Reflecting on Mahagama Sekara on his death anniversary

Uditha Devapriya
6 min readJan 14, 2023

Mahagama Sekara died on January 14, 1976. On January 15, 2023, at 6.30 pm, Bandula Nanayakkarawasam will be presenting the latest “Rae Ira Pana” show at the New-Fangled Auditorium of Holy Cross College, Gampaha. Featuring Sunil Edirisinghe, Uresha Ravihari, Shashika Nisansala, Rohana Siriwardena, Raveen Kanishka, and Sarath de Alwis, it will be dedicated to the memory of Sri Lanka’s foremost modern poet. The following is a partial review of Garrett Field’s book on Sri Lankan music in the early 20th century, Modernizing Composition: Sinhala Song, Poetry, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Sri Lanka (University of California Press, 2017), in particular its chapter on Sekara’s work.

In Modernizing Composition, Garrett Field devotes a whole chapter to Mahagama Sekara. The Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology/Musicology at Ohio University, Field charts Sekara’s career accurately and impressively. Field contends that Sekara’s career coincided with the peak in Sinhala nationalist sentiment that accompanied the 1956 elections and the enthronement of Sinhala as the official language. In 1960, Field notes, Sekara found employment at Radio Ceylon. Together with his collaborator, Amaradeva, he launched a music programme, Maduvanti.

By all accounts, Sekara was a complex, contradictory, and mercurial man. Field captures this aspect to his character well. Thus, in his first few years at Radio Ceylon, we are told that his poetry lacked social and political engagement. In 1958 he had published a translation of Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. Two years later he wrote “Sankalpana”, a poem Field contends “may have [been] derived… from passages in Kahlil Gibran’s The Voice of the Master.” Whether these attempts constituted a wilful disengagement from politics, indeed from society itself, is debatable. But Field makes a strong case for the view that it did: in addition to poetry, Sekara was also experimenting with folk poetry, and had become part of a group of writers “who championed a romantic nationalism.”

If you are Sri Lankan, can understand Sinhala, and, even if not fluent in it, can listen to and appreciate a Sinhala song, it would be difficult to escape the songs Sekara penned at this point in his career. Field’s study, impressive and scholarly as it is, focuses much less on those songs than it does on his poetry and theatrical work. Field argues, rather controversially no doubt, that Sekara’s awareness of the wider social and political implications of the 1956 elections, the upsurge in Sinhala nationalism, and the consequent marginalisation of ethnic minorities vis-à-vis Sinhala and Buddhism, turned him away from his earlier romantic views. To this end, the author quotes extensively from Sekara’s 1964 anthology, Maknisāda Yat. From his reading of the poems there, the author concludes that Sekara had begun to criticise Sinhala nationalism, transform into a humanist, and reflect critically on “the drawbacks of industrialisation.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to deconstruct Sekara on the basis of one anthology. To his credit, Field attempts no such thing: his intention is to show how these poems differ, in form and content, from his earlier attempts. Yet, even on that count, it is not really accurate to view these poems as a complete break from those attempts. Field depicts Sekara as turning away from the romantic nationalism of his early period. But 1964, the year of Maknisāda Yat’s publication, is around the same time Sekara penned a song that harkened back to that same early phase: “Me Sinhala Apage Ratayi” (written for Saravita and released in 1965).

Perhaps the most illuminating contrast between these two efforts — the one representing a break and the other a reaffirmation — lies in a passage in Maknisāda Yat that dwells on Siri Pada. Siri Pada, of course, is a contested site for members of several faiths: not just Buddhist and Hindu, but also Christian and Muslim. Its heritage is shared by these groups: Buddhists venerate the Buddha’s footprint, the Hindus believe it to be Shiva’s footprint, and Christians and Muslims consider it as the site of Paradise. Sekara depicts the Peak as a meeting place for these communities.

There will be paradise

On the summit of

Siripā kaňda [Sinhala]

Sivanoli pādam [Hindu]

Bābā ādamaleyi [Christian and Muslim]

By featuring the many names for the Peak, Sekara in effect cleanses the site of its exclusivist, Sinhala and Buddhist only association. Field sees this as a radical break from the way Sinhala songwriters and poets saw Siri Pada. It is, he observes, reasonable to conclude that “Sekera wanted the country to change in 1964 in regard to its escalating Sinhalese ethnic chauvinism.” In itself, there is nothing objectionable in such a reading of the poem. However, while agreeing with Field’s basic premise, I would point out that a year later, Sekara was writing the following lines.

සමනොළගිරි වළළු බිමේ…

සුදු සිරිපා පිපෙන හිමේ…

සම කරුණා ගුණ මහිමේ…

අප උපතින් ලද උරුමේ…

There is, of course, no fundamental difference between the Siri Pada Sekara perceives in Maknisāda Yat and the Siri Pada he perceives in “Me Sinhala Apage Ratayi.” Both affirm the “ourness” of this country: the Peak, he says, belongs to everyone. The difference lies in the context: while Maknisāda Yat celebrates the diversity of the nation, and locates Siri Pada accordingly, “Me Sinhala Apage Ratayi” does not pretend to be anything other than a celebration of the country’s Sinhala and Buddhist heritage. One can term this exclusivist, communalistic, or even chauvinist: such interpretations are essentially the privilege of those who make them. My point isn’t that they are right or wrong. My point is that, in the same period, and roughly the same year, Mahagama Sekara could author a poem which valorised diversity and then a song that directly contradicts such a vision.

Field’s post-mortem, in other words, is accurate only to an extent. This is not to say that Field is wrong, but that it is hard to fit Sekara into the proverbial round hole. There are many ways of interpreting him. It is to Field’s credit that he has, in his book — a welcome addition to a burgeoning academic interest in Sinhala music — unearthed an aspect to the man which, to the best of my knowledge, has escaped other scholars. Notwithstanding Field’s research, however, Sekara remains as ineffable as ever. Perhaps an encounter that Malinda Seneviratne, who translated Sekara’s magnum opus Prabuddha — a work conspicuous by its absence in Field’s chapter on the man — in 1997 would make this a little clearer. At the time Seneviratne was at the Peradeniya University, attending a “Sekara Samaruma” organised by a group calling itself the “Hanthane Nava Parapura.”

There was a young student belonging to the Young Socialists who claimed that Sekera’s sensibilities were eminently Marxian, while a Buddhist monk said that his poetry epitomised the Buddhist approach to life. A third said that he recommended Sekera’s Prabuddha to anyone who wanted an answer to the question “What is Jathika Chintanaya?” Finally, a Philosophy student observed that the length of the ideological spectrum from which these claims arrived itself points to the richness of Sekera’s work and reflects the fact that he touched so many people deeply. Sekera, as my father once said, like the sky, is not less private although he belongs to us all.

In other words, the sheer eclecticism of Mahagama Sekara makes it possible, and not entirely wrong, to call him many things at the same time: Marxian, Buddhist, nationalist, and, perhaps the most correct interpretation of them all, open to many interpretations. This is because Sekara forayed into many fields and activities. He was not merely a lyricist or a poet, not merely a playwright and an artist: he also authored a dissertation on the Sinhala language, which has, again to the best of my knowledge, not been translated. Most Sri Lankans would, of course, associate him with his songs, specifically those he wrote for, and sometimes with, W. D. Amaradeva. But it would be wrong to deconstruct him from these efforts alone, though they constitute the bulk of his work that has ensured posterity for him, in the eyes of Sri Lanka’s ever evolving, ever morphing listening public.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

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