Turning back the pages of time with a great poet | Sunday Observer
Celebrating Mahagama Sekara’s 46th death anniversary

Turning back the pages of time with a great poet

9 January, 2022
Mahagama Sekara
Mahagama Sekara

Mahagama Sekera is considered the most inspiring poet of modern Sinhala poetry. His collections of poetry such as Heta Irak Payay, Nomiyemi and Prabuddha are still the landmarks in Sinhala poetry, and helped to build a new generation of Sinhala poets.

And his lyrics in Sinhala are also acclaimed as masterpieces. Apart from being a poet, a fiction writer and a lyricist, he was also a painter, an art teacher, a radio journalist, a script writer for dramas and a director of the critically acclaimed film Thunmanhandiya.

The 46th death anniversary of this poet falls this year on January 14. Hence, the Sunday Observer spoke to his younger daughter Nirupama Salmalee Mahagama Sekera to discuss her memory on her father. Nirupama was a senior lecturer, Department of English and Teaching at the University of Colombo.

The following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: Could you recall the memories you have of your father Mahagama Sekara?

A: I haven't much memories of my father as I was an eight-year old kid when he died. However, we enjoyed very much the short period of time that we spent with him. Those days, during the weekends, we visited somewhere – either my father's ancestral home in Radavana or places of my mother's relatives – my mother has many siblings. Sometimes, we used to travel all around the country. I remember my mother said at that time, "We were in constant motion, always on the move." During those trips he was always singing. Suwanda Padma Olu Aadi…, Anna Balan Sanda Ran Tetiyen Sudu, Danno Budunge and Maname songs were some of the popular songs he sang. After he started singing we also joined in.

I remember he helped us to make our scrap books neat. When my elder sister had to do Social Science assignments for school – she was, a grade six student when father died - he readily helped to finish them. And for the Vesak Festival, he made Vesak lanterns and decorated the house with tissue papers very beautifully. He took great pleasure by helping out us.

At that time we were at a rented house, on Sri Bodhi Road, Indigolla, Gampaha. From there my sister, brother and me – went for a music and dance class at a cultural centre named Neluma in nearby Pahalagama.

The classes were held on Saturdays, and my father also joined in them. After he came to it, he sang songs for us. We still have an audio recording of our father singing the song Suwanda Padma Olu Aadi. When I look back now, I can fondly remember these occasions.

Q: Did your father influence you towards taking up art?

A: I think so. I will give you one example. During the August school vacation in 1975, we visited my father's friend in Pattipola – he was the station master of Pattipola Railway Station. We travelled in the train's observation compartment. Before starting the tour he told us to bring our notebooks and drawing books when going to Pattipola and until recently, I had a small exercise book in which I wrote poems during that tour. My father also brought his painting equipment with him. I vividly remember after arriving at Pattipola, he drew some landscapes and visuals from a hill top. While drawing, he asked us to do the same. So it is clear that he wanted to persuade us towards art. And the songs he sang for us were some kind of classical which also proves this intention.

Q: Was there any occasion that your father accompanied you to the Radio Ceylon where he worked?

A: Once, I went on a school trip – I studied at Sirimavo Bandaranayake Vidyalaya, Colombo. When we arrived in the school after the trip, it was late afternoon, my school van had gone. On that day, he accompanied me to the Radio Ceylon, because he had a recording for his program Kalpana.

This program was first produced by Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra, but in 1974, he gave it to my father. Since then, father produced and presented it. I still remember that day how he started the program welcoming viewers as Ayubowan!

Q: Was there any unpublished manuscripts when he died in 1976?

A: There were two manuscripts: Prabuddha poetry book and his Ph.D. thesis which was later published titled Sinhala Gadya Padya Sahityaye Ridma Lakshana. In addition to that, we posthumously published his lyrics as 'Mahagama Sekerage Nopala Geetha' and his short stories (5 short stories) published on various newspapers and magazines (especially on Nava Yugaya) as Peethara Saha Thawath Keti Katha.

Q: What are the books that he collected in his personal library?

A: There were two cupboards full of books. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, literary criticism, philosophy, religious books, all were there. I especially remember there were a few Bibles, poetry books by Omar Khayyam and T.S. Eliot, books on Zen Buddhism and Upanishad, and Sinhala classical literature such as Ama Wathura, Buth Sarana, Saddharma Rathnavaliya, Pujavaliya, Kav Silumina and Sandesha poetry. One cupboard was exclusively filled with English books.

In 1965 he participated in a world conference in America. There he represented Sri Lanka as a Fellow at the 'Triangular Fellowship Program of the office of Public Information, of the UN’. It was held at the UN headquarters in New York from November, 15 to 10 December 1965. Before leaving the country he had noted down in his diary a list of books which he wished to buy from America. But when he came back he had bought so many other books as well. It seemed that he brought back a book collection on that trip.

