Sunil Santha: A Search for Sinhala Music

Tony Donaldson

From 1946 to the end of his life in 1981, the composer Sunil Santha pioneered a modern Sinhala song style and form which the film director, actor, and scriptwriter Tissa Abeysekera describes as ‘the most atavistic of all art forms’ in Sri Lanka. To commemorate the centenary of Sunil Santha’s 100th birth anniversary in April 2015, this article examines his search for a music language and defines some fundamental characteristics of his music. Readers should note that the version posted earlier on the 23rd February 2015 was an initial draft (generated by a computer quirk) which is now superseded by this version — so copies of the former should be replacedThe initial print version can be found in The Ceylankan 2015.

In an essay published in 1906 in the Journal of the Ceylon University Association, the art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy made a plea for the teaching of Indian music in Ceylon. Along with his contemporaries, he complained that Western music was invading indigenous music and based on the assumption that Sinhala music did not exist, he attempted to segregate Western from indigenous music by arguing that the best method for reviving indigenous music was through Indian music. In his view, the notion that Sinhala music could be independent of India was unthinkable and impossible. But what was thought impossible in 1906 was made possible forty years later, when the composer and recording artist Sunil Santha began to search for a music language independent of Indian music for his songs.

Sunil Santha was born Baddaliyanage Don Joseph John on 14 April 1915. From an early age he was exposed to Church music. He began his vocal training by singing in church choirs. He studied the harmonium, and later the guitar and piano accordion. While these early influences would later emerge in his music, a turning point in his life came in 1942 when he met the poet Munidasa Kumaratunga (1887-1944) and came under the influence of the Hela Havula,[1] a school of poets and intellectuals who placed importance on the unsanskritised Sinhala language known as ‘Elu-Sinhala’.

In 1935, Sunil began teaching at the Mt. Calvary School in Galle. He resigned from his teaching post in 1939 to develop his inborn talent for music at two key institutions in India. At Shanthiniketan, the Bengali arts school founded by Rabindranath Tagore, he studied vocal and sitar performance, orchestration, and rabindra sangeet, graduating with a vocal diploma in 1940. The next four years were spent studying North Indian classical raga music at the Bhatkande College of Music in Lucknow. On 3 March 1944, he graduated with a Sangeet Visharad in sitar performance having completed his vocal Visharada one or two years earlier.

Sunil returned home on 24 December 1944. In the good company of poets and scholars, he began to compose songs suitable for Sri Lanka, particularly ‘for the Sinhalese ear’. This was the beginning of his search for a music language. He set aside what he had learnt in India to search for a music idiom that would express the sentiments, human experiences and characteristic rhythms of life of this country. He sought to make people aware of the unique qualities of this country, and to bring people into harmony with them. He achieved this in his lyrics but also in the rhythms, metres and melodies, which were fashioned out of the syllabic patterns of his lyrics.

fig. 1Figure. 1. Sunil Santha

In the 1940s, Radio Ceylon began to emerge as the centre of musical patronage, sponsoring new music that reflected ‘the life and culture’ of the country. New popular songs were written and recorded at Radio Ceylon, which in turn led to an increase in status for recording artists. Sunil was first invited to record his songs at Radio Ceylon after performing at a Kumaratunga Commemoration Ceremony on 2 March 1946. His voice had star quality. It is one of the outstanding voices of Sri Lanka. Whether he was singing about lakes and fields or a brother and sister plucking lotus flowers to be offered to a temple shrine, the lyrical and sometimes operatic quality of his voice combined with the rich imagery of his lyrics was fresh, new, and appealing to Radio Ceylon listeners.

From 1946 to 1960, Sunil recorded over 100 songs for Radio Ceylon. The first song he recorded was Olu Pipila which remains his most popular song. At the time it secured his position as a Radio Ceylon recording artist. Sunil followed this success with beautiful songs such as Muni Siri Pa, Handapane, Kokilayange, Ho Ga Rella Binde, Suwanda Rosa Mal, Lanka Lanka Pembara Lanka, Bovitiya Dan, and Mihikatha Nalawala.

For the songs recorded at Radio Ceylon from 1946 to 1952, Sunil formed his own orchestra consisting of musical instruments such as violins, bamboo flutes, guitar, Hawaiian guitar, and occasionally the rabana.[2] His orchestra in the 1940s included Albert Perera (Pandit W. D. Amaradeva), Percy Wijewardane, Joe Costa, Mrs Costa, Sarathsena and Rajah Dahanayake. He paid the musicians from his own funds. Each and every song was recorded in a single take directly on to vinyl using a disc cutting machine. It was a live sound made in the studio. It was not an artificially produced sound as often occurs today with studio recordings of popular songs. His ability to capture the emotion of a song on to vinyl was so powerful that it has given his recordings a timeless quality that transcends an era.

