Music & The Army


At the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium on March 30, 2014, I was privileged to enjoy from a ringside seat, courtesy of the Sri Lanka Army, what proved to be by unanimous acclaim of connoisseurs, the best ever presentation of the best songs ever sung by Maestro Amaradeva during his musical life of nearly seven decades. My friend Lieutenant General Daya Ratnayake, Commander of the Army, was manifestly in command of the musical extravaganza which went like clockwork.

Speaking frankly, having grown up as a teenager in the post World War II period, desultory reading had made murderous armies anathema to me. I can still quote from memory what Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of the 20th century wrote in 1940 about what he called "the odious militia" : "The man who enjoys marching in line and file to the strains of music falls below my contempt; he received his great brain by a mistake - the spinal cord would have been amply sufficient."

Before Lieutenant General Daya Ratnayake declares war on me for endorsing Einstein’s opinion on the militia, I must hasten to point out that according to my dictionary, a militia is "an organization that operates like an army but whose members are not professional soldiers." Clearly, therefore, Einstein was lambasting not proper soldiers like Daya Ratnayake and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, but storm troopers like Adolf Hitler’s private army of "brownshirts". Remember, however, that soldiers are not professionally concerned with music; they are trained to make war which as Karl Von Clausewitz proclaimed, "is the continuation of politics by other means." Thus, when the Sri Lanka Army organizes the highest tribute ever paid in this country to Maestro Pandit Amaradeva, the phenomenon cries for an explanation.


According to Professor Sunil Ariyaratne, the acknowledged academic authority on modern Sinhala music, it is erroneous to identify Wannakuwattawaduge Don Amaradeva as "the greatest musician of Sri Lanka". Why? Because – so contends Prof. Ariyaratne - he happens to be the Creator of modern Sinhala music. By definition a creator defies comparison; he is absolutely unique. But let that go for now. In any case, when the army celebrates musician Amaradeva on a mega scale, the question that arises is whether the army is becoming maniacally musical or whether Sinhala music is becoming systematically militarized. Let’s confront the issue head- on. Is there a role at all for music in a army? The answer is a resounding yes. The power of music to bind members of a tribe has been known from ancient times. National anthems consciously seek to weld together the multifarious members of a nation. Traditionally, soldiers have marched to war to the beat of drums. The Sri Lanka army has a number of high class oriental and western bands. One gathers that it also has more than 500 first rate calypso bands.

In recent years, under the encouragement of Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, there has been an explosion of enthusiasm for music among members of our armed forces. Even a casual surfer of television cannot have failed to note the popularity of the Ranaviru Real Star Show in which singers from the military frequently earn encomiums from accomplished singers like Visharadha Edward Jayakody and Jackson Anthony. In the Amaradeva fiesta, Major Saliya Jayawardena and Corporal Lalith Wickramanayaka of the army rubbed shoulders with the best professional singers in our country. To return, however, to Pandit Amaradeva: his seminal role in uniting the nation to which we belong by the magic of his music has been palpable. The melody he created for Dalton Alwis’s lyric sasara wasana thuru and his mesmerizing performance of it makes him the noblest promoter of patriotism in the country. Indeed, the climax of the musical fiesta at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium was the full-throated performance of this song by Amaradeva on the stage supported by his inseparable life`s companion Wimala, with the participation among others of President Rajapaksa, the First Lady, the Defense Secretary, Army Commander Daya Ratnayake and his wife Damayanthi Ratnayake.


To talk of Damayanthi Ratnayaka, the President of the Army Seva Vanitha Unit (ASVU) is to focus on the fons et origo – the source and origin - of the enthralling musical experience we enjoyed at the Amaradeva musical felicitation. For it was the ASVU that meticulously planned and executed the musical programme which was dubbed as the Journey of Life and tastefully unraveled on the stage at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. That the ASVU should have inspired the Journey of Life musical programme makes biological sense. If you don’t like what you are now going to read, please don’t shoot me; the man to go for is Daya Ratnayake the Commander of the Army, who graciously invited me to the show and commanded me, oops, requested me, to write a criticism of it. When it comes to criticism I never forget what medical-doctor-turned- novelist, Somerset Maugham once said: "People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise." In this case, though, praise is easy to offer and is well deserved, but it must go to the really deserving. The most deserving of praise is surely the President of ASVU, Damayanthi Ratnayake.

