Pandit W. D. Amaradeva has left the stage. Reams have been written about the man, his music and his multifaceted talents since his demise. Yet, it is still worthwhile to pose the question: what makes him so special?
Some will argue that it is his music. Indeed, his songs, of which most are classics, have stood the test of time. Sri Lankans enjoy them more than fifty years after they were first heard. And there are so many of them. No other Sri Lankan singer has managed that many memorable melodies.
Then there is the music that he created for songs, movies and stage plays. In an era when borrowing from India was the norm he created a style of music that later acquired a distinctive Sri Lankan identity. That too is a legacy that has survived.
In his lifetime, Amaradeva won many accolades in recognition of his achievements. Universities lined up to award doctorates. Countries showered him with their national honours. That was formal acknowledgment that he was a prodigy, a genius, a man ahead of his time.
Yet, for most who knew and associated with the man, this was not what made him special. To them, W.D. Amaradeva was special because he was a special human being. In addition to a hauntingly harmonious voice, humility was his hallmark. That made him special.
He was humble to a fault. Whenever he was invited on stage by artistes who were generations younger than him, he would salute them, hands clasped, his slight frame bent in two as if they were the master and he was the novice. That made him special.
Amaradeva, as the doyen of Sri Lankan music, could have criticised anyone and anything. He chose not to. That was not because he did not care. He did, deeply. Yet, he went about correcting what he thought was wrong in his own way, through sheer hard work and through his own contributions. That made him special.
He was often in the spotlight in the media, mostly in television and to a lesser extent in newspapers. He had numerous avenues available to him to make his views known. Others, given a fraction of that opportunity, would have seized the chance to give vent to their feelings. Yet, Amaradeva never spoke a word in anger. That made him special.
Politicians loved Amaradeva. They would have sensed his value on their election stage. An endorsement from the maestro would have meant many more votes. As his wife Wimala revealed in an interview, some even offered him financial inducements. Simple and self-effacing though he was, Amaradeva was firm on this issue: if he had had political views he kept them to himself, he did not thrust them on the public. That made him special.
Amaradeva always had time for the beginners. He went out of his way to help them and encourage them and then, as they grew, he took pride in their achievements. That is why Nanda Malini, who had the benefit of his tutelage, was inconsolable at his funeral. As another singer commented after his demise, Amaradeva never saw himself as a veteran. That made him special.
Over the last two decades, the tentacles of commercialism captured the local music industry as well. Now, a star is born every minute. Their claim to fame is either winning a reality television contest or making a titillating music video. Amaradeva shunned commercialism. He made a few cassettes and compact discs but they were few and far between. His creed was music, not money. That made him special.
Even after his fame had spread far and wide, Amaradeva remained what he was – a humble villager, in word and in deed. He didn’t aspire to build a mansion, move into an exclusive neighbourhood and travel around in a limousine. Instead, he resided in a modest home in a suburb, living a humdrum existence, just like any other average Sri Lankan. That made him special.
So, the nation has lost someone special. Yes, his music was special but what made him really special was the man that he was because in many ways, he was a man like no other.