Composers / Musicians

Gayathri Khemadasa: Continuing the Maestro’s Legacy

With a start, Gayathri Khemadasa wakes up. It is 3 a.m. but there is no sound from the piano downstairs. Later, in the heat of the afternoon, she meets us to discuss the commemoration concert that will mark three months since the death of her father Premasiri Khemadasa. While the concert will give audiences a chance to truly savour the work of a man long considered one of Sri Lanka’s foremost composers, for his wife and daughters the occasion is bittersweet; especially when they catch themselves missing him in the wee hours of the morning.

“My father would be up and working by 2 a.m. every day, which is why he would be asleep by 9 p.m.,” says Gayathri recalling an occasion when policemen stopped their vehicle after her father fell asleep behind the wheel. Recognizing the maestro, they asked him “what happened, sir?” to which he responded, “I don’t know, I just woke up.”

Gayathri has several wonderful memories of her father and narrates this and many such stories with laughter. Not only would he take his two little girls shopping she says, Mr. Khemadasa also introduced both herself and her sister to Mozart and Bach, and accompanied them to piano classes from the time Gayathri was 4. Allowed to sit in on rehearsals and recordings, and frequently treated to detailed analysis of music scores and performances, Gayathri and her sister Anupa grew up sharing their father’s passion for music.

Though both sisters are accomplished musicians, Anupa has made a career for herself in IT, while Gayathri has chosen to follow in her father’s footsteps. Today at 32, Gayathri is an accomplished composer in her own right. She lives and works in Prague in the Czech Republic and has over 40 pieces to her name. Having completed a degree in piano performance from the Prague Conservatory, she is currently pursuing her Masters, for which she is studying the harpsichord at the Academy of Early Music. She now composes for both instruments, and is only learning the harpsichord because she loves Bach – he composed over 10 concertos for this instrument.

By all accounts Gayathri seems to be a rarity – female, Sri Lankan composers have never lain thick on the ground. Since she first moved to Prague at the tender age of 17, Gayathri has added steadily to her repertoire and has showcased her pieces over several concerts, most notably in ‘Me and My Elephant’ staged last year in Prague. The concert drew acclaim for its experimental and interactive nature. Gayathri combined traditional Nepalese and Indonesian instruments with strong percussion-like playing on her piano to create a unique sound. “The concert was also special because it was the same place that Thatha had his ‘Beyond Horizons’ concert,” she says.

It has been 15 years since she first moved to Prague. As a 17-year-old, she described herself as naive and excited. Now considerably more grounded, she admits to absorption with minimalism and acknowledges the fact that she has a foot in both worlds, as it were. Nowhere is this more evident than in her list of influences. Her father tops the list that includes several Czech composers like Doubrava, Kabeláč, Pelikán and Janáček, as well contemporary American musicians like Philip Glass and the French composer Eric Satie.

“I use different kinds of motifs and instruments,” she says, adding that she enjoys creating music that provokes thought. As for the process of composing itself, she says ruefully: “you know how some people say they can just hear the music? I can’t.” Gayathri’s thinking is all done through her fingers – she must actually sit down and begin playing for it to flow. Like her father before her, she gains a great deal in listening to music from other traditions. Looking back she remembers that her father would simply change and go out when frustrated by glitches in the composing process. For Gayathri herself, the best way of unclogging her creativity is one that her father never tried – African dance class.

She finds the energetic rhythm and singing very relaxing and has even incorporated parts of the frenetic percussion into her own music. For someone who can think in both Czech and Sinhala, and has divided her life neatly between both countries, this adds one more dimension. This interplay of unusual and sometimes conflicting influences has given Gayathri an appreciation for the individual’s interpretation. She says this is what draws her to less well known composers – the opportunity to create her own version of their work.

For now as a musician, Gayathri professes herself content. She is still in the process of carving her own niche, but has gained some standing in Prague where she is also known for a set of concerts that raised funds to bring relief to victims of the tsunami.

Audiences can judge her work for themselves at the commemoration concert that will feature two of Gayathri’s own compositions. One is titled ‘Mist’ while the second is an excerpt from Gayathri’s first opera. Having watched Shekhar Kapoor’s ‘Bandit Queen’ with her father several years ago, Gayathri says she was inspired and intrigued enough by this “Asian feminist” to create an opera about India’s infamous Phoolan Devi. The excerpt that will be featured at the concert revolves around a conversation between a father and his two daughters. Gayathri’s sister Anupa, the elder by 8 years, will accompany her on the Cello through both pieces.

For those of us watching that evening, their performance will be tangible evidence that the maestro plays on.

Published in The Sunday Times on January 25, 2009, Sri Lanka. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara

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