Premasiri Khemadasa (1937 – 2008) was a Sri Lankan composer of contemporary classical music. He was the youngest child out of 13 born to Alan and Simon Perera in Wadduwa, on the coast 20 miles south of Colombo, the capital of Ceylon, while it was still under the British Empire. A self-taught musician, he revolutionized the soundscape of Sri Lanka, which at the time was dominated by south Indian music. His work introduced harmony, and created a fusion of Sri Lankan folk elements, Indian ragas, and Western classical forms. In a career that spanned over fifty years, he composed operas, symphonies, experimental choral works and scored music for over 150 films. He is considered the maestro of Sri Lanka’s avant-garde culture.
Early Life and education
The thirteenth child of a poor village family is often overlooked, but Khemadasa was no ordinary thirteenth child. He started making himself known at age 6, when he walked many miles alone to enroll himself in school; all the other children came with their parents. Not Khemadasa, for his parents did not support his desire for an education they could not afford.
From the Perera’s small sliver of land, in Talpitiya, Wadduwa, it is still possible to hear and smell the sea. Khemadasa always loved eating fish, meeting with fishermen and hearing about their lives at sea. He never lost his roots.
When he was 7, Khemadasa lost his father, Simon. He was raised in poverty, surviving thanks to the hard work and determination of his single mother and siblings. Alan Perera sold milk from her cow to other villagers, and his older sisters wove mats and baskets for small change. Khemadasa started playing the flute, the cheapest instrument you could buy in Ceylon. No one knows where this fascination came from, since the Perera family had never had musical heritage.Trying to steer him towards ‘more productive’ pursuits, his elder siblings often burned his flutes.
As an old man, Khemadasa always located the turning point of his life in the sixth grade. He was then studying at St. Johns College, Panadura, where he was one of the top students. When he was not awarded the double promotion he deserved, which would have allowed him to skip a grade, he went to the school’s principal and demanded to know why. Khemadasa was whipped for impertinence, as the award had been reserved for a rich politician’s son. It was at that moment he lost interest in his studies, and really started playing the flute seriously.
Once again his family refused to support him, and he spent a lot of time out of the house, playing down by the ocean, where he would be left alone. He loved playing the flute on the train from Panadura to Colombo, bringing joy to the harbor workers on the train, and making small change. Sometimes the ticket inspectors would come onto the train and fine people without tickets. Once, Khemadasa could not afford to buy a ticket; he vividly remembered how the workers concealed him from the fare inspectors, surrounding him with their dirty sarongs so he could not be seen. Khemadasa always recalled this incident with great affection and firmly believed in the sensibility of the common man. He held that all people were deep, not only the educated elite.
Because the Perera land was adjacent to a small Buddhist temple, Khemadasa’s family considered sending him to the monks for ordination, a common choice for poor families with many children. He refused, and anyone who knew his hard-headedness and sensuality later in life would be amazed to think of Khemadasa as a monk. However, when one speaks with teachers and fellow students from his childhood, they remember him as timid.
Whatever childhood timidity Khemadasa had disappeared by the sixth grade, with his angry disappointment at the whipping delivered at the hands of the unjust principal in Panadura. This anger, together with the anger the young boy must have felt at being bullied by his siblings, who burnt the flutes he loved, built up over the years into the towering willpower and temperamental ferocity of Khemadasa, a man who refused to bow before anyone. Imagine how hard it must have been to overcome so much and to build up so much beauty and delicacy in music from almost nothing. Khemadasa never had any serious musical or compositional training; he was a truly self-made man. Khemadasa’s life long drive to create is believed to have been ignited by a deep compassion for his mother; seeing how she was treated as a woman, and later as a impoverished window, greatly influenced his sensibilities and view of the world. Khemadasa spoke of her with great affection till the end of his own life.
Nearly all music broadcast on Ceylon radio in the 1930s and ‘40s was Hindustani film music from India, but Khemadasa was also exposed to Buddhist chanting and drumming from the temple beside his home. Thalpitiya, like other coastal villages, was religiously diverse, so he also heard Christian hymns and Christmas carols, chanting from Tamil Hindu temples, and down the coast in Galle, the Muslim call to prayer from the large mosque there.
