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Avurudu Kale and afterwards too

There’s reason to smile this
Avurudu Kale and afterwards too

What would happen after Lord Buddha’s parinibbana many are supposed to have wondered and the Enlightened One is supposed to have instructed the doubtful ones that all they need to know is resident in the dhamma and the vinaya rules. Doctrine and discipline ensures an afterlife of sorts for teacher one could therefore conclude.

The above was Sahan Ranwala’s response when I queried him about how the Ranwala Foundation came to terms with the tragic death of his father, the legendary Lionel Ranwala, on November 17, 2002. Sahan, who now manages the group, spoke at length about his father, what he stood for, what he built, what he bequeathed, the paths he blazed, the landmarks and the future. The nimiththa of course was the forthcoming concert ‘Me Avuduru Kaale’ produced by the group, which titles itself for this particular event as ‘Ranwala Udupila’ following the common division of the traditional village as udu and yati.

The first show of this new programme will be held on March 28, 2010 at the Dharmaraja College auditorium, Sahan said. ‘It is a new concert for the New Year, new songs, our songs for our New Year,’ he emphasized. ‘Me Avurudu Kaale’ is to be taken around the country but only during the Avurudu Season.

The songs and dances, lyrics and music, are all taken from the sirith associated with the Aluth Avuruddha. They depict the ‘ourness’ of the occasion, the vibrancy of the villager and also contain adaptations of folk songs. According to Sahan elements of the avurudu celebration such as the olinda keliya, onchila waram and some of the more popular avurudu games have been used in the overall choreographing and music arrangement.

Among the songs chosen for this concert will be one which Lionel Ranwala had recorded years ago, ‘kele paninne nae aye’, written by the main lyricist associated with this indefatigable explorer of the Sinhala folk song, Sisira Dissanayake.

We quickly moved to Lionel Ranwala and the work of the Foundation. It had to begin, paradoxically, with a death, that of Sahan’s father.

‘My father died 10 days before we were due to launch his 2nd compact disc, ‘Gama Avulangngang’ (I shall burn/incite the village). After the funeral, we, his students, got together and asked ourselves a question: ‘what now?’ And we drew inspiration from what the Buddha said. A man can be found in his work, his teachings, his philosophy and if there is discipline, commitment and integrity to the core teachings, then he lives on. That is what we concluded and that’s what we drew inspiration from.’

Lionel Ranwala had spent a lifetime studying folk songs and is undoubtedly one of just a handful of individuals who can claim to have a nuanced understanding of the tradition, its many forms, social and cultural functions and potential for development. For him it was about jaathikathwaya (incompletely translated – too often – as ‘nationalism’) and identity.

‘He wanted to keep it alive not out of a sense of nostalgia but practical utility. He recognized the importance of discovering who we are and understood the folk tradition as a huge reservoir that can give strength and inspiration so necessary in facing and overcoming various kinds of challenges that we as a nation have to face. He set out to discover if indeed there was a music tradition that deserves the tag "national". What he discovered, he taught his students, he presented to the general public.’

This is how, Sahan observed, Lionel Ranwala put together a concert called ‘Ahase innavalu’ (‘Resident in the sky, apparently’) in 1999. Gama Avulangngang was an expanded version, Sahan explained.

‘Some people misread my father as someone who had a narrow understanding of "tradition". That’s far from the truth. He was not averse to experimentation. He was not averse to using non-traditional material including musical instruments. He once observed that there is nothing wrong in using cement from any part of the world if it is used to build the Dalada Maligawa. What is important is not the material we use but what we are going to build or create.

‘The main thing was that there should be fidelity to the fundamentals. He used to say that that if the body doesn’t almost involuntarily sway to the rhythms of a low-country drum, that person should get his/her blood checked. The argument is that there is something intrinsically ours in our folk song, something that we immediately recognize or feel is a part of us even if we are hearing it for the first time.’

Sahan related how surprised he was at the huge crowd that came to see the first show, one year after Lionel Ranwala’s death. It was at the John De Silva.

‘We invited Uruwarige Wanniyalaetto to be the Chief Guest because we felt he was someone who understood what tradition meant and what identity meant and how important these were to sustain a society. My father invited Aratu Medille Mudiyansekage Ukku Banda as the Chief Guest for Ahase Innavalu, because he was an ordinary villager in Monaragala who had helped my father in his research. It was very well received. I was told that a similar crowd had not been seen in 17 years, i.e. when "Sergeant Nallathamby" was shown.

After Gama Avulangngang, the Ranwala Foundation came up with Yuddetath Avith (‘We have declared war also’) in 2007. They called themselves ‘Ranwala Balakaya’ then. Sahan explained the logic of names and programme thus:

‘Thaththa always knew and always said that the real struggle was not against the LTTE, but the cultural invader and recognized that part of the struggle was with self, with out "within", because there is a lot of the enemy that we have internalized. He knew that there was a cultural struggle that we had to engage in.’

Lionel Ranwala did not hate that which was not ‘traditional’. Neither did he fear the ‘foreign’. He was proud of who he was and where he came from. He had a good sense of where he wanted to go and what he should do. Sahan and his group are similarly fortified; with pride and humility, discipline and integrity.

‘We have a rich and diverse tradition. Some people think new music genres are tainting our traditional forms. The truth is that much of that which we call "new" we always had. Take for instance the well known children’s game-song, athuru mithuru dambadiva thuru raja kapuru settiya. That’s rap, isn’t it? There’s nothing to be scared of as long as we have a good sense of what kind of earth we are standing on.’

A few weeks ago I thought of Lionel Ranwala and asked myself, ‘a dying phenomenon?’ Then I went to see a concert organized by Sahan and his team of instructors. It was a term-end kind of event in which all students attending a weekly workshop at the Jana Kala Kendraya, Battaramulla, take part. It was called ‘Podi Ayata Jana Gee’. The Elphinstone was packed. What the children did was fascinating. I am not well versed in jana gee but I was tapping to the rhythm of the drums, the songs. I think I don’t need to take a blood test and indeed I think most people in this country don’t need such tests either. I confess that most of the songs/melodies were unfamiliar. They were not ‘foreign’ though. Lionel Ranwala had a point, I feel. Sahan is reiterating it. Things are good. I am going to smile this Avurudu Kaale as I usually do, but for the additional reason: we are not down and we are not out, not even after 500 years of colonialism and it abiding power and subjugating manifestations even after 60 years of ‘independence’.
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