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Government Gazette

Cultural orthodoxy and popular Sinhala music

Culture: This is an English version of the Convocation Address delivered in the afternoon session of the First Convocation of the University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo, held at the BMICH, on August 04, 2007.

Art cannot be evaluated or interpreted in terms of culture

The creative act, if it is to be genuine, could never be part of a cultural agenda. A work of art is never born out of a desire to enrich culture. This may happen in time to come after the product comes into existence, but not by any conscious design at the moment of its origin.

Culture is an evolutionary process, and in that evolution, which is a ceaseless progression, there is integration and rejection. Those that are integrated become part of that culture. It is only then that they qualify to be artifacts. But that takes time. Art, or the products of creative enterprise therefore, can never be weighed and considered, nor evaluated or interpreted in terms of culture.

There are those, and they are of every country and every age, who attempt to codify culture. They presuppose that culture is an unchanging matrix to be officially determined, and then perpetuated, promoted, and protected as something inviolate. Culture as defined by these mandarins is an entrenched clause in the constitution of public life.

Dr. Tissa Abeysekara

In such sad circumstances, art becomes the first victim. The total and unconditional freedom required for the meaningful exercise of the creative act is withdrawn. Such mandarins are referred to in Sinhala colloquial parlance as ‘Pothe Guras’.

This has to be explained even briefly, because that term encodes an important attitude in our public life towards art and social morality. The term ‘Pothe Gura’ refers to the Narrator in the folk theatre form called ‘Nadagam’ which comes from the Tamil word Nattakoothu’. He reads from a prescribed text, which never changes from performance to performance. It is a fixed libretto.


Performance, in the popular tradition of Eastern art, or perhaps even in the West before certain recording mechanisms came into existence, was always live, improvisatory, and never to be repeated in a fixed and prescribed form. A vocalist singing a raag always improvises like a jazz musician and his recitation can never be recollected and repeated note by note.

Therein lies the magic of performance; non-duplicative and one of its kind; hence the note of sarcasm when someone is referred to as ‘Pothe Gura’. He is a pedant, a man with no originality, one who lives off texts, and therefore with no imagination; a fossil, out of step with living reality.

Of all the expressions which sensor the shifts in public and collective taste, dress codes or fashions and music come first. In the drift towards a global order transcending barriers of culture and language what better symptoms are there than the denim and the guitar. Originating in the rock culture of the late fifties, when Bill Haley and his Comets and then the Elvis Presley phenomenon burst upon the music scene, the guitar became the sound of youth all over the world.

George Harrison of the Beatles was yet to try plucking the sitar, and Ravi Shanker had still not completely won over the west, but it was a time when the introverted musical systems of the world were opening out towards each other.

A synthesis between eastern and western musical forms had already been achieved at a very basic level by the film musicians of Bombay and Madras. Listen to the songs of Naushad Ali in the Bombay films of the forties, like “Babul”, “Deedar” and “Dastan” and the hybrid orchestrations of the composer Papanesan Sivam for the phenomenally popular Tamil movie, “Chandralekha” and you could hear a veneer of western musical flavour in the orchestration, and in the melody lines, the vertical forms of western melodic structures.


Latin-American and Caribbean rhythms popularised during the war years by musicians like Xavier Cugat and Perez Prado were seeping in too. This drift in the popular music of India had begun much earlier in the kitsch of the Parsee theatre of Bombay (Mumbai) and perhaps in a subtler and more tasteful manner in the innumerable compositions of Rabindranath Tagore collectively referred to as Rabindra Sangeeth.

There were two immensely popular melody makers, Rai Chand Boral and Khemchand Prakash who continued this hybrid genre in Indian films of the mid thirties. However, it was after the war and especially in the fifties that the drift gathered momentum.

Curiously, this was precisely the time that the musical practice in Sri Lanka - Ceylon then - was being locked through official policy into a closed circuit.

The story which I am trying to recount today, begins with the infamous Ratanjankar Audition, whereby a reputed scholar of Indian classical music was brought down by the authorities to audition and grade Sinhala vocalists. This was in 1952, and the move was strongly contested by a powerful segment of the Sinhala music community, headed by the most popular and leading composer/singer at the time, the now legendary Sunil Shantha.