Khemadasa’s most important decision as a young man came in 1954, when he had to choose between continuing his education or taking up a career in music. His final examination in high school was the same day as a prized audition slot for the SLBC (Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation) in Colombo. There wasn’t time for both. He chose to take the exam, but while sitting there he became frustrated and started humming a tune. The angry supervisor rushed to silence him and Khemadasa abandoned his exam papers, tucked his flute into his pocket, rushed out of the exam hall, and jumped the school wall. He barely caught the train to Colombo, and made his audition at the SLBC. Though he chose music over formal education, in 2002, Khemdasa would be awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Ruhana.
During the 1950s, Khemadasa played the flute and accordion as a part-time musician at the SLBC. He also started using the harmonium in his private time to work up the melodies for his earliest serious compositions. By about 1955, Khemadasa had become acquainted with all the instruments in a small orchestra, either by playing them himself, or by listening to them at the SLBC. He often spent time at the radio’s library, listening to new music. Through this, he became exposed to the Western classical music which would later influence his compositions.
Disappointed with the leading music masters of the late fifties in Colombo, Khemadasa set up his own music school. Founded on January 3, 1959, it was called Sangeetha Manjariya, and was beside the noisy railway station in Maradana. Life was so tough then that Khemadasa started other businesses just below the music school to raise cash to support his music. First he started a barber shop, but his only customers in the rough neighborhood of Maradana were poor men who came to get their armpits shaved for one penny each. Soon his barbers ganged up on him, stole the equipment, and ran off. He then started to supply lunches to office workers, but this too ended in a fiasco.
Working late nights to keep one step ahead of his music students, Khemadasa often mastered the instruments he was teaching at the same time as his students. His school, though barely making money, quickly became a cozy bohemian hangout for leading artists and young politicians.
Khemadasa’s 1960 opera Kala Mal was the first in Sri Lankan history, and was so experimental that he could find no financial backers. He borrowed money from money lenders to stage his early works. One day an insistent money lender forced his way into Manjariya to collect his cash, and Khemadasa, who was broke then, rushed out to his balcony and threatened to jump off and commit suicide. He was held back by an artist friend. Shocked, the money lender vowed never to come back to collect his debt and wished Khemadasa good luck with his music.
Bari Sil, his second opera, was plagued by rain, and therefore poor attendance; usually, the orchestra members outnumbered the viewers. Then, one day, Khemadasa’s luck changed. Another outdoor performance of Bari Sil was scheduled, and, as always, the sky started darkening hours before. Khemadasa made a plea to all the gods in the heavens to stop the rain and show him that his musical vocation was a worthy cause. All of Colombo was pounded by rain that day – except for the Vihara Maha Devi Park, where his opera was shown. This dry performance also brought Khemadasa his first contacts in the Sri Lankan film industry, through screenwriter Dharmasri Kaldera, who introduced him to film director Sirisena Wimalaweera, from whom he received his first film commission.
Film / theatre/ Telefilm Music
Sri Lankan film music in the 1950s and ‘60s was dominated by Indians. The musical style was closely modeled on Hindi films; the music was usually recorded in India, and often Indian composers were used. Premasiri Khemadasa was the pioneer of a new style of film music for Sri Lanka, based on folk melodies and his own invention. He was able to create film songs that became huge hits on the radio. Critics were surprised and impressed by how totally he had rejected the Hindi film music model. His music emphasized the core themes of each film and became as important as the visuals in creating emotional depth.
His first big success came with K.A.W. Perera’s film, Sanasuma Kothanada, which premiered on February 17, 1966. The film, considered a turning point in Sri Lankan cinematic music, won him awards and stellar reviews in major newspapers by distinguished critics. The same day the film premiered, Khemadasa married Soma Latha, who remained his wife until his death. Their two daughters, Anupa and Gayathri, were born in 1969 and 1976.
By the late 1960s, Khemadasa was in huge demand to compose film music. Some of his most brilliant works were done with director Lester James Peiris in his two internationally-acclaimed films, Golu Hadawatha and Nidhanaya. The latter, included among the top 100 films of the century by the Cinémathèque Française, also won Lester a Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival. Sri Lankans still easily recognize the music from these films, produced in the 1970s. Throughout his 50 year career, Khemadasa composed music for over 150 films. He also composed music for an award winning BBC documentary and dozens of telefilms, including the haunting music scores of Alle Langa Walawwa and Dandubasnamanaya.
