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One Night with Brigit Bardot

-Premakeerthi-


by Helasingha Bandara

His editor once instructed Premakeerthi to compile factual information for an essay on Brigit Bardot, a famous French actress, the sex symbol of the Western cinema at the time, to feature in a newspaper the following day. Being limited by the lack of resources, at a time before the information revolution hit Sri Lanka, Premakeerthi spent a whole night researching and writing about the life and works of Brigit Bardot. When the article was finally ready, he entitled it “one night with Brigit Bardot”. This amazing little story is a prime example of Premakeerthi’s incomparable creativity that drew attention of both listeners and readers, generally thousands of fans.


Born Samaraweera Mudalige Don Premakeerthi de Alwis on 3 June 1947, commonly known as Premakeerthi de Alwis, was a Sri Lankan radio and television presenter, journalist, poet, painter and lyricist. With his assassination on 31 July 1989 at the tender age of 42, allegedly by the killers of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (the JVP), Sri Lanka lost one of the most versatile artistes that she has ever produced.

While looking at his unique abilities and the desire to be different from the norm, the main purpose of this article is to lament his death from a different perspective on his 31st death anniversary that falls on 31 July 2020.

Among the crowd gathered at the guillotining of Antonie Lavosier, the French chemist who discovered Oxygen, Carbon, Nitrogen and Silicon and was most noted for his discovery of the role Oxygen plays in combustion, one spectator who himself was a scientist was said to have cried. During the French revolution, thousands of aristocrats and government servants were executed by guillotine, some being accused of being party to the oppressive rule of the French monarchy and to the misuse of stolen public wealth for personal high life and others, unfortunately, for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. When the jubilant crowd questioned why he was crying he said, “it took only a second to cut that head but the majority morons do not realise that it takes a million years to grow one such as that. I am terribly sad”.

In a similar vain, I am writing this article with a heavy heart for the nation’s loss. Taking life cannot be justified by any means. Premakeerthi’smurderhowever, can only be described as a joy killing of some cowboys who did not have an iota of understanding of the value of the person they were murdering. To this day the nation is puzzled as to why Premakeerthi, a harmless artiste, not even a revolutionary writer but a sensitive lyricist was wasted by some marauding beasts.

A robber robs and kills another person hoping to live happily ever after with whatever he robbed from the dead person, be it money or jewellery. He does so without realising that he may be killed on the way home after the robbery, by a road accident or of a snake bite. The killers whoever they were, may have killed Premakeerthi, with the wishful thinking of living many years to come with power and wealth. Those who planned Premakeerthi’s assassination were soon dead or if still alive, are dying daily for their entire life without achieving the individual purposes of the killing because Premakeerthi lives on forever, not alone, but surrounded by the hearts of millions of Sri Lankans who belong to the present day and the yesteryear.

Premakeerthi has written over 4000 songs including songs for over 200 Sri Lankan films. Despite his versatility in other areas of the creative field, Premakeerthi’s legacy lives for his gigantic contribution to the Singhala music landscape. It is astonishing to hear his name in every television musical programme, even thirty years after his death. In every programme, the top notch songs they select to play have his name as the writer of the song. At the peak of his career as a song writer in the 70s and 80s he has written songs for all leading singers of the era. The unique difference in his song writing has been that the songs he wrote for the leading singers were the most popular by those singers. Some examples are: aadaraye ulpatha vu amma by Victor Rathnayaka, Samanalaya Mala ha lamaya se by Edward Jayakodi, mulu muhudama handai by Priya sooriyasena, etha dilisena hiru sandu rantharu by H.R. Jothipala, Kundumani by Freddie Silva, obe prema nagare by J.A. Milton Perera, eda re guwan thotupaledi maa by Milton Mallawaaracchci, Surangita Duka hithuna by Nanda Malani, Maa ekkala amanapawa wee dabara by Malani Bulathsinghala, ananthayata ma igilena by Srimathi Thilakarathna, lowa nisasala wee by Niranjala Sarojini, ran smanaliyo, punchi kekuliyo by Sunil Edirisingha, Bangali Walalu by Anjaline Gunathilaka and Thetiya medda kalu karapu by M.S. Fernando.

Premakeerthi grew up, schooled and lived in Colombo. He was known as a non-reader. His formal education was average. The million-dollar question is how he could visualise the rural setting, depict the culture and behaviours of rural people and use their language with such accuracy and poignancy. His close friends including Victor Rathnayaka and Saman Athauda Hetti believethat he was naturally gifted by a habit from a previous birth or his acute power of observation made him rich with ideas.
To finish my task today I would take a different example that is not usually drawn as a song to highlight his greatness as a lyricist.

Muthu Warusawata themilaa
Pini ihiruna wel eliye
Muthu sahalin dotha piru
Muthumenike, Muthumenike

This song in my view is incomparable with any other song written to romanticise the rural setting and existence. Rain is described in many different forms in the Singhala folklore. Maha Wessa (heavy rain) is a Morasoorana wessa in an area where there is Mora and Dombasooran wessa in another where there is no Mora but Domba. The same rain in a different part of the island is Naa kapana wessa and dharanipatha wessa elsewhere. The softer version of the rain is poda wessa, pinipoda wessa, siripoda wessa,malwarusawa but muthu warusawa is intriguing. Etymological origins aside, only a poet with piercing eyes and a vivid imagination seesa pearl rain. Just before the sky opens up for the so called maha wessa, for acouple of minutes,large momentary drops of water fall on the lotus leaves that cover the entire surface of the village tank and turn into smithereens makinga pearl rain. What a glorious sight!

Premakeerthi must have taken muthu sahal (pearl rice) from muthu samba that has replaced muthu maanikkam (muthu menik), a rare variety of rice grown in the dry zone of Sri Lanka for personalconsumption.

Although Punchi Menike, Podi menike, Lokumenike, Heen Menike, Sudu Menike, kalu Menike, Muthu Menike and Ran Menike are replaced with Ireshas, Ureshas, Nadeeshas, Yogishas, Gayashas etc. today, Muthumenike still epitomises the redda hette clad, unspoiled, dignified and naturally pretty village lassie.

Any youth from the village would have the irresistible urge to run back to his lover in the village immediately after hears this song. Colloquialism combined with alliteration heightens the melodious quality of the song. The seamless blend of Victor Rathnayaka’s gentle voice and his piercing ability to sing and Prem’s bliss fully breath-taking choice of imagery would make these songs continue to be played for generations to come.

The worthless existence of the killers of Premakeerthi would long be forgotten whilst Premakeerthi’s legacy lives on.

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