Sketch by Sujeewa Chandana

What do Steve Jobs and Premasiri Khemadasa have in common? The song The Times They Are a-Changin’. Released in 1964 Britain, it was envisaged by Bob Dylan as an anthem of change, influenced by Irish and Scottish ballads. Steve Jobs recited the second verse of The Times They Are a-Changin’ at the unveiling of the first Macintosh computer, no doubt a milestone in the computer technology. Khemadasa set many milestones in the music industry. He took up opera at a time when it was considered ‘un Sri Lankan’. His daughter, Gayathri Khemadasa, recounted to Nation how her career was influenced by her father.

At 2 am, my sister Anupa and I would be awoken by the soulful tones of the Barrett and Robinson piano. Father had started composing as was his habit in those days. Very often, we would trot downstairs and listen to him forming ideas and themes for his latest project. He would play the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, et al on the record player and talk at length about the greats and how their use of musical language transcends the boundaries of cultural diversity and speaks to us and how he tried to use Sri Lankan roots and search the rhythms of the people to create a voice. His, was a universal voice that speaks the uncommon to the common, a voice that taps and touches the soul of the people who hear his music.

His path was an arduous one. Being the 13th child of a very underprivileged family, Premasiri Khemadasa was mostly self-taught and often reminded us that when his first symphony was performed, there were more people in the orchestra than in the audience. When he first performed the opera Manasavila people said that it was inappropriate in a Sri Lankan context and that opera was not Sri Lankan. Despite those criticisms, he went on to compose many more operatic works.

Gayathri Khemadasa
Gayathri Khemadasa

Now, it not so unusual for Sri Lankans to write operas. He always chose to challenge the existing norm and create something new, regardless of what his contemporaries said or did.  That is how a culture evolves anywhere around the world not only by creating a perfect copy of the past but also by creating your own artistic interpretation of the present. When he first started writing music, he was not given a choice but he forged ahead regardless to dust away the surface.

When I was 17, I was given a choice to go abroad and study whatever I wanted—a dream for most children. Not surprisingly, I chose music. I was sent to Prague to study piano and then music composition at the conservatory there. It was a great but also challenging road and one very different from my father’s. In post-communist Prague, the Golden city of Europe, there was a chamber music concert around almost every down town street corner, magnificent opera houses performing an opera almost each evening. A dream comes true indeed! The warm hue of my dream world lasted until I learned to speak the Czech language, which became a mixed blessing. One thing I soon realised was that people were not used to foreigners and I would hear racist remarks everywhere around me. On the streets, in the shops and even at school. The remarks not only directed at me but anybody coloured or different, occurred with disturbing regularity during my 15 years there.

For someone who had been brought up by parents who had spoken out and loud against inequality. My lengthy encounter with prejudice struck a chord and my work on the opera Phoolan Devi was a response to this. It depicted the harsh story of a woman who had to go through hell because she was poor, of low caste and bearing the social stigma of being a woman. My life in Prague was incomparable to her life and, on the contrary, I was blessed to study and live there and in Europe for most part of my young life. It was her relentless quest for justice and the fact that she fought to the bitter end of her short life to improve the lot of her kind was what inspired me the most.

A few years I ago, I returned to Sri Lanka and experienced a very different form of prejudice.

“What do you do?” people ask.

“I am a composer.” I reply.

Are you a singer? No, a composer. Can you sing us something? Can you sing us one of father’s songs?… Despite the fact that there are none too many female composers in the world, people usually at least get the concept that composing and female actually can go together. Along with my sister, Anupa as music director, I as composer, recently won the award for Best Original Score for Thanha Rathi Ranga at the TV Derana Film Awards and at the SIGNIS awards. It was the first time in Sri Lankan history that a woman has won such an accolade and the fact that it has seemingly gone unnoticed in the Sri Lankan press is indicative of how much more work needs to be done with regard to gender equality in this country.