Genius Unplugged

By: Roy Ratnavel

I was in my mid-teens in the mid-eighties. Schools in the Northern parts of Sri Lanka functioned inconsistently during those days. Only consistency for my friends and me was the relentless daily aerial bombardment and shelling by Sri Lankan forces. One of the things that kept many of us happy and engaged in dark and dingy makeshift bunkers was Illayarajah’s soothing music.

His music — at least for a moment, helped us to forget about death and destruction around us. Helped us to deal with the unpleasant task of rummaging through the rancid cobweb of human pain and suffering. Helped us to enjoy small parts of our teen year. The vessel of our outsourced anxiety and profound sadness. Prosthetic to our amputated souls. Those were trying times even for an optimist.

I fell in love his music at the age of 15. One of my dream was to see him live in concert. When the opportunity presented, I was thrilled. To see him live for the first time, 28 years later in Toronto was indeed a treat of an epic proportion. This is why I flew thousands of kilometers across country with my wife to see the maestro.

There are many Indian musicians, but there is none like him. A musician of higher calibre and authenticity. The man who writes his own music and the first Indian musician to ever play at the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London under the baton of legendary John Scott.

I was so excited to be inside the Rogers stadium — few meters and metal barriers separated this inseparable one-sided musical relationship. When I heard his music live, it was definitely a moment of déjà vu played backwards, instantly familiar, and made me nostalgic for a past that I hadn’t quite let go yet.

But immediately after the show twitter and facebook pages were buzzing with outrage. The outrage was surrounding Illayarajah’s peculiar request to the audience not to whistle during his show. Agree, he should not have said what he said. In doing so he exposed his humanness, flaws, warts and all. I was least bit offended. I went to see him because he is a great composer, not because he is a great human being. I expected to see a director of music, not Dalai Lama. Sure he projected a bit of arrogance and exuded eccentric behavior — most geniuses are.

On the positive side of the ledger, he made new music with very old instruments. Every single piece of music was original music wrote by him. They were no preprogrammed computerized fakery like other concerts I have been to. No gimmicks, no plagiarism — despite few sound related glitches, music at its purest by a pure genius.

So why the big fuss? Why the outrage? I think the energy of outrage should be focused on phony politicians who ate up precious time away from mellifluous music of maestro. Predictable, pedestrian political pandering was painful to sit through. Some of the speeches belonged to a political rally. We Tamils should discontinue such nonsense of mixing politics with entertainment. You would never see this at a Bruce Springsteen concert or any other music concert for that matter. What is our fascination with our politicians?

I understand our need to make alliances with them to build a bridge to carry forward with our freedom cause. But, why here? Are we conditioned to think this way? Is it ingrained our culture? Why are we not outraged by the politicians appearance on the stage, but outraged at the composer for asking audience not to whistle? This behavior of worshiping politicians is consistent with our past. We can’t stay just consistent because consistency is the last refuge of an unimaginative community. Culture is a living organism, we don’t have to embrace all the changes that occur, but we must at least pay attention.

Is there some truth to this? Does this presents itself as a total system of our life, as a community? Is it the doctrine of Tamils where we do not have the tools to handle pluralism, because all of our energy is based on the notion that Tamil self determination is a natural and expected state in any society in which Tamils exist? Am I being overly simplistic in my analysis?

Whatever it is one thing is for sure. Nothing is ever gained by loathing over imperfections, and progress is made only when we challenge ourselves, not by being content with status quo. My hats off to the organizers for undertaking such monumental task of brining maestro and his musicians to Toronto, despite the natural and unnatural challenges. Making mistakes shouldn’t be source of shame. But recognizing the mistakes and correcting them is how progress gets made in business. Perhaps they will learn from their mistakes and perfect their future entrepreneurial efforts. I wish them nothing but the best in their future endeavors.

Once we realize imperfectness and flaws of human condition, it gets easier to forget about what Illayarajah said, and to remember how he serenaded us with his soulful music. I know I will.

At the end, Illayarajah’s uncomfortable body language and immediate reaction spoke louder than his music when he was wrapped and honored by Canadian flag. He immediately removed the flag from his back, as if though he was saying “love my music, not myself.” I thought wrapping him with a flag was an insult to him and to our proud flag.

Aside all this noise and distractions, his music will carryon in my head forever as a reminder of my past to smoothen those painful edges — a daily balm for my angry wounds and lingering pain. I find refuge even in his latest creations — music is what makes us human. Being in the presence of a true musical genius was a dream come true for me.

As ordinary as these words may appear to some, there are times when certain things are beyond ones imagination, to me this was one of them.

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