solo, ensemble or instrumental) and secondly the idea that lyric is subordinate to music.

It was in the mid-16th century that a greater attention began to be paid on textual interpretation. Special rhythms were used to emphasise the emotionally significant texts in polyphonic compositions. Though the modern art song can be defined as "poem set to music", it strives to blend music and literature. It is based on four elements: poem, composer, singer and accompanist. So the art song is the end result of the combined effort of the four elements.

The composer of music uses his or her skills to embellish the lyric, sometimes realising potential interpretations in the text. In a well crafted art song, the composer creates a duet between the accompanist and the vocalist to paint a picture that the lyricist has envisioned.

The performance of art song breathes life to the text through the complementary and well coordinated partnership among the four elements. The 17th century art song shows, among other things, the sensitivity of the composer to the individual words, to the prosody and the overall character of the text.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the singer, primarily, serve as the prime interpreter of the text. It was during the 19th century that art song reached its climax in expression and appreciation. Starting with Schubert, the leading Romantic songwriters learned to exploit the device of varying a strophic melody. The composer would use a basic musical framework for each stanza but change voice and accompaniment details to suit the progressing text. This concept eventually evolved into through-composed songs with music well integrated into the text.

Evolution of Sinhalese art song

Sri Lanka has a long history of art song. However, it was Cumaratunga Munidasa. The next phase of the evolution of art song was marked by the lyricists like Chandrarathne Manawasinghe, Madawala S Ratnayake, Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha. The lyrics produced in the era were prominent for the diverse experiments that the poet or lyricist carried out in writing the songs. For instance, in Ananda Samarakoon's songs such as Punchi Suda, Sumano..Sumano , the lyricist has used of dialogue form effectively.

It was the Radio Ceylon or now the SLBC which promoted art song through its popular programmes such as Maduvanthi and song's drama such as Manohari. Mahagamasekara's programme 'Maduvanthi "with W D Ameradeva led to fruitful outcomes in the Sinhalese arts song.

In the programme, experiments both in music and the structure of song marked an important phase in the evolution of Sinhalese art song.

For instance, W D Ameradeva did a number of experiments with tune motifs from folk poem while Mahagamasekara experimented with the structure of the song.

It is obvious that a song will stand the test of the time, only if it contains philosophical thoughts which are universal.

It is this property which has made some of the songs immortal and still popular. For instance, songs such as Irahada Payana Loke, Sannaliyane and Sandekaluvara Galahalenavita are still widely appreciated. Modern lyricists have experimented with the Sinhala song, embellishing it with layers of meanings. For instance, use of metaphor is one of the effective ways in which lyric is made meaningful and philosophical. Usually in Sinhalese songs metaphors are formed by fusing of nouns. For example, in his song Sanda Kaluvara gala halenna vita , metaphors have been formed by the fusion of noun and verb. Sanda Kaluvara gala halenna vita (gathering darkness) and Senehasa Dalvunu Nivasa Soya Emi (come in to the house lit up with warmth) are potent metaphors.

Although there are no specific set of rules as to how a novice should pen a song, it is imperative for a budding lyricist to conduct a self-study on the existing body of lyrics and the linguistic and literary strategies employed by veteran lyricists such as Mahagamasekara, Chandrarathne Manawasinghe and Madawala S Ratnayake.

The discourse on classic songs was of educational value to university students particularly in appreciating and assessing songs contributing to uplifting the public taste. The programme was coordinated by Wayamba-FLICT project coordinator Dhanesh Liyanage (Senior Lecturer, Department of Food Science and Technology, Faculty of Livestock, Fisheries and Nutrition). The programme was assisted by Wayamba University and FLICT (Facilitating Initiatives for Social Cohesion and Transformation). The initiative was facilitated by Dr. Wijaya Jayathilake, Program officer- Ms. Humira Musammil, frogram officer- Ms. Hasini Haputhanthri and Vice Chancellor- Prof. ANF Perera, Registrar EMG Ekanayake, Bursar U Dharmadhasa, Dean Faculty of Livestock, Fisheries and Nutrition Dr. KDRR Silva.

Performance artists and others included -Nissanka Diddeniya and Priyanwada Madubashini , Tabla and Maddalaya- Ranjith Wickramaratne, Senior Lecturer- University of Visual and Performing Arts of Sri Lanka. , Harmonium- Sithara Fonseka, , Sri Lanka and Critics Dr. W A Abeyesinghe (Famous lyricist, Attorney-at-Law, and council member of Wayamba University of Sri Lanka.

The programme was moderated by B P A Jayaweera (Senior Lecturer, Wayamba University of Sri Lanka).

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1 comment:

  1. Good article. This dialogue should continue --on paper or blog-- anywhere.