The background to this episode could be reconstructed from references in the Administrative Reports of the Director General of Broadcasting at the time, M.J. Perera. In his report dated May 1953 for the year of review 1952, under the chapter on Broadcasting, the Director General makes the following statement:

“During the year under review the most important event that took place in the Sinhalese Section was the re-auditioning of artistes by Professor S.N. Ratanjankar from Bhatkande University. His visit aroused a good deal of controversy among musicians”.


The Sinhala newspapers of this period are full of this controversy.

Reading them it is quite clear the majority of Sinhala musicians of the time did not approve of this audition. Why was it held in the teeth of such opposition? Who decided to get down Professor Ratanjankar? Who took the decision to go head with it amidst such controversy? If the majority in the Sinhala music establishment were campaigning vehemently against the audition, as the newspapers so clearly indicate, whose interests did it serve? There is no Sessional Paper tabled in Parliament on the matter.

This means getting down the Indian specialist was not part of any specific governmental policy, nor did it seek any such sanction. It is then safe to conclude the decision was purely a matter of internal administration of the Department of Information, and more specifically of Radio Ceylon.

There is a clue however, in a letter M.J. Perera wrote to the CDN of Tuesday, June 18, 1991, reacting to certain observations I had made on this issue in a series of articles I wrote to the same paper on the career of Sunil Shantha , and how it was terminated tragically by the reactionary policies of the Sri Lankan musical establishment.

“The recommendation could,” says Perera in his article, “quite possibly have come from the Sinhala Programmes Advisory Committee”.


Going by his own circulars and administrative reports I have had the opportunity to peruse in the seventies, Perera shows much official enthusiasm for implementing the recommendations of this Advisory Committee.

In a book published by Dr. Nandana Karunanayake in the late nineties, “Broadcasting in Sri Lanka - Potential and Performance” there occurs this observation: Professor Ratanjankar re-graded the artistes on the basis of auditions conducted by him.

M.J. Perera was instrumental in inviting Professor Ratanjankar and took unusual interest in and commitment to improving the quality of Sinhala music”. (Chapter 11/P. 291)

Great passion

It is important to note that among the members of this Advisory Committee for Sinhala programmes, were Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Lionel Edirisinghe, two of the most ardent champions of North Indian classical music.

The latter became the first Head of the Government School of Music, newly constituted as a section of the Government College of Fine Arts, in 1952. Professor Sarachchandra’s great passion for the Raaghadari tradition of music is too well known to be elaborated here.

In 1952, the same year of the Ratanjankar Audition, Radio Ceylon announced the formation of a station orchestra, and it was conditional that henceforth all recordings both vocal and instrumental, for broadcast use this orchestra. What is of special relevance to the point I wish to make, is the instrumental composition of this orchestra.

In the 1952 November issue of the Radio Times, the official magazine of Radio Ceylon, there is the following item boxed and displayed prominently in its front page.

“The members of the Sinhalese orchestra and their instruments are:

Edwin Samaradiwakara(Leader), sitar, esraj, sarode, tarshenai, and allied instruments; Sadananda Pattiarachchi, esraj, dilruba and tabla; A.J. Careem, Clarinet; Edward de Silva, Tampura, tabla and kole; D.D. Danny, flute; J.A.E Perera, tabla; M.A. Piyadasa, Violin; Ibrahim Sally, drums (dholak, tabla taang, kole)”


In his article in the Ceylon Daily News, referred to, before, M.J. Perera, makes the following comment: “The orchestra was not very large at the outset and only the essential instruments could be accommodated.

” It is clear then that, those considered “essential instruments” were, with the exceptions of the violin and the clarinet, exclusively those of the Indian musical tradition.

It is a clear reflection of the thinking behind the steps taken by the authorities, for, what they claimed to be, ‘the development of Sinhala music.’ This was to confine Sinhala music to an exclusively Indian base.

This policy was once again very specifically stated by M.J. Perera in an Administrative Report on Broadcasting for the year 1954, submitted by him in his capacity as Director General of Radio Ceylon.

“It was generally agreed that Sinhalese music is in need of greater development and that more students should be encouraged to go to North India for serious study. For this purpose it was suggested that the Ministry of Education should offer scholarships annually for the study of music in recognised institutions in North India.

To be Continued



Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Mount View Residencies
Ceylinco Banyan Villas

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