Sawasangeetha – We Are Sri Lanka And We Stand Together by Oscar E V Fernando

Sawasangeetha – We Are Sri Lanka And We Stand Together by Oscar E V Fernando

Sawasangeetha (SS) was a musical program initiated by the then Chairman of Sri Lanka Foundation (SLF)-H W Jayewardene QC, in 1982 continuing monthly and on occasions bi-monthly-until mid-nineties.

Being a Queen’s Counsel with a penchant for many a British practice, Mr Jayewardene discussed with me what he described as ‘an initiative by SLF. I as Director Finance and a Board Member of this institute was very eager to find out more about the ‘Grand Initiative’ of this gentle giant, with whom I closely associated until his sudden demise whilst on an Indian tour.

He said he was keen on introducing to our country the concept of Promenade Concerts of England-these concerts being musical performances in the 18th and 19th century pleasure Gardens of London, where the audience would stroll about while listening to the music. Realizing that this style of open performance may not sit well with the mixed society in urban Colombo, he decided on venue performances.

As SLF a Statutory Board had sufficient finances funded by government and in addition especially funded by Fredrick Ebert Stiftung of West Germany and also other lavish international donors, I as Director Finance gladly agreed with Chairman to go ahead with SS.

HWJ then directed me to convene a meeting of the following-MJ Perera Chairman Rupavahini Corporation, Livy Wjemanne Chairman SLBC and Anton Wickramasingha Chairman Film Corporation.

At this meeting it was decided that the name of the program be-Sawasangeetha-drawing from Sawasa Sangeetha or evening concerts in promenade style.

There were objections to this name at this committee level perhaps spilling onto the oriental world of culture in our country-criticizing the derivative cultural roots of the word. It was then that HWJ pointed out a fad from the good old days of Ceylon that at the very inception of any venture worth its while, critics would trump up something to stall so as to maintain their status quo-a sad weakness that obviously contributed to stagnation in our country from the late forties-to even the present day!

This statement of HWJ, I found to be spot on in some situations faced by me when coordinating SS programs over the years. Let me relate just one striking episode from what I heard-observed and opined of the fate of Sihala music at its early stages in Ceylon.

To begin with, it had no encouragement from the then dominating foreign rulers and coincidentally the then available music enthusiasts crossed over to India to learn under the Carnatic Masters from which Music they earned their bread and butter over here. There were persons like Makuloluwa and some others who raised a voice for the Sinhala strain-but faded away due to the weight of the Carnatic strain.

Sarath Fernando formerly of SLBC made me aware of the availability of original Sinhala musical instruments in Ambalangoda. I was keen on pursuing it further when he suddenly crossed over to India due to, I believe, a terrorist threat.

I must mention Sunil Shanta’s productions of Olu Pipeela and Handa Pane which I feel were not well received by some music lovers in general pointing out an otherwise strain in his music. I totally fail to conclude any other than an indigenous strain in the two songs mentioned above and would urge readers to listen to these songs evoking lovely country music stains-if listened to un-prejudiced!

CDS Kulathileka and Fr Marceline Jayakody among many others-were strong proponents of original Sinhala music

With the renaissance of Sihala culture in mid-fifties many Sinhala songs were in circulation initially in a mixture of a Carnatic strain leading into melodious Sinhala strains and presently to beautiful and meaningful Sinhala melodies that gives your heart a gentle thump-revealing years of frustration thwarting the indigenous Sinhala musical strain!

The above theme and further amity among various communities in the country were reflected in SS programs ably assisted by eminent artists at the time such as-Pandit Amaradewa-PLA Somapala-Henry Jayasena-Dhamma Jagoda-Sarath Fernando-Shelton Premaratne-TM Jayaratne Neela wickramasingha-Premasiri Kemadasa-Ms Renganathan-now Kalasuri-Lalnath de silva and many others I may have missed. Jayasiri Alwis who was an assistant of mine scripted a well acclaimed Vesak program and the Chairman who was appreciative of it awarded a gift for his services.

All producers understood the theme behind SS was amity binding religion-ethnicity and nationality

Among the large-hearted comperes were-Ajita Kadirgama-Noeline Honter-Arun Dias Bandaranaike and many more that have slipped my mind-large hearted because they understood what SS stood for and therefore were not fussy about the paltry payment for services rendered as was the case of many producers.

Among the laudable thoughts of the program was the Scholarship Fund the SS Committee generated for scholarships to deserving and talented winners chosen by a committee served by eminent musicians of the caliber of Olga de Livera and Chitra Malalasekera, Mary Anne David among several others.

The renowned Tissa Abeysekera showed his keenness to animate songs of Sunil Shantha with   stage settings which he said would involve a sizable expenditure much more than the paltry amount that was paid as a routine measure to other producers of these programs-in spite of which many a creative and large-hearted producer volunteered to produce for SS.

I was convinced of the genuine proposal made by Tissa A and obtained the approval of HWJ to go ahead. However, Tissa insisted that I get Ms Sunil Shantha’s permission which was flatly refused by her. This I conveyed to HWJ who also flatly insisted that I halt all progress on the venture as he was not keen to litigate with her. My only regret from the Sawasangeetha’s past is that I could not pursue this program to its pleasurable end.

Other program highlights were-performances by artistes who later became well known such as-Harsha Makelanda-Ravibandu-and both Meneka Fonseka and Soudhari David both of whom were SS scholarship holders.

Performances were also done by the respective bands and drummers of Army-Navy and Police. A group from Batticalore claiming to be decedents of original Portuguese performed the well acclaimed program of Kaffirigha and a group from suburban Colombo entertained audiences with Wada Baila.

Paynter Home Nuwara Eliya did several Christmas program-with Mary Anne David contributing to other Christmas programs.

Many business organizations sponsored the programs and leading were-AMW-Tobacco Co-Lever Bros and Commercial Bank.

Dr Piyasoma Medis who was a lecturer at SLF and who coordinated the initial SS program had to assume duties as Director Sri Lanka Television Institute-also a project of SLF. Thereupon coordination of SS fell on my shoulders.

With the demise of Chairman HW Jayewardene QC who was the Power behind Sawasangeetha and as some would deem the power behind the throne too, the Sun Set principal began to descend on SS and soon darkened with my retirement in 1996.

On reminiscing I may mention that before he left on his tour to India, we were discussing his pet proposal to make Torrington Square the cultural hub with a construction of a Conservatoire for all streams of the Art-but it was never to happen-never in the traditions of Sri Lanka, and which happens to be the bane of this much battered country-although SS had no politics with its survival under Presidencies of HE JRJ-R Premadasa and Chandrika K-until my retirement in 1996.

My memory of four score and five served to write this piece and I hope readers would bear with me any misgivings.

Finally, I may mention that this piece was undertaken by me so that any power that be among the readers may take it up for the sake of the country’s progeny-in better climes.

Oscar E V Fernando

December 2021 

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