Keeping the past beautifully present
Veteran singer of the 1950s: Vivienne de Silva
When I see the fortress like walls, the white painted wooden door and
hear the sound of barking from within I have second thoughts about
raising the brass knocker. What had I got myself into? Should I retreat
before it’s too late? But it is already too late. Someone turns the door
Once. Twice. Then a sweet voice asks “Can you please push from your
side? The door seems to be jammed.” After about a minute of pushing (me)
pulling (her) the door finally gives way. Indrani, the eldest daughter
of Vivienne de Silva Boralessa greets me with a warm smile and a
puzzling explanation about the rusty knob on the front door. “This door
is hardly ever used. We come through the backdoor.”
Vivienne de Silva Boralessa
By we she means family, and the meaning of her words become clear to
me as Vivienne Boralessa pats the cushion beside her on the sofa in her
drawing room, inviting me to sit next to her and asks me about my
journey here, about my family, about my career and makes sure I have a
cup of tea in my hands, prepared in exactly the way I like to drink it,
before she allows me to interview her.
The only child of G F de Silva and D L Sahabandu Vivienne Boralessa
fondly recalls the encouragement her parents gave her when she embarked
on her career as a singer. Her father, a surveyor of the Chamber of
Commerce, a General Manager of the De Zoysa Company and the Managing
Director of the well known Safety Tours Bus Company was not only a
connoisseur of art but a playwright and producer as well.
The first time little Vivienne stood before an audience was when she
sang the welcome songs of her fathers two plays; Dreadful state of
Lanka, and Election Echo. Her uncle, G.R Edward, who was in the audience
was so enraptured by her voice he had sought her fathers permission to
take her to Radio Ceylon to sing duets with him.
This was in 1938. In 1940 she had taken part in an audition where the
judges were Gunapala Malalasekera, Kapukotuwa and B S Wijeratne and was
selected as the best singer. With her hair tied in two pony-tails,
dressed for the first time in her life, in a sari, she says she was only
ten years old when her talents were thus appreciated. From then on she
had performed on her own, was promoted to the rank of an A grade artist
in 1940 and received a payment of Rs 90 for a thirty minute program.
“This meant singing about five songs,” recalls Vivienne Boralessa.
“There was only one microphone for the singer and the orchestra. We
would practice for hours at a time before the program and we never made
a mistake”. She pauses and waits till all this sinks in. “We couldn’t
afford to make a mistake. It was a live broadcast.”
One day as fate would have it, at the wedding of her uncle with whom
she had first sung duets at Radio Ceylon she bumped into a young man who
declared himself as one of her ardent fans. In 1953 he would become her
life partner in a grand wedding ceremony held at the Galle Face Hotel.
He is C De S Boralessa who still staunchly remains her greatest and
perhaps oldest fan.
With her mind still reveling in the past, she recalls how her parents
had accompanied her whenever she had to go for a recording at Radio
Ceylon. If her father could not make it due to some other appointment
the program was cancelled and rescheduled for another day.
“Those days we had to find our own orchestra and my father made sure
I had the best orchestra. He was lavish when it came to spending money
and gave me a Hilman Hunter as dowry on the day of my wedding.” Her
father had owned a Humber Hawk while her mother used an Austin. When my
eyes move skywards in amazement she assures me back in the 1950s
vehicles were not that expensive. What was rare though, was for a lady
to be seated at the wheel. She remembers driving her Hilman from Matara
to Colombo all on her own. Those were indeed the good old days. Today I
don’t even own a Maruti,” she sighs.
She recalls Gabrielle Gunaratne seeking permission from her father to
record her songs onto HMV tapes in 1950, and later Sunil Santha making
his way to her home to ask her father if he could sing a duet with her.
The song was Ralla Naginne with the chorus comprising Maestro Amaradeva,
C T Fernando, Kanthi Wakwalla and Percy Wijewardena. Of her six children
her youngest son Kapila continues to sing with her and gives voice to
Dura Pena Thanithala in her CD which was released last year. “I have
entrusted the copyrights of my songs to Kapila and Indrani” she says in
a voice overcome with grief. She finds it hard to believe that new
comers to the field of music should belittle the hard work and
dedication she weaves into her songs through her mesmerizing voice and
gentle, loving nature.
Old but new. Strange but familiar. As you listen to Dura Pena
Thanithala, Nangi Nangi Rupika,Nawathinna Tissa, Singha kodiya... you
find yourself asking how these songs played in the 1950s could still
have such an appeal. The answer perhaps, is simple. It is because
Vivienne Boralessa sings them that way.
As I close my notebook, and bid farewell, through the back door, I
realize why the front door is hardly ever opened. Everyone who spends
even a second in the company of Vivienne Boralessa immediately becomes
family, and all family members use the back door.