At this point I must parade a little biology and social science. According to anthropologists, in the social evolution of human societies hunting and fighting and waging war have always been the business of males. They assert that "war is not a human action, but a male action; war is not a human problem, but a male problem". Since the Journey of Life is self-evidently about life and not about war, it is not surprising that the ASVU should have set its objectives. One was to pay homage to Amaradeva who created modern Sinhala music by magically fusing Sinhala folk music with the Indian raagadhari tradition and enriching the mixture with elements judiciously drawn from the musical forms of the east and west. Another objective was to generate funds to support the families of fallen and disabled war heroes who gave their lives and limbs in order than we might live in peace in an undivided country. The third objective was to promote the love of music in the nation. That the army should be concerned with this aspect of public life is perhaps justified by the Shakespearian judgment (in The Merchant of Venice) that, "The man that hath no music in himself/ Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds / Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils". Daya and Damayanthi Ratnayake know from personal experience the terrible consequences of treasons and stratagems that result in war. So with the aim of preventing war it is sensible of them to try and sensitize people to be "moved with concord of sweet sounds."

Greatest Show

Whatever the motivation might have been the musical extravaganza in honour of Amaradeva turned out to be perhaps the greatest musical show in the cultural history of our country. The best available talent in the country had been pressed into its service. Born in 1927, Amaradeva’s singing career began with two epoch-making songs in the film Asoka Mala released in 1947. In a recent musical programme on television celebrating Amaradeva, he declared that he felt as though he had been born again into the world of music. Perhaps in consonance with that expressed sentiment, the musical fiesta in his honour – the Journey of Life – had been built on the theme of his haunting song Sannaliyane, inspired by a famous lyric written by Sarojini Naidu. The whole show was pervaded through and through by the overwhelming influence of Amaradeva’s musical art.

Four formidable artistic personalities - Bandara Eheliyagoda (script writer), Dr. Rohana Weerasinghe (music director), Kalasuri Channna Wijewardena (balletic choreographer) and Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne (academic advisor) had been co-opted by the ASVU for the enterprise. Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe contributed the main military input to the project. Collectively they represent the gold standard of aesthetic excellence and executive prowess available in the country. Judiciously deploying Amaradeva’s songs, successive stages in the Journey of Life from birth through childhood, youth, maturity, death and subsequent rebirth were nostalgically recounted and exquisitely reproduced in balletic form on the stage. The fiesta began with a recorded rendition of Amaradeva’s song Sannaliyane which never fails to evoke the appropriate emotions. As noted already, the show ended with Amaradeva and VVIPs singing sasara wasana thuru live on stage.

Between the beginning and the end successively and smoothly about 25 musical gems immortalized by the golden voice of Amaradeva and embedded in the deepest recesses of the racial memory of the Sinhala people were memorably sung and their meaning enchantingly displayed visually on the stage for all to enjoy. The spectacle was awe inspiring and breathtaking. Listing the songs here will not make for meaningful reading. Suffice it to say that the songs were sung by a galaxy of our best singers including Nanada Malini, Sanath Nandasiri, Amarasiri Peiris, Edward Jayakody and the wonderful Dayasiri Jayasekara (Your suspicion is right; Dayasiri is the Wayamba Chief Minister. Every time I meet him I tell him that his role as Chief Minister can be adequately filled by almost any cheap politician; but his singing is unique and out of this world and that he should take aesthetics more seriously than politics).


The whole show was videoed for later broadcast to a wider audience. Last night I had a dream. I saw a DVD of the extravaganza expertly edited with a running commentary being made, resulting in an authoritative and artistic musical biography of the Creator of Sinhala Music. That was not the end of the dream. I also saw the DVD so produced becoming a million-copy-best-seller. A copy sold at Rs. 1,000/- gave the AVSU a huge bank balance to devote to the welfare of the families of our war heroes. In my dream I found myself shouting: "Go for it Madam Damayanthi, go for it".

Carlo Fonseka

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...