The world’s first Buddhist Medium length narrative piece of music for voices with instrumental accompaniment
Dr. Premasiri Khemadasa, one of the pioneers of Sri Lankan music, is a great personality and a world-renowned music composer, known as “Khemadasa Master”. Jn fact, exploring the various styles of music around the world Khemadasa endeavored to develop a unique style of music. He combined Sinhala folk tunes, Hindustani music, Western music and many other streams of music in his compositions while adapting them to fit the contemporary music.
“Piriniwanmangallaya’’ also known as Piriniwan manchakaya, the world’s first Buddhist Cantata was influenced by the libretto from folk poems (accompanied by dancing forms practised in the low country region of Sri Lanka) and applied Sri Lankan folk melodies along with North Indian Classical music and certain elements from western music to depict the grieving sense of Lord Buddha’s “Death”.
It was one of the most revered and famous musical compositions of the local and foreign Buddhists in his musical career. In fact, the music is composed to reflect the identity of Sri Lankan music and was released in 1993 as a high-volume cantata using a wide range of local instruments and Sri Lankan voices .The presence of operatic and harmonic vocals in his music is explained by his vast knowledge of opera and harmony. In his lifetime he made many experiments with techniques of singing and playing, which include the use of asymmetric patterns of beats, revolutionary harmonies and novel techniques of playing musical instruments such as the sitar.
KHemadasa Master, has used both western and eastern musical instruments to emphasize the theme. The use of oriental instruments like play for funerals at Sri Lanka is a cultural interpretation and it is a good combination to emphasize the miserable feeling caused by Lord Buddha’s’ death. Similarly, he has played oriental flute and Sitar as interlude parts. Mixture of those instruments has been done exceedingly well.
Moreover, Kemadasa master composed the melody of funeral march by using Percussion instruments called Hewisi (Dawula, Thammattama and Horanewa) in performing the occasion of Lord Buddha’s death. Playing these percussion instruments is a tradition of ordinary local funerals. Moreover, where the vocalist is considered, singing Sri Lankan folk melodies according to western style has resulted in a strange impression and has created a certain amount of disharmony to the theme of the play. Additionally, the way in which ordinary people perceive the death of the Buddha.
Especially, grief associated with it, has not been adequately expressed, perhaps due to the use of six voice ranges as in the western Cantata form. However, According to Sri Lankan theorist Tissa Abeysekara, “the music and the language of Piriniwanmangallaya are not successfully combined together and this combination does not reflect the extreme sadness and the feeling of the ‘lack’ of Buddha after the parinirvaana” (Abeysekara, 2007:129).
Moreover, if he had used the melodic influences of the “Passion songs” (covering the Passion of Jesus, the events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus, and emphasising his suffering) or “Requiems” (In Catholic churches, “requiem” refers to a mass celebrated for the dead any piece of music composed or performed as a memorial to a dead person or a group of people. Requiem is a celebration for the repose of the souls of the dead.), this would have become an excellent work of music in the world.
Further, some Sri Lankan scholars of western music and Eastern music react positively to Khemadasa Masterhs Piriniwanmangallaya as a Cantata and they enjoy the novelty and modernity of music.
Moreover, this musical composition could have become a successful masterpiece if Khemadasa Master had wished to come up with a newly written poem that best affinities with the theme as well as his intentions. In fact, some of soprano singing parts are not suitable for this composition. Furthermore, it is filled with, harmony and slight canonical entries and some of them are indescribably complicated with toning of folk melodies. Besides, Sri Lankan folk melodies do have a limited notation system and it is rather difficult to develop that into a western Cantata style. Even though folk music is appropriate for the theme of Lord Buddha’s’ death, the use of certain elements such as singing styles, harmonic variations, voice ranges sometimes cannot be considered as suitable for this context.
However , I think, this great composition written by Premasiri Khemadasa, has been a great help in carrying forward the Sri Lankan identity, transcending the Western cantata model and adding a novel local twist to the special features of the folk and the soft language used in Sinhala classical music. And also, this composition will encourage further attempts on modern approaches in Sri Lankan contemporary music.
In a country littered with self-marketed cultural dilettantes and desperados, Premasiri Khemadasa stands out with his remarkable talent, uncompromising artistic integrity. [