Cultural orthodoxy and popular Sinhala music - part 2
Continued from the Leader page of 09.08.07
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,
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
This policy was once again very specifically stated by M.J. Perera in
an Administrative Report on Broadcasting for
Dr. Tissa Abeysekara
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 It was also agreed
that while North Indian Classical Music should be the foundation on
which Sinhalese music should be built. The folk music of Ceylon should
also be used in its development”.
Please note the emphasis on ‘North Indian Classical music’ and the
secondary importance given to Sinhala folk music.
In the same Report, certain statistics are given and these are
important not because they reflect the scant respect given to our folk
tradition, but for the premium status accorded to Indian music.
In chapter ii, section (b) under the sub-head ‘Sinhalese Service’, of
this administrative report a breakdown of the time allocations for
music, spoken word and religious programmes are given. Of a total of 29
hours and 50 minutes per week allocated to music, only 01 hour and 20
minutes or 2.5% was allocated to Sinhala folk music.
There is also another piece of anecdotal though convincing evidence
of this restrictive music policy and the compulsive manner in which it
was applied at the Radio Station, in a progress report submitted by the
then Controller of Music of the Sinhala Service, Dunstan de Silva.
In this Report dated May 28, 1956, the Controller of Music, a
graduate of the Bhatkande University, and an extremely gifted musician,
exclusively in the North Indian classical mode, states with an obvious
sense of accomplishment, that: “Since my appointment in June 1954 as
Music Assistant and Head of Music Unit, I started a campaign against
artistes singing westernised music and completely annihilated it.”
Now, ‘annihilated’ is a strong word, an emotion-laden expression one
rarely comes across in official or administrative documents.
But Dunstan de Silva, couldn’t have been more correct. It was indeed
a campaign of annihilation, and in the process what was annihilated was
not only ‘westernised music’ whatever that odd phrase means, but the
freedom of musical expression itself. What is meant here as ‘westernised
music’ I could only guess.
Here I must shift to another narrative. The contemporary phase in
Sinhala music begins with the songs of Ananda Samarakoon.
One of the first Sri Lankans to make the pilgrimage to Shanthiniketan
after Tagore’s visit here in 1934 created a wave of enthusiasm for his
music, theatre and poetry, Samarakoon was not a great singer. But his
voice had an honesty and an open throated vitality which charmed the
Its appeal lay in a kind of plaintive folky-ness like in the American
Country singers. But above all, his melodies grew out of the language in
which they were rendered, and here too Samarakoon’s lyrics were couched
in the picturesque idiom of Sinhala folk poetry.
For the first time, Sinhala language found a songwriter who could
harmonize the syllable and the note.
But what was more important here was that Samarakoon, not perhaps by
conscious design, liberated the Sinhala song from the rigid melodic mode
of the Hindustani light song rooted in the inflective phonetics of the
Then came Sunil Shantha, an absolute genius as a melody maker, and
whose voice in its range and vocal sophistication is yet to be bettered
in this country.
Tutored though in the North Indian classical tradition at Bhatkande,
where he had a uniformly brilliant career coming first in both vocal and
instrumental in the Masters final, Sunil Shantha, in his singing,
deliberately avoided the decorative elements of the Hindustani raag,
because he claimed they belonged to the Urdu language, and would cause
syllabic distortions when applied to Sinhala.
The clean melodic contours of his songs were meant to harmonize with
the Elu, an idiom in Sinhala writing which avoids Sanskritised poetic
Sunil Shantha’s mission was to create a music essentially Sinhala in
its total sound, and in this he would have drawn inspiration from the
Tagorean experiment; Rabindra Sangeeth was built on the rhythms and
cadences of the Bengali language.
If the Tagorean exercise was part of the Bengali Renaissance, Sunil
Shantha himself was working in the high noon of the post war cultural
reawakening in Sri Lanka. His songs, and to a lesser extent, those of
his predecessor Samarakoon, swept the country.
The musical structures of these songs, free of the complex and
aleatory movements of Oriental melody, allowed them to be played on
western musical instruments, especially the piano; western hotel bands
picked them up on brass, and in such versions they were generously
embellished with chordwork, harmony and counterpoint, staples of the
western musical system.
Sunil Shantha never went for such orchestrations, though he made
liberal use of the piano mostly for rhythm, and in a few rare instances
embellished his songs with vocal harmonies purely as choral back up.
However, a new generation came up on the Sinhala music scene. They
had grown up during the war years and in the immediate aftermath, when
western bands composed mainly of emigres from Central Europe were
playing at dances and frequently in the open air for WW II veterans on
transit home from the Eastern Command.