Though Sunil wrote lyrics to his songs, he also invited Hela Havula poets to write words for him, including Munidasa Kumaratunga, Rapiyel Tennakoon, Gunapala Senadheera, Hubert Dissanayake, and Arisen Ahubudu. Because of the importance the Hela Havula poets placed on Elu-Sinhala, Sunil applied the Sinhala laghu-guru bedha in his song compositions, which is the system of short and long syllables in the Sinhala language. In Sinhala prosody, the symbol È is used for long syllables and is worth two beats (mātrā), while short sounds are represented by the symbol – and are equal to one beat. A metrical beat is equal to a finger click. The time-span between each beat must be equal and periodic. Thus, in Mal Gomu Gomu, a kavi written by Arisen Ahubudu to a sivpada metre, Sunil set the metre and rhythm of the text according to the laghu-guru principle as illustrated in the first line below.

Mal gumu notation

Here, the rhythm and the metre of the text follows the syllabic pattern of the words in which long syllables are given longer rhythmic values (crotchets and minims), and shorter sounds are accorded shorter rhythmic values (quavers).   With a few exceptions, this is a defining characteristic of his music and reveals that at a fundamental structural level, his music was neither eastern nor western, but Sinhala.[3] The fundamentals of his music are to be found in the interrelationships between the text, metre, rhythm and melody of each song. Rhythm and metre are particularly important in his music because these two fundamentals determine the shape and vitality of any melodic line in a Sinhala song.

It was from these fundamentals that Sunil built up the next layer of his music, in particular, the orchestrations for his songs, and for this, he drew on the textures and styles of both Oriental and Western music. He also abandoned the North Indian style of singing with its distinctive vocal ornamentation styles that he had learnt at Bhatkande in preference to the Catholic pasan style of singing. He developed his own vocal embellishments to suit the Sinhala language in which he would sometimes linger on a word or pull out a note purely for expressive effect. It was a fusion of these elements—rhythm, metre, melody, orchestration and style of singing—that gave his music recordings from 1946 to 1952 its distinctive character.

While the Sinhala music lobby considered Sunil to be a musical genius, some of the pro-Indian music lobby labelled him as ‘anti-Indian’, or attempted to dismiss his songs as ‘banal’, ‘simple’, or ‘too Western’. Like any composer, Sunil was an eclectic musician. He kept his ears open to all music but selectively drew only on the elements he felt were relevant for music in Sri Lanka. This was especially so in his vocal performance and style of orchestration. Though he was under the influence of the Hela Havula, Sunil did sometimes set his lyrics to Indian ragas as illustrated in the song Diva Reye Nidi Maruva which Sunil set to the Bhairavi raga. Sunil was also fond of the Bengali song Bhondure which he recorded for Radio Ceylon in the 1950s, singing it in the Bengali language while exploiting the rhythms and colours of Bengali orchestral music.

In 1949, three years after Sunil recorded Olu Pipila, Radio Ceylon introduced an A-B Grade audition system for its Sinhala and Tamil artists. Professor S. N. Ratanjankar, Sunil’s teacher at Bhatkande, was invited to Colombo to audition the Sinhala artists. Ostensibly, the aim of the audition system was to improve the standard of the recording artists. But when Professor Ratanjankar was invited back to Radio Ceylon in early 1952 to audition Sinhala artists, it was felt that he was being used by Radio Ceylon to impose Hindustani music standards on Sinhala music.[4] Sunil refused to audition and, as a consequence, he was immediately struck off as a Radio Ceylon recording artist. Sunil later wrote in 1960, ‘…the doors of Radio Ceylon were closed in front of me’.

In 1956, Sunil was given the opportunity to develop his music in a new direction when Dr. Lester James Peries invited him to compose music for his first film Rekawa, which was filmed on location in a rural village in the Kegalle District. One milestone in this film was the song Olu Nelum Neriya Rangala. A further opportunity to compose film music came in 1960 with Sandeshaya, which was Lester’s film about the Portuguese occupation of Sri Lanka. In these two films, Sunil explored different styles of songs perfectly tailored to the rich imagery of Lester’s films.

Another important category in Sunil’s creative output was his children’s songs. Sunil had a close relationship with children through his songs. His children songs were educational in which the swara and words were kept simple as illustrated in the popular children’s song Mal Pibidi Gena Enne.

In 1967, Sunil was invited back to Radio Ceylon which was renamed the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) in the same year. Since his last recordings in the 1950s, recording technology had evolved and Sunil began to record his songs on to reel-to-reel tape machines acquired by Radio Ceylon. This gave him the opportunity to achieve greater perfection in his recordings. For instance, if a performance was not up to scratch on the first take, he could record the song again until a satisfactory result was achieved.