I also remember he read the Tripitaka with his own translations. Besides the pages of the book which were written in Pali, he had noted down short translations of those stansas or Gathas.

Q: Once K. Jayathilake, a close friend of Mahagama Sekera, said that Sekera's father who is your grandfather, was also an artist.Comment?

A: Yes, we called him Aatha. He was a traditional folk artist and smart enough in crafting decorations from coconut leaves. If you saw the film of my father, Thunmanhandiya you would see protagonist Sirisena's father who was very similar to my Aatha. Actually Aatha died in 1990, while Aachchi (grandmother) died in 1983. We also had Aatha's tool kit (aayudha pettiya) which he used for his crafting, until recently. Aatha was a peasant, but read many books, including novels.

Q: Had he read his own son's books?

A: Of course, but they had no deep understanding about them, because they were not that much educated. You see there was a scene in the Thunmanhandiya film that Sirisena put his paint brush inside the tea cup. My Aachchi often recalled that scene because she saw him do so. In fact, my grandparents saw my father as a painter rather than a writer, because he was always painting the time they saw him at home. Father wrote poetry when he became a boarder in Colombo. He entered the teaching profession in 1957. It was at Hewavitharana Vidyalaya, Rajagiriya.

After he started teaching, he was boarded in Colombo. He went home once in a while, but never wrote anything from there. If someone says that he was an artiste from a village and engaged in his creative art from there, it was an exaggeration. He started his creative writing while he was a boarder in Colombo, and continued it after marrying my mother, but they never chose to live in Radavana.

So grandparents saw my father only as a painter. Once Aachchi said the designer of many items in our ancestral home was my father's work. For instance, the grills in the house were designed by him.

Q: Mahagama Sekera had many friends in the artistic field. Could you remember the people who visited your father, and the conversations they made?

A: Veteran playwright and scholar Bandula Jayawardhane and another scholar H. M. Moratuwagama often came to meet my father. When father wrote the 'Prabuddha' poetry book, he closely associated it with uncle Bandula. During that time uncle Bandula was working at the University of Pali and Buddhism. At the preface of Prabuddha, late Professor Jothiya Deerasekara writes that there was a common friend that they both knew. He was non other than Bandula Jayawardhane. Once he came with us for a family visit to my aunt in Warakapola. My father even gave the Prabuddha manuscript to Bandula uncle for reading before publishing it. He wanted to know Bandula uncle's views on the book.

I think there must have many more friends for my father. I only mentioned two because I remembered them. You know, late veteran writer K. Jayathilake was his childhood friend since they were raised in nearby villages, they even published a book together which was Wyanga. Jayadasa Kumarage and Mendis Rohanadeera were other close friends of him. Uncle Kumarage was my father's batch mate in the Nittambuwa Teacher's Training College. He and Dayananda Gunawardhane were my father's groomsman and best man respectively in his wedding.

Q: Once you said that your father had an idea to make a film from the Prabuddha book?

A: Yes, he was planning to create a film from Prabuddha. He even selected some actors for the film. For instance, Dhamma Jagoda was selected for the protagonist Prabuddha, while his wife Manel Jagoda was chosen for the character Yashoda, girl friend of Prabuddha. Father had discussed with them on the film.

Q: You are also a painter. How do you see your painting and your father's painting?

A: I am not a professional painter. I only created a few book covers and paintings. I started by drawing for Rupa Amarasekara when she published one of her children's books. I was a school girl at the time. Next, I drew paintings for my father's children's book titled 'Koti Valigaya'. It was, in fact, a children's play. And then, I drew for my mother's children's book titled Nandivisala. Recently I drew some paintings and book covers for Professor J. B. Dissanayake's Auku Mihir' book series.

However, those attempts are just for my own enjoyment. Some people suggested me to hold an exhibition, but I am not that much a painter, and also I haven't enough paintings to hold an exhibition. However, my father's paintings are different. He created many paintings, and most of them were sold or taken away by others. We only have 30 odd paintings which we preserve. In terms of artistic techniques, he used traditional style in his first paintings, but later he had tended to use abstract art. If you watch the film Thunmanhandiya', you will see protagonist Sirisena's paintings in it. Actually, those were my father's paintings. All of them were created on the style of abstract art.

Q: How do you preserve your father's art?

A: We now see people use my father's art works and poetry on social media. It doesn't matter, but we do not like them to be used commercially. We are, actually, cataloguing father's paintings, book cover designs, sketches, sculptures, manuscripts, documents bearing his signature and the likes and, where necessary, taking measures to preserve such artifacts. As I said earlier, we haven't many of his paintings and literary items.

So, readers in possession of such memorabilia are kindly requested to contribute to their effort by sharing details of such items, preferably with a picture, via email to [email protected].