The passing of a legend: An artiste with a healing touch | Sunday Observer

The passing of a legend: An artiste with a healing touch

Prof. Carlo Fonseka

It was always a pleasure to listen to Prof. Carlo Fonseka. I made it a habit to attend book launches and other events graced by Prof. Carlo as one could learn a thing or two about art and literature simply by listening to his speeches, peppered with pearls of wisdom and nuggets of humour. That made it really easy to digest even the complex artistic issues that he was speaking about. It didn’t matter one bit if he was speaking in Sinhala or English - his pace of delivery, clarity, flow and audience engagement was the same. In fact, If I didn’t already know that he was a doctor and an academic, I would have thought of him only as an artiste – an exceptionally talented one at that.

This unique combination of artistic flair and medicinal experience naturally endeared him to the masses, who saw in him an art lover who also had a healing touch in more ways than one. After all, they say that artistic endeavours such as music, painting, writing, etc can keep many an ailment at bay.

This was perhaps one of the reasons for his longevity not only in terms of life but also in terms of sheer talent in a variety of fields. He was one who believed in the adage of adding life to his years, not just years to his life.

We have all heard the term “Jack of all trades”. If I can name one person who truly was one, it would be Prof. Carlo. From music to literature, he spanned every known art form and left a lasting legacy that will not easily fade away. Many newspaper columnists described him as a “polymath” upon his passing away and I completely agree.

If you have ever heard the song Rattaran Duwe (Cherished Daughter) – and you must have as it is played at almost every wedding – the depth of his emotional output becomes crystal clear. Performed by Nanda Malini and Rohana Weerasinghe, Rattaran Duwe penned by Prof. Carlo is a reflection of marriage from the viewpoint of the parents, who are usually left alone once the son or daughter flies away after tying the knot. This was the titular song of the 2006 album, which is still sought after by music lovers.

Ruduru Thuru Wadule (Treacherous Grove of Trees) is another of his famous creations, performed by Sunil Edirisinghe to music composed by maestro Rohana Weerasinghe. Incidentally, he wrote another song about a daughter, which is much less well-known, titled Chirani Duwe performed by Rohana Weerasinghe and Deepika Priyadarshini. Weerasinghe also has a solo performance in Aasiriwan Ayubowan, a birthday song written by Prof. Carlo. Koida Kiya Manda Kiya sung by Amarasiri Peiris is also among the less well known songs penned by Prof. Carlo, which is nevertheless hauntingly beautiful. Pandit Amaradeva leads a chorus to sing the opening song in one of the CDs- Sambuddha Raaja. Anton Charles and chorus sing Jesu Upan da. Although brought up as a Roman Catholic, Prof. Carlo had a deep knowledge of Buddhism. This dual affinity was reflected in the two popular songs.

The first album (1992) of songs written by him was Carlochitha Gee – which has two meanings in Sinhala, reflecting Prof. Carlo’s uncanny ability for creating puns in either language. Translated to Sinhala, in one sense it means songs written by Carlo and the other, it means “timely songs” as they were mostly about contemporary issues. Prof. Carlo being a rationalist to the core, the songs were grounded in reality.

A blurb on him in the booklet inserted in these albums gives an insight into his creative mood. It says: “When in a mood of devotion or love or joy or sadness or dejection or whatever, words expressive of the mood suggest themselves to him even as he breathes a melody into them. By dint of repetition he records them in his memory. Then over the next few days or weeks or more, he fine-tunes the melody and refines the lyric. Finally he sings the songs to a musician for orchestration.” After a bit of fine-tuning and a search for the singer who could best do justice to the song, it is released to the public.

Another little known fact is that his first music teacher was the inimitable Sunil Shantha, who carved a unique niche for himself in the Sinhala music arena. Prof. Carlo later described Sunil Shantha as a great influence on his literary career. He once told an interviewer that his songs were the product of confidence – derived from being a student of the Great Sunil Shantha and also ignorance – of the theoretical complexities of musical composition. For the listener however, these two factors have serendipitously come together to leave a fine bouquet of songs that would be appreciated for decades to come.

For an even better insight into his mind, one can always choose to read his treatise on a variety of issues – Essays of a Lifetime (2016). The subjects of the 34 essays relate to such diverse fields as science, religion, philosophy, politics, economics, art, travel and biography. The volume comprises selected writings and articles published between 1971 and 2014. This shows the vast extent of his knowledge on contemporary issues over more than four decades. Some of his views have indeed changed over the course of time, but that is true of art, culture and life itself.

Prof. Carlo loved every form of art from film to literature. In his capacity as the Chairman of the Arts Council for a brief period, he rendered a yeoman service to uplift art, artisans and artistes in all areas of the country. Since Prof. Carlo was equally at home in political circles, he managed to get Government backing for many arts projects. He was also an art critic and analyst who did not hesitate to call a spade a spade. However, his advice to writers and artistes was given in a friendly manner and those at the receiving end were glad to hear his opinions.

The demise of Prof. Carlo leaves a void that can hardly be filled, because art lovers and critics of his calibre are a rare breed. It was a great loss to the worlds of medicine and politics as well, but it would not be incorrect to say that art would suffer the most without his valuable insights and advice.