There was also a change to his orchestra. Sunil no longer used the orchestra he had put together for his early recordings. In 1967, he began to use the Radio Ceylon Orchestra (Figure 2). This presented him with a few challenges. For instance, Sunil did not have the luxury of choosing the musicians from the Radio Ceylon Orchestra for his recordings but had to get the best out of whoever was available on the day of recording. A valuable insight into Sunil’s processes from composing songs at home to recording them at the SLBC studio comes from his son Lanka Santha. As he observes, ‘I never heard my father sing or play a musical instrument at home. All of his song compositions were conceived in his mind. He made notes and he would go to the recording studio and record them’.

Radio Ceylon OrchestraFigure 2. Radio Ceylon Orchestra

With his return to SLBC, Sunil began a new experimental phase in his search for a music language by stripping away certain parameters in his music, particularly in melodic composition. The film director and writer Tissa Abeysekera describes this phase of Sunil’s search for a music language like this.

In the compositions of this period [1967-70s] there is a radical departure from the earlier writings. Gone are the long looping bars spanning the entire scale; remember Ho Ga Rella Binde, and Kukuklu Hevilla? Instead the melodies have acquired a Spartan simplicity. They dwell on the lower notes of the scale hardly straying beyond the fifth. In Male Male, the melody is confined to the first three notes of the scale, and in Emba Ganga, and Poda Daham Silile, a single note is repeated….These melodies combine bare simplicity and expressive power to a degree unparalleled in Sinhala music (Abeysekara 2007: 32).

Though Sunil was refining the melodic contours of his songs to the range of a fifth or less, even to the point of repeating one note over certain phrases in a song, the melodies he composed for his songs in this latter period are remarkable gems combining a rigid discipline with great ingenuity.

In the mid-1970s, Sunil Santha embarked on an ambitious project to set the Sigiri Graffiti to music. These verses were inscribed by poets in the 7th – 9th centuries on the lime wall at the Sigiri rock (see Paranavitana, 1956). In setting these texts to music, Sunil investigated whether a written music notation existed in Sigiri music. This led him to create Sigiri Gee.

It is widely thought that until the late nineteenth century few notation systems had been developed in South Asia. However, the indigenous peoples of India and Sri Lanka have used word patterns and syllables for centuries to communicate ideas about music. The laghu-guru principle may be regarded as a type of notation because the syllabic patterns in a Sinhala verse communicate ideas to a musician about the meters, rhythms and talas. The question then arises that if metre and rhythm could be fashioned out of the syllabic patterns of the Sinhala language, then could word or syllable patterns be used to notate melodies? Sunil set down some of his ideas on this subject in the early 1970s in a note titled Sigiri Serasa, which is held in the SLBC Archives, which is translated into English as follows.

Sigiri Serasa by Sunil Santha

 Whenever we look at the artistic creations at the Ruwanweli Pagoda, Avukana Statue, Isurumuniya and the Sigiri frescoes, we can see how developed the people of our ancient times must have been, even without modern day facilities. It is therefore not surprising to find that a written poetry and music emerged from such a community. This is why I was hesitant to give a short answer to the question: ‘Is there is a written notation for Sigiri music?’

 In the east or west, the practice is to make a notation for any composition. However, without notation, there is a method that can be used in which the notation is in the song itself.

  1. Sigiri Gee

            Rusiri Gee

            Gee Risi Ru    

            Gira Serasi


  1. Sara Saru Gee

Saru Sari Gee

Gigiri Sirin

Gira Serasi


  1. Siru Gee

            Seru Gee

            Gigum Sarin   

            Gira Seresi                 


  1. Gum Gum Gee

Run Run Gee

Sansun See

Gira Serasa

 Today, we have in practice seven notes in the above songs. We can make a notation from the first three notes (swara).

 We have read about occasions in which people made unexpected discoveries while experimenting to discover something else. When I was researching whether there is a written music in Sigiri poetry, I came across an unexpected outcome, that is, a new unique song tradition which I have not seen in any country, or inside this country itself.

 Here, Sunil describes that a notation can be made from these four songs but he did not elaborate further as to exactly how a notation embodied in a verse could be used to create melodies. Though it is beyond the scope of this article, a comprehensive investigation into his Sigiri research materials and recordings held at the SLBC Archives demands further scholarly attention. Tissa Abeysekara makes the following observation on Sunil’s attempts to set Sigiri verses to music.

When Sunil Santha set these obscure lines to music, taking meticulous care not to disturb the phonology, he was reaching across ten centuries to a point in our cultural evolution where a specific phase in the development of the Sinhala language was frozen on a wall. Whether he broke through the wall of time and successfully picked up the broken thread, is a matter of opinion. However, when one listens to those quaint, staccato notes fused so well with the short, clipped syllables of the Sigiri verses, one gets the strange feeling, there is a communion here (Abeysekara, 2007: 34).

