Kala Keerthi Dr.Premasiri Khemadasa (Sinhala: ආචාර්ය ප්රේමසිරි කේමදාස) (25 January 1937 – 24 October 2008) also known as “Khemadasa Master” is one of the most influential composers in Sri Lankan music. Exploring the various styles of music around the world Khemadasa endeavoured to develop a unique style of music. He combined Sinhala folk tunes, Hindustani music, Western music and many other streams of music in his compositions while adapting them to fit contemporary music.
Khemadasa grew up in Talpitiya, Wadduwa and attended St. John’s College Panadura and Sri Sumangala College. As a teenager, he became a gifted flautist.
Khemadasa was asked to come to the Radio Ceylon for an interview on the day he was scheduled to take his Senior School Certificate examination. He finished the examination much ahead of time and travelled to the audition. He passed the audition and became a member of Radio Ceylon.
As a composer
Khemadasa’s debut as a film composer came with Sirisena Wimalaweera’s Roddie Kella. With his score for Bambaru Ewith he introduced a style of music unacquainted to Sri Lankan cinema. He then began collaborating with acclaimed director Lester James Peries handling the music for films like Golu Hadawatha and Nidhanaya. Critics praised his film scores and he was honorally dubbed “Khemadasa master.” Khemadasa’s signature in film music is moulded by the use of elements from Classical Western music and other sources to heighten the emotion suggested by the picture. Some of his compositions are influenced by Western composers of opera such as Giuseppe Verdi and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Lately Premasiri Khemadasa has given his contribution to films such as Agnidahaya and very recently to Ammavarune, the last film by Lester James Peiris who has announced his retirement.
Other scores written by the master for films such as Hansawilak,Thunweniyamaya, Paradige, Yasa Isuru widened his acclaim in the field of cinema. He has also composed music for films produced outside Sri Lanka (Thousand Flowers).
Dr. Khemadasa’s contribution to teledramas also brought outstanding masterpieces to the public. His collaboration with director Jayantha Chandrasiri has turned out remarkable products whereas the themes he created for Chandrasiri’s television series Dandubasnamanaya have shown unprecedented power of mesmerisation. A repertoire of scores written for teledramas including Chandrasiri’s Weda hamine, Sathara denek senpathiyo, Akala sandhya, Dharmasena Pathiraja’s Gangulen egodata, Ella langa walawwa, Pura sakmana and Bandula Vithanage’s Asalwesiyo bestowed the public with unforgettable musical experiences. Also, he has contributed to the teledrama Sadisi tharanaya by Devinda koongahage, which is most probably his last contribution for a teledrama.
He also contributed to stage dramas such as Jayantha Chandrasiri’s Mora, Ath, and Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s Makarakshaya & Dhawala bheeshana.
Furthermore, he has composed symphonies like Muhuda, Mage kale mavni and Sinhala Avurudda. His cantata named Pirinivan Mangalya, probably the only Buddhist cantata ever composed, was based on the death of the Lord Buddha and it was played at his funeral by the students of the Khemadasa Foundation.
The presence of operatic and harmonic vocals in his music is explained by his vast knowledge of opera and harmony. In his lifetime he made many experiments with techniques of singing and playing, which include the use of asymmetric patterns of beats, revolutionary harmonies and novel techniques of playing musical instruments such as the sitar.
Khemadasa is the only known Sri Lankan musician who practised and created opera. He has a large group of students many of whom were derived from rural milieus and trained for performing in his operas. His famous operas include Manasawila, Doramandalawa and Sondura Varnadasi. Recently he created the opera, Agni (opera) about early civilisation. His operas, being written in Sinhalese, form what can be recognised as Sinhalese opera. Khemadasa and his pupils have conducted shows in several countries. After a layoff following a kidney transplant he returned to the field of music, even in his 70s, trying to secure the future of Sri Lankan music. At the time of the maestro’s demise on 24 October 2008, he was 71 years old.