PLA Somapala and BS Perera, were two Sinhala musicians, brought up on
the Samarakoon-Sunil Shantha wave, and they used the open melodic
structures of this style, to indulge in heavy western-style
orchestrations for their recordings.
On contract to HMV and Columbia, the two most popular labels of
gramophone music at the time, these two musicians began a new trend.
Sinhala songs of the late forties thro’ to the late fifties were dressed
in lush orchestral arrangements with plenty brass.
In this, BS Perera was the more competent one; he had studied western
music, and he was also heavily influenced by the Latin-American sound.
Whilst Somapala kept his melodies to the simple structures he had
inherited from Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha, whilst lashing them with
rich brass, BS, borrowed freely from the Latin rhythms for his
Through their songs emerged a new generation of singers; Chitra, CT
Fernando, Kanthi Wakwella, Vincent de Paul Peries, to name the most
popular of them, and they, like the pioneer Sunil Shantha sang without
the murkhis, gamaks and meends of the Indian tradition.
This was because the melodies and the arrangements prevented any
improvisatory flourishes in the rendering. These songs became hugely
popular and cut across all social, cultural and ethnic levels.
They had the simplicity of folk songs, and the lyrics were
sentimental and romantic and they facilitated community singing.
Remember, “Isurumuniya”, “Lalitha Kala”, “Barabage”, “Selalihini Kovul”,
“Dura Pena Thani Thala”, and “Siripade Samanala Kanda?
It was a golden twilight, and we sang these songs with gusto, in
school, whenever or wherever we gathered on happy occasions, played them
on reedy mouth organs, and they have lingered through the years to be
picked up by each one of three generations since then. Anyone who hasn’t
sung any one of these songs at some moment in his or her life, please
It was then that ‘Ratanjankar’ struck. I am using the learned
Professor’s name more as a metaphor, for his name is associated in my
mind forever with the sad story of contemporary popular music in this
country, though subsequent investigations have revealed that he was
merely an instrument in the hands of a band of powerful Pothe Guras. And
here let me dip into a memory.
The year was 1954 and I was in the Senior Prep. Class. One morning we
were herded into the music room to listen to a distinguished visitor.
He was Maestro Lionel Edirisinghe, Head of the Government School of
Music and the first Sri Lankan to qualify as a Sangeeth Visharada from
the Bhatkande University of Music in Lucknow.
He was an imposing figure, tall and fair of complexion, his flowing
white Indian costume making him look like some mystic sadhu, or so he
seemed on that day to a bunch of nervous school kids in their middle
“Could you sing something” the maestro said, and it seemed more like
a command. Ms. Abeygunasekara, our much harassed music teacher looked
quite tense as she began playing the simple introduction to Sunil
Shantha’s “Olu Pipeela”. Immediately the maestro raised his hands.
“No. Not that one please”. The note of displeasure was clear in his
voice. *”Sing something else.” And down went the music teacher’s
trembling hands on the keyboard; she struck the first chords of
“Stop, stop.” The maestro raised his voice and he seemed angry. “You
are singing rubbish.” And for the next ten minutes we listened,
frightened and confused, to the Head of the Government School of Music,
that these songs we have learnt to sing were cheap songs; bad music;
they should not be allowed in schools.
I cannot speak for the entire Class of ‘54, but in my case the
confusion stayed with me. I wanted to find why these beautiful songs of
my childhood were bad. That was until I came across, Dunstan de Silva’s
progress report about his campaign against “westernised singing”.
I remembered vaguely, Maestro Lionel Edirisinghe trying to explain to
us that those songs we attempted to sing on that day were “westernised
songs which are preventing the development of a decent music in this
So this is what was considered “westernised music” and why Dunstan de
Silva decided it was his sacred duty as the Controller Music, of Radio
Ceylon, to ‘annihilate’ it. Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra, was
brainwashing a whole generation of undergrads in the Hantane hills on
the same lines.
This was also what M.J. Perera, on the instructions of the Advisory
Committee on Sinhala Programmes, was doing with meticulous
administrative skill. To establish a Station Orchestra, limited to only
Indian instruments, the restrictions placed on the use of harmony and
counterpoint in the arrangements, were all part of the “campaign to
annihilate westernised music”. The exercise of auditioning artistes by
Professor Ratanjankar, was to legitimise the entire process.
This strange policy of musical spring cleaning continued for well
over two decades. All the significant experiments in Sinhala music
during this period were done outside the official space of the
Government School of Music, Radio Ceylon/SLBC, and the Government
Secondary Schools where music was made part of the curriculum.