Sunil Santha’s search for a music language was born out of an aspiration to create a new indigenous Sinhala song tradition independent of Indian music. But at the same time, he did not want his music to be confused with Western music. It is also significant to note that his search for a music language occurred during the years of political transition from colonial rule to independence in 1948, and beyond into post-independent Sri Lanka.

In analysing the ingredients of his music, we find the deep and penetrating reverberations of the laghu-guru principle in the meters and rhythms of his lyrics fused together with Oriental and Western music influences. His songs were secure in their construction of these elements. But for all its hybridity, his songs captured the national character of the country.

In the 65 years of his life, Sunil spent just over ten years as a recording artist (from 1946 to 1952, and from 1967 to the mid-to-late 1970s). It is remarkable that in such a short span of time, he created some of the most influential and memorable songs of twentieth-century Sri Lanka, which has made an indelible impression on the musical landscape of this country.

The author acknowledges Alex van Arkadie in Italy for his comments and suggestions.


Abeysekara, Tissa. Roots, Reflections and Reminiscences. Nugegoda: Sarasavi Publishers, 2007.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. ‘A plea for the teaching of Indian music in Ceylon’, Journal of the Ceylon University Association 1(2) Oct. 1906: 142-50.

Donaldson, Tony. The Kavikāra Maduva: Ritual singers in the Daladā Māligāva (Temple of the Tooth), Kandy, PhD thesis, Monash University, 2001.

Independent Television Network (ITN). ‘Santha me re Yame’ [In the quiet hour of the night], a live telecast on Sunil Santha hosted by Tissa Abeysekera with Ivor Dennis, Arisen Ahubudu, Kolith Bhanu Dissanayake and Professor Vinie Vitharana, Colombo, 30 August 1997.

Iriyagolle, Indrani. ‘Sunil Santha: The Gentleman Musician’, in The Island, 3 April 1983.

Paranavitana, Senerat. Sigiri Graffiti I & 2. London: Oxford University Press with the Government of Ceylon, 1956.

Santha, Lanka. Personal communication, Atlanta, 20 February 2014.

Santha, Sunil. ‘Sigiri Serasa’, SLBC Archives, Colombo, [1975].

***     ****  ***

ADDENDUM, 16 March 2015:

These original recordings of Sunil Santha from 1950 have just been posted on Youtube for anyone of interest. The recordings are in two parts. Sunil Santha 1950 Music lessons on Radio Ceylon



with best regard, tony Donaldson


[1] The Sinhala word ‘hela’ is rooted in the word ‘Heladiva’, which literally translates as ‘Isle of the Sinhalese’. Thus, when ‘hela’ is paired with another word, it refers to something particular about the Sinhalese nation. The term ‘Hela Havula’ became widely used in the 1960s to refer to a ‘gang’, ‘group’ or ‘batch’ of like-minded persons striving to promote a refined and disciplined style of the Sinhala language (svabasha), while ‘Hela Gee’ refers to a distinct type of Sinhala song.

[2] Sunil Santha did not use brass instruments in his recordings.

[3] The laghu-guru principle can also be found in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy in which the ritual singers, known as the Kavikara Maduva, set the rhythm, meters and talas of their texts according to the syllabic pattern of the words (See Donaldson, 2001).

[4] There is little evidence to support the claim that Professor S. N. Ratanjankar set out to impose Hindustani music values on Sinhala music. His professional activities in Ceylon suggest the opposite. For instance, he published an article on Sinhala folksongs in the Royal Asiatic Society of Ceylon in 1952, and while on a stopover in Anuradhapura, on his return journey to India in June 1952, he advocated that Radio Ceylon artists should give up imitating Indian the music of other cultures and to make their own music (see ‘Better Sinhalese Radio Music’, Ceylon Daily News, 1 July 1952.). According to Tissa Abeysekera, the restrictions placed on Sinhala music and recording artists in the 1950s came from within Radio Ceylon (see Abeysekera, 2007: 20-23).


Filed under cultural transmission, education, ethnicity, life stories, patriotism, performance, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, unusual people

3 responses to “Sunil Santha: A Search for Sinhala Music

  1. Cassian M Fernando

    How can I get lyrics of Kau Silumini Rajide And Sansun sithakin and aslso Purunu a somi sade These songs arte not heard today

  2. Janakiraman A

    Dear Sir

    As you mention in this Article, if any possible to share the following reference to me, Pl, am willing top read a lot about Coomurasway Article

    Year 1906
    Volume 1
    Issue 2
    Page(s) 142-150

    Pl send the above article

    Janakiraman A

  3. Dr. Nishadh Handunpathirana

    Dear Sir, Please kindly send me a copy of book. Journal of the Ceylon university association, Article A Plea for the teaching of Indian music in Ceylon year 1906. Volume 1

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