Tony Donaldson to introduce Sunil Santha and His Sinhala Music to Contemporary Lankans

Tony Donaldson will be presenting the inaugural Guru Devi Sunil Santha Memorial Lecture  at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 14 December 2016. The talk is entitled “Sunil Santha: The Man who invented Sinhala Music for a Modern Age” …  Dr Ruvan Ekanayake will give a Sinhala translation of the lecture.

sunil-shantha sunilshantha

ABSTRACT OF TALK: Since the arrival of Sunil Santha on the music world in 1946, there has been a great deal written and talked about his music. People have listened to his songs. His songs have been sung in films, on the concert stage and television, or at parties, picnics and weddings. His music has been played by military bands, at state occasions or cricket matches. I too have listened to his music but somehow I have never penetrated to his core to really understand him, and I dare say that except for his close supporters and those who care about his music, nor has anyone else. I say this advisedly because much of what has been said and written about Sunil Santha and his music by academics and critics has been wrong, and so this gives me the chance to get it right this time. It is time to crack his DNA.

I will begin by contextualizing the historical conditions in this country from the late 19th century which led to the emergence of Sunil Santha in the 1940s as the inventor of a new form of Sinhala music for a modern age. I will say something about the nature of creativity in music and why Sunil Santha is a seminal figure in Sinhala music today. I will also say something about the intellectuals who set out to undo his success. In the final part of the lecture I will turn to discuss his music by asking three fundamental questions about its DNA.

I have subtitled this talk “The Man who Invented Sinhala Music for a Modern Age.”  But before I get into unpacking that statement, let me begin with a few observations about the different narratives of Sunil Santha and his music.


  • Tony Donaldson: “Sunil Santha: A Search for Sinhala Music,”  12 March 2015,
  • Carlo Fonseka:  “Sunil Santha Reverie,”  12 April 2007,

Tony Donaldson studied music performance and Asian languages at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, from 1983 to 1986. In 1987, he completed a Post-Graduate Diploma in Music Performance and Teaching from the Nelson School of Music studying under the English guitarist John Mills. In 1988, he was awarded an Indonesian Government Scholarship to study gamelan music on the island of Java and after two years there, he returned to New Zealand to complete further degrees in anthropology and ethnomusicology. In 1995, he completed a Master’s degree (with Distinction) at Victoria University on the music and dance of west Java.  On the strength of this success, he was awarded a Monash Graduate Scholarship in 1996 to undertake doctoral research at Monash University, Australia, on the rituals and music in the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka. It was while carrying out fieldwork in Sri Lanka in 1997 that he first encountered the songs of Sunil Santha. He graduated with a PhD from Monash University in 2003.

In-between academic studies, he also spent time giving concert tours of the United States, Mexico and New Zealand. He has commissioned 15 music compositions by leading New Zealand composers, including David Hamilton, John Ritchie and David Farquhar. In the 1990s, he was actively involved with composers around the world, including the British composer Sir Michael Tippett. He worked with Tippett on his music in a master class before a public audience, and went on to perform his music in a public recital the next day, with the composer present.

On completing a PhD, he joined the Monash Asia Institute and also lectured at RMIT University. From 2008 to 2009, he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore to initiate a project on contemporary artists. He has since worked tirelessly throughout Asia and Europe on projects relating to music and the visual arts.







Filed under art & allure bewitching, cultural transmission, education, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian traditions, landscape wondrous, sri lankan society, unusual people, world affairs

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