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Book Review: Khemadasa Biography

by Jayantha Anandappa

(June 01, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) Eric Iliyaparachchi’s Premasiri Khemadasa: Vicharathmaka Charithaapadanaya (A critical biography) is intended to be a comprehensive critical commentary of his life, works and his mission as a composer. To me the entire book sounded more like an unqualified homage than a critical study. The book has major deficiencies, factually incorrect information and serious flaws.

The writer’s approach in presenting the biography concurrently with a commentary on the composer’s works is a bold one. He has started well using a timeline as the basis, but soon forgets the chronology and jumps back and forth in discussing both the works and life often losing the plot. The tone is to glorify the composer- almost with blind adulation. The language style is tortuous and winding which makes reading a dull exercise. Quoting great western composers and their great works willy-nilly as if Khemadasa and his works are of the same ilk, is another major drawback of the book. The narrative reaches comic levels at times.

The following selected specific observations are made to illustrate the typical shortcomings of the book:


Biographical details do not refer to a source. The account particularly on early days loses complete credibility as it fails a simple litmus test- i.e.; writer’s failure to record Khemadasa’s long association with RA Chandrasena (Khemadasa admirers seem to have a problem here).

It is well known that Khemadasa while living always denied having studied music formally under RA Chandrasena. Sunil Ariyaratne in his series of books Gandarva Apadana had given objective evidence (including a copy of Khemadasa’s entry certificate and photographs) to show that Khemadasa had associated Chandrasena at least for 6 years from 1953 to 1958 studying under him. Khemadasa had just turned 16 when he joined the Chandrasena academy on 14 Feb 1953.

I can not accept how any one committed to writing a serious study on Khemadasa or his biography not being aware of this detail or ignoring it deliberately. EI had quoted from the other books of Ariyaratne’s Gandarva Apadana series, but fails to acknowledge this vital fact. Using a popular modern Sinhala slang, Eric had gone "shopping" (kade) for Khemadasa- big time indeed. Sadly, this sets the tone and voice of the entire book.

This very serious lapse erodes the credibility of all the consequent accounts of Khemadasa’s childhood and boyhood details which are recounted as if the writer had been an observer at the scene. Descriptions of how a small Khemadasa was tailing his mother with his flute or how as a boy Khemadasa travelled ticketless in crowded trains with the port labourers, reciting his flute to entertain them (who see the boy as belonging to the their own class) and eventually being helped out by a port labourer who buys him a platform ticket to exit the station- all sound fictional. "A good script for a Hindi movie" a friend of mine remarked wryly. I might add that some of those train trips surely must have been to Maradana to attend the school of music of Chandrasena! The writer seems to have tampered with the actual events.

Adulation reaches chronic proportions when the writer describes the famous kidney transplant Khemadasa had to undergo. Not content with glorifying Khemadasa the writer now turns to venerate his kidney. This is the translation from pages 298-9 a paragraph relating to the kidney transplant: "The kidney too is a colourful fascinating human organ that has its due place in the classical arts just as the human heart and the liver. During Shakespeare’s time, the kidney was considered to epitomize conscience and creativity. Cometh the Last Judgement Day! It is believed that God will resurrect all the dead and examine the kidneys to assess their good and evil deeds. If it is so then it can be concluded that the beautiful organ (kidney) that was slowly waning inside Khemadasa’s body was the one that contained the very conscience of the Sinhala music and its boundless creativity". Trust me I did not make up this.

Page 241 describes Khemadasa’s personal traits: "Khemadasa used to storm into the class rooms time and time again wrecking its atmosphere. Bernstein’s angry behaviour was a model for Khemadasa. On some days once the lecturers complete their lectures Khemadasa would come to the Foundation in the evenings and turn everything upside down"

This is not the place to discuss the prodigiously gifted Bernstein, his occasional temper tantrums or his notoriously complex personality. (Bernstein was mild at times, bisexual and suffered bouts of depression during later years). If Bernstein or anyone else has a bad temper then surely it is not a good personal attribute to emulate. There were also similar irrelevant frivolous references to Debussy, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Mahler and others and the writer Hemingway.


Khemadasa emerged as a force in 1966, as a composer and a music director for films with the film Senasuma Kothanada and "blossomed" after Golu Hadawatha (1968). Prior to his emergence, a fair bit of ground work had been already done by other composers both in the radio and in the film media in trying to establish a format or an idiom for the creative art song , film songs and even film theme music. EI had touched on the previous work done by others on art song without critiquing. There is some discussion on some of these composers (Samarakoon and to a lesser extent Sunil Santha) and the state of music in forties and fifties, but his comments are superficial, selective and in general seem to be driven by the motive to promote Khemadasa. The writer does not seem to have a proper grasp or an appreciation of how the art song (radio or gramophone) or the film songs or the film theme music evolved, or the challenges composers faced prior to Khemadasa or their contribution.

Khemadasa’s commendable later efforts (late seventies) in trying to take the art song beyond the framework of the sarala geeya, is hardly discussed. There is no proper evaluation of Khemadasa’s contribution to film theme music either, which was probably his forte.

Many musicologists consider his symphonic works such as Sinhala Aluth Avurudda and Maha Muhuda as too imitative and lack balance of instrumentation to be taken seriously. According to many, these works not seminal by any means also show Khemadasa’s limitations. That he did not pursue in this path further is natural. It is not logical to blame the lack of sponsorship or the disinterest of the art circles for Khemadasa’s retreat from these works (page 139). The writer is perhaps right in saying that his symphonic efforts can not be judged by using western standards or a western yardstick, but again the underlying motive is to glorify the musician than admitting the limitations.

Comments on tone poems and cantatas surmount to lavish praise than assessment of the musical merit. Khemadasa’s contributions to musical drama particularly his association with Sarathchandra has been discussed. The last 100 odd pages are devoted to record data and incidents relating to his operatic works, personnel who worked on his orchestra, stories about Khemadasa, the Khemadasa foundation, visit to Prague, the kidney transplant and his last days. These details are a mixed bag and are written in his usual stilted style making reading tedious and boring.

Had the writer separated the biography from the works and treated these as inter-related but discrete entities (as many biographers do) the book would have been at least less convoluted and sympathetic to the reader. Also his pretentious winding language style does not suit a critical essay.

The book badly needs a timeline of the composer, references and a list of Khemadasa’s works in chronological order and a critical discussion to illustrate the progressive evolution of Khemadasa’s musical odyssey as a composer. It appeared as if the book is written to support the notion that Khemadasa was entirely self-taught, self-made and as a composer he is on par with any great composer from Bach to Bartok- something that any average music lover will find it difficult to agree. For the book to be taken seriously it needs a thorough revision and an honest and objective approach from the writer.

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