“Ayi Ayi Yoo,” wails Sunil and the entire room trembles into a melancholic silence allowing his piercingly sharp, hauntingly beautiful voice to do its magic. His voice can be best described as the musical equivalent of a cold, gloomy April night; the kind of voice that is ideal for ‘Pasan’ – a type of elegy-like hymns sung during Lent.

Believed to have derived from the word ‘passion’ which refers to Jesus Christ’s suffering and death, Pasan are usually sung to remember, recollect and to repent for sins, says Sunil Fernando.
Sunil among other things is someone whose passion is to conserve Pasan rather than see it as a dying art. He lives in Duwa in Negombo.

Sunil has been singing Pasan ever since he
can remember.

According to him, Pasan is a type of folk-inspired hymns that are sung specifically during the lent season. Duwa is popular for these recitals as the majority of the village is Catholic, devoted
ones at that.

“There are three types of such Lenten hymns – Pasan, Lathoni and Deshana,” Sunil says. While Pasan and Lathoni are both in verse, hence sung, Deshana which translates to English as ‘sermons’ are recited or read and reflected upon.

“Our parents used to gather at the church and sing those days. Although now a Pasan session won’t go on for anything more than an hour or one and a half tops, those days we used to sing through the night taking only short breaks in between,” Sunil recalled.

He said that now there are Pasan sessions only during Fridays and the seniors in the church like himself try to get as many youth as possible involved in both organizing and singing. Father of two, Sunil is a retired fisherman and one of his daughters is a nun.

“There is literature to prove that Pasan had been around for over 150 years now. Most of the Pasan we sing in Duwa have been written by Father Jacome Gonsalves, one of saint Joseph Vaz’s disciples from Goa and also by Father Marcelline Jayakody who had been the parish priest of Duwa in the late 1930s,” said Sunil.

Pasan sung in different parts of the country have different melodies. The ones that are sung in Duwa, according to Sunil, are inspired by folk music associated with the fisheries industry which is the livelihood of the majority of residents of the particular village while Wahakotte Pasan which are also known as Ath Akuru Pasan are recited to the tune of Goyam Kavi that are sung by farmers while working in the paddy fields. Wahakotte is an agricultural village in the diocese of Kandy. Pasan has an uncanny resemblance to Wessanthara Jathakaya recitals at Buddhist funerals. In fact, Wessanthara Jathakaya is recited at nights at funeral houses in Negombo.

Unlike regular hymns sung at church, typically, Pasan or Lathoni are not backed by a piano or any other musical instrument as they are supposed to project a sense of grief and melancholy that would move singers and listeners to reflect and repent meditatively for their sins while singing.

Sunil said that over the past years he has taken the initiative in conserving the art by travelling to every nook and corner of the country and would continue to do so as long as his health permits.

He recalls recording a cassette in 1997 titled ‘Duwe Iparani Pasan Gaayana’ (historical Pasan of Duwa) featuring celebrated songstress Nanda Malini as one of the greatest milestones of his journey.
“This is indeed a milestone and I consider it a distinct honour to have sung with her. We offered her a payment as a token of appreciation which she turned down and said ‘I should be thankful to you for the opportunity. It was nothing like anything I’ve sung before’,” said Sunil.

Sunil is optimistic that Pasan will live on taking into account the keen interest shown by the youth in the Duwa parish to both learn and sing them. He said that in this regard, the current parish priest of Duwa Fr. Shiran Dassa, who is a young energetic priest himself, is extending his fullest support.

Pics by Mayantha Perera