Khemadasa also composed music for dozens of theatre productions and telefilms , including adaptations of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Good Woman Of Szechuan, the musical Fiddler On the Roof, Marat/Sade, and Angara Ganga Gala Basee, which won him major national awards.
Although Khemadasa soon came to dominate Sri Lankan film music, he had many troubles getting his more “serious” music recognized by the Sri Lankan music establishment, the pandits and the professors. He fought many verbal battles with them in the media, as they attacked him for not following the rules of “Oriental Music,” and he attacked them for being provincial idiots who understood nothing about the larger musical world and about true creativity. His mantra was “more music, fewer myths.” He spoke often, at the end of his life, about how all these supposed leaders of Sri Lankan music were just “bluffing.” Khemadasa always said the “people” loved him and his music, and it was their support which kept him going.
As a man of the people, Khemadasa flirted with leftist politics throughout his life, partially because his older brothers joined the Lanka Sama Samaja Party and held meetings at their family home, partially because of his anger at being mistreated by the local elites as a boy. One of his early operas, Rathu Mal, was commissioned by the party. On May 1, 1966, Khemadasa conducted this opera in Beijing in front of Mao Zedong.
In the same year, he composed the first symphony written by a Sri Lankan, Sinhala New Year, a minimalist piece with fascinating harmonies which blended together Western classical, Indian, and Sri Lankan instruments, including the bamboo flute, rabana, and sitar. Admired by Western music lovers in Colombo, the symphony was rejected by leading oriental music pandits, such as the dean of the College for Aesthetic Studies in Colombo, who mocked Khemadasa’s conducting, writing, “Why is he up there? He doesn’t even have an instrument.”
During the early 1970s, Khemadasa went to the USSR for an international composers’ conference, where he performed Sinhala New Year. He came in contact with many new musical trends which influenced his future works, especially his first choral work, She, a haunting lyrical piece about womanhood. In 1978, he wrote his last symphony, Mother of My Time, a tribute to his mother Alan, who was then 93. His program notes at that time read: “A mother lives through her son’s life like a fire. Her love, compassion, and expectations are trapped in the flow of his life. May you, my mother, live another ten years to see your dreams come true in me.” Unfortunately, Alan Perera died three days before the symphony premiered. Khemadasa conducted the symphony as his mother’s funeral pyre was still burning down to ashes.
His large-scale operas, such as Manasavila (1990), Doramandala (1995), and Agni (2007), have been some of the most commercially successful ventures in Sri Lankan culture. He also wrote many choral works including the widely performed cantata Pirinivan Mangalyaya (a requiem for the Budddha), Anduru Kalpaya, and Salalihini Kavya.
In 1992, Khemadasa established the The Khemadasa Foundation to foster the musical talents of low-income youths from underprivileged parts of the country. All training and courses given to these students is free of charge.
Since its inception, the foundation has trained hundreds of singers and musicians, who have performed major compositions in Sri Lanka and abroad. The opera Doramandala, which made 3.7 million rupees on opening night, the renowned Buddhist cantata Pirinivan Mangalyaya, and the operas Sonduru Varnadasai and Agni are a few of the acclaimed foundation productions. Many students of the Khemadasa Foundation have become veteran performers all across Sri Lanka.
Khemadasa was diagnosed with diabetes in his thirties, which caused gradual renal failure. In 2005, he underwent a kidney transplant. Going against the advice of medical specialists, he continued to work tirelessly after the transplant. He worked on several films during this period, including Lester James Peiris’ last film, Ammavaru, which was to be their final collaboration. He composed his last opera, Agni, in 2007, to critical acclaim. He passed away on 24th October 2008 after weeks of serious illness.
Upon his passing, the government of Sri Lanka announced a week of national mourning, and Khemadasa was given a state funeral. An iconoclast to the end, he refused to be honoured at the national art auditorium, the customary venue for the last rites of artists. He instead was cremated at Independence Square in Colombo, amidst family, friends, and thousands of fans and mourners.
Khemadasa’s influence on the soundscape of Sri Lanka has been profound.
In 2009, the road on which stands the Lionel Wendt, one of Sri Lanka’s most prestigious theatres, was renamed Premasiri Khemadasa Crescent.
In 2013 The Sri Lankan Postal Service created a postage stamp dedicated to Khemadasa.
The Khemadasa Foundation continues its work under the leadership of the Khemadasa family and the board.