Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake on
It is difficult to believe that Mahagama Sekera has been dead for a full 28 years this January not only because his lyrics are still very much a part of the contemporary musical currency but also because he appears to be very much a part of the contemporary consciousness. True that he died in the seventh decade of the last century before the twin waves of consumerism and vulgar popular culture could engulf and nearly knock the country off its feet but otherwise the issues he grappled with as a writer and poet such as tradition and modernity are still central issues of our times investing his work with a continuing significance.Mahagama Sekera was in many ways an exemplar of the resurgent post-Independence Sri Lanka. The son of a peasant family he yet lived in a village in the Gampaha district which was close enough to the metropolis of Colombo to make it possible for the modern ways to breach the old ramparts of tradition in a caste-ridden semi-feudal agricultural milieu. The feel of a young man growing up in such a milieu is captured best not so much in any of Sekera’s works but in ‘Aprasanna Kathvak’ one of the early novels of Sekera’s schoolmate and fellow villager K. Jayatilleke. Dominant among these emotions is the hunger to learn English which was then yet to be dubbed the ‘Kaduwa’ and the accompanying sense of inferiority which the inability to master swordsmanship induces in the young mind.
The dilemma of the educated young against such a back cloth is captured vividly in Sekera’s ‘Thunman Handiya’ where the young man standing at the three-forked junction of the title is offered three choices. Like any young man faced with such a choice Sekera chose to go to Colombo but he was fortunate that unlike many writers of his generation he did not have to forsake his roots in the process. Till the last he lived in the village although his civic being was in the Big City and it is these village roots which give their peculiar resonance to so many of his lyrics sung hauntingly by maestro Amaradeva.
Sekera started life as an artist and although in his later paintings and book covers he tended towards modern art he got a thorough grounding in the forms and techniques of formal art at the Government School of Fine Arts of which he later became the Principal. Thus at a young age he was exposed to new ways of looking at the world and perceiving reality which combined with the folk culture of his inheritance in a typical village milieu gave its particular strength to his world view.
From art Sekera progressed to poetry and his early poems are of an experimental nature.
He combined his art and his poetry and experimented with typography in an Ezra Pound-like manner but in his later works he returned to a more formal mode and wrote several long poems such as ‘Rajatilleke, ‘Lionel Saha Priyantha’ and ‘Nomiyemi.’ As a lyric writer and programme producer at Radio Ceylon and later the SLBC Sekera was in the vanguard which formed the dominant musical taste of his time. This was the time when as Sarath Amunugama has claimed in his recent book ‘Maname Mathakvi’ M.J. Perera as the Director General of Radio Ceylon saw as his mission the forming of good taste among radio listeners and lyric writers such as Sekera and Madawala S. Ratnayake, both of them Radio Ceylon employees, joined slightly later by Dalton de Alwis and musicians such as Amaradeva were given every encouragement by Directors General such as Perera and S.B. Senanayake to produce quality Sinhala light music.
As a lyric writer Sekera developed the tradition formed by lyricists such as Ananda Samarakoon and Sri Chandraratne Manawasinghe and drew upon the language of the folk to shape a modern lyrical diction which would find a resonance in the Sinhala soul. Gunadasa Amarasekera (whose term ‘Apey Hada Bas’a or ‘The Language of Our Heart’ to denote this has now become part of the vocabulary of our times) has called Sekera a minor poet but yet there is no doubt that Sekera was instrumental in developing this modern lyrical diction although it has been much abused in recent times by half-baked lyric writers and advertising copy writers in their bid to rouse paltry emotions.
Although most of his lyrics are steeped in the folk idiom Sekera in his poetry sought to grapple with the problem of forging a modern Sinhala poetic diction. As Monica Ruvanpathirana has pointed out it was Sekera and Wimal Dissanayake in the 1960s who acted as the bridgehead between the poetry of G.B. Senanayake, Gunadasa Amarasekera and Siri Gunasinghe and the 1970’s poetry of Ruvanpathirana herself, Parakrama Kodituwakku and Biddhadasa Galappathy. Sekera drew not merely on the folk idiom but also contemporary urban usage to forge an evocative poetic diction which would be able to articulate contemporary urban experiences. His long poem ‘Rajatilleke, Lionel saha Priyantha’ written in the late 1960s is a major effort on the part of the poet to capture the totality of the Sri Lankan experience of the time.
In this largely neglected and under-rated poem Sekera offers through the three eponymous characters a slice of contemporary life. Muhandiram Rajatilleke stands for the old order which has inevitably to pass into oblivion. Patriarchal and over-powering in his ways he stands for the oppressive feudal order in a Siyane Korale Village. There is a hint that Lionel is his illegitimate son but Lionel stands for much of the values which the poet himself upholds.
Coming to Colombo he is excited by the new things he sees and discovers through reading English literature. Sekera brings the city powerfully to life in both its seemly and sleazy aspects. There is the sense of a Brave New World unfolding. In priyantha we see the potential of the yet to be discovered future typified most vividly by the moon landing which had just occurred at the time. Although Sekera died before the national Question could explode in all its fratricidal fury he sees uncannily the need for communal solidarity in the closing stages of the poem. What is remarkable about Mahagama Sekera’s short life is the clarity of his vision and the modern approach he brought to bear in his works. Those who know him mainly as a lyric writer drawing heavily on the language and experiences of folk culture might be amazed at the modernity of his world outlook as sketched out above. He is no rustic villager rejoicing in the bucolic ways of the peasant. He sees the need for modernisation, for adopting and adapting to new ways but not at any cost. There have to be rural electricity schemes but what is decent and wholesome in the traditional way of life has also to be preserved and advanced through new knowledge and new ways of thinking.
Mahagama Sekera was in many ways an inspirational figure who played a catalytic role in several areas of the arts. As a poet he was pre-occupied with the challenge of articulating modern experiences in a suitable poetic diction. As a lyric writer he touched our collective unconscious with memorable lines. As an artist he brought new dimensions to the Sinhala book cover. Although steeped in the ways and the language of the village there was nothing mawkishly sentimental in his attitude. He saw the need for changes in the village and society but in a socially desirable direction. Bi-lingual yet he could speak to the Sinhala heart. Although intellectually supple he was no arm-chair theorist or ivory tower egg head. Clad in trousers and bush shirt and with his always tousled head of hair he was a very earthy and lovable man and an iconic figure of our times whose early death left a nation prostrate at the beginning of a year 28 years ago.