A strong establishment developed round this policy, inhibiting the
growth of a modern music culture in the vernacular. Only two adjustments
to the syllabi in music at an official level could be noted.
In 1955 after prolonged agitation by W.B. Makuloluwa, the teaching of
Sinhala Folk Music was allowed in the Government School of Music. This
resulted in a refreshing change in the flavour and style of popular
Here it was Amaradeva, who set the standard with his inspired
compositions for Madhuwanthie, the memorable Radio programme he produced
in creative collaboration with Mahagama Sekara.
(However, I do not wish to bring Amaradeva into this narrative. He is
unique and has to be judged by the high musical values he works by and
he exists beyond this narrative) This trend continued in the songs of
Piyasiri Wijeratne, W.F. Wimalasiri, H.M. Abeypala and then in the
immensely popular singing of Ivor Dennis and Sunil Edirisinghe, where
one could detect the strains of Sinhala folk elements for the first time
since Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha. Later came the stars, T.M. Jayaratne,
Rohana Beddege, and Neela Wickremasinghe.
In 1975 or thereabouts, the students at the School of Music began to
be taught the theory and techniques of Western Music. Even though this
was limited to lectures and to a very basic introductory exercise, a
whole generation of young composers emerged who began using western
musical elements in their work for films and commercial recordings.
Rohana Weerasinghe, Mervyn Perera, Sarath Dassanayake, Victor
Ratnayake, and Gunadasa Kapuge were the first of these. However, their
work is inconsistent and occasionally there are serious lapses in
technique, due to their lack of proper training in modern music.
Their primary source for learning modern orchestration seems to be
the music of Bollywood which is at best, second hand. It is here that
despite certain reservations I have personally, I wish to pay my tribute
to Premasiri Khemadasa for his pioneering work. His exercises in western
musical forms both where orchestration and vocal expressions are
concerned, despite serious flaws, have been seminal.
His daring forays into uncharted regions in fusion, would never have
been possible within the confines of our official musical establishment
which remains unchanged basically since the days of the ‘Ratanjankar’
The freedom to create, without restriction is available only outside
the narrow confines of the Sri Lankan musical establishment, which
continue to exist in ‘splendid’ isolation.
Fortunately, the space for such free activity has widened enormously
with the coming of new technologies and market mechanisms that have
changed the ecology of the music industry.
But it is here exactly that the pitfalls are, and the Sinhala music
scene has been made vulnerable to such hazards, entirely due to the
narrow orthodoxy that had prevailed here.
The indiscriminate use of electronically generated sounds, and the
incompetent orchestrations which assault our ears today, are a direct
result of the younger generation of musical aspirants not having the
necessary professional and institutional training and guidance, vital to
survive in the field today, Those who graduate from the School of Music
have to spend years before they could adjust themselves to the
professional demands of modern music.
They learn on their own, and they get sucked into the vortex of the
mushrooming music industry, in a ‘semi literate’ condition.
Music education in this country has to be reviewed all over again.
Teaching music cannot be done by confining the student to a particular
The two most exciting musicians in the local scene today, Harsha
Makalanda and Pradeep Ratnayake are those who broke free of the
tradtions they were brought up in, to become the wonderfully innovative
artistes they are.
Makalanda was Sri Lanka’s finest jazz pianist before he began drawing
from the Sinhala folk tradition to begin composing. Pradeep, grew up in
the straitjacket of the Raag, where he mastered the Sitar, and then
broke free to play jazz with Ravi Shankar’s sacred instrument.
The creative act in any medium demands a condition beyond all
tradition. First we learn the basic principles of any art form, and
there is no issue of tradition there. That comes later.
The Sinhala music establishment is yet to accept this. It looks down
upon the immensely gifted musicians, Bhathiya and Santush. It is yet to
appreciate what Khemadasa has done, and are uneasy with the likes of
It had already destroyed such pioneering talents as Sunil Shantha, BS
Perera, and CT Fernando. These are performers and composers thrown up by
the uprush of public preference, and that comes from a complex interplay
of social conditions. No one has the right to discriminate against them
from up above.
Here it touches upon a basic principle which is beyond the issue of
musical preference. It is related to human rights. Now that the field of
music in this country has come under the purview of an institution with
university status, let us begin all over again.
If we are to develop music in this country, let the institution teach
the basics and provide the aspirants with facilities and the freedom to
experiment with all forms; let them choose and let them create.
Tradition will grow out of that. It cannot be carpentered.