In Search of Sunil Santha

Tony Donaldson, courtesy of THE CEYLANKAN, Vol  XX, November 2017, … with highlighting emphasis being an imposition by The Editor, Thuppahi

In November 2016, I travelled to Sri Lanka at the invitation of the Sunil Santha Society to deliver the inaugural Guru Devi Sunil Santha Memorial Lecture in Colombo. I wrote the lecture in September and titled it Sunil Santha: The Man who Invented Sinhala Music for a Modern Age. The cardiologist Dr. Ruvan Ekanayake, a great fan of Sunil Santha’s music, translated the lecture into Sinhala. I spent 25 days in Sri Lanka. What follows is an account of the trip with a few critical reflections. I will not expand on the lecture as it exists as a published book and it need not be repeated here.

  With the Sunil Santha Samajaya. l-r. Upali Ariyasiri, Lanka Santha, Tony Donaldson, Vijith Kumar Senaratne, Lloyd Fernando, and Pushkara Wanniarachchi.

When Lanka Santha invited me to give the lecture, I suggested to him that I could profitably use my time before the lecture engaged on research. I was particularly interested to collect oral history interviews from singers and musicians who had worked closely with Sunil Santha, and to obtain relevant materials held in the archives of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). He agreed. The Sunil Santha Society also arranged for me to spend time engaged on other scholarly pursuits such as the visual arts, ritual singing in the Temple of the Tooth, and visiting sites used by Force 136 in WWII.

Front cover of the book “Sunil Santha: The Man Who Invented Sinhala Music for a Modern Age” (in English and Sinhala) published by the Sunil Santha Society in 2016.

I first came to know Sunil Santha by chance when I attended a gramophone exhibition in Colombo in early July 1997. The exhibition comprised hundreds of photographs, paintings, disc covers, recording equipment and memorabilia on the development of the gramophone music industry in Sri Lanka. Many of the exhibits were loaned from private collectors.

A Radio Ceylon stall was set up by the SLBC with a rare collection of photos from the SLBC Archives, including photos of recording artists such as Rukmani Devi, Mohideen Baig, and Pandit W. D. Amaradeva. There was also a photo of Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allarakha taken during a recording session at Radio Ceylon. Some of these photos were probably taken by Dunstan de Silva, the head of Sinhala Services at Radio Ceylon, who occasionally brought a camera into the studio.

Among the exhibits in the Radio Ceylon stall was a letter written by Sunil Santha about a song he composed for Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike a few days after he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in September 1959. The letter was so astonishing that it compelled me to find out more about this composer, but that is a story for another occasion. The filmmaker, scriptwriter and actor Tissa Abeysekara (1939-2009), a good friend, and a fan of Sunil’s songs, initiated me into his music.

Sunil Santha was a prolific composer, shaping the music of his native Sri Lanka over four decades from the 1940s to the 1970s. He was a craftsman of song, both in the words and music. He had a remarkable ability to compose beautiful melodies and to set his songs to imaginative orchestrations that showed great artistic autonomy. He was drawn to a pure form of Sinhala devoid of Sanskrit influences. The power of words and the awe in which his songs are held informs much of the cultural life of Sri Lanka. His songs are a vital means of communication about the history, language, environment and human conditions of Sri Lanka. Composers are thus figures of great importance in their cultures.

Sunil was also a painter. He mainly painted landscapes that captured the poetic imagery of his songs. He also owned a camera and spent time walking around villages taking photographs of ordinary people, rivers and fields. A few of his photos have survived including two photos of his good friend Anthony Perera who still lives in Jaela. Sunil once entered a photo competition and won first prize for a picture called The Making of Greatness. The photo shows a boy studying at night in a simple room with only a book, a table and a kerosene lamp. The title of the work suggests that those who have little can achieve great things through diligent study.

I arrived in Sri Lanka on Friday 25 November at 1.40am after a short three hour flight from Singapore and a time zone change of two hours. It was dawn as the taxi bus took me 30 km to the city. I checked into an ocean view room in a hotel in front of the Galle Face Green and spent the next three days catching up with colleagues and friends. I last visited Sri Lanka 17 years ago. The Civil War was then raging and I was curious to see how the country had changed. Some things have not changed such as local hospitality, the taste of kiribath (milk rice), or the crowds that gather every night on the Galle Face Green to sit, eat at food stalls, talk with friends, or fly kites in the night sky.

There have been changes. More tourists are visiting the island; the largest number now come from China. The Police road blocks that were once scattered in and around Colombo have gone. The Fort area was heavily guarded. Vehicles entering the Fort area were checked. I can remember walking around the block of the Fort area in 1996 to get fresh air and noticed numerous armed guards in camouflage uniforms in the gardens surrounding the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Camouflage was very effective and it was only a slight movement in one’s peripheral vision that alerted you to their presence. The airport area was heavily guarded and prior to unloading, vehicles were put into small holding bays and inspected. Mirrors were wheeled underneath to detect possible explosive devices. But these security measures were not enough. In 2001, the Tamil Tigers exploited a vulnerability in the perimeter fence to gain access and to launch an attack on commercial planes. It was a major blow to the economy and I can still remember the psychological ripples that swept over the country in the days immediately following the attack.

The war has ended. The process towards reconciliation is slow. But there is a new liberating environment. People can talk openly and be more critical of political leaders. That didn’t occur so often in the past. I can remember a time when people were so afraid to speak they would use a kind of coded language such as the infamous “white vans” which meant some critic of the government had been dragged off a street and never seen again. Such language enabled one to avoid mentioning the perpetrators by name.

Sunil Santha was untouched by this tragic history. He died two years before the Civil War began in 1983. He began composing songs during the transitional years from colonialism to independence, and with a pioneering spirit, he found a natural and legitimate way to invent a new type of Sinhala music for a modern age.

On my first day in Colombo I met with Vijith Kumar Seneratne from the Sunil Santha Society to discuss the final arrangements for the lecture. He gave me two CDs of Sunil Santha’s music and train tickets for Kandy. I gave him a silk tie.

The next morning (26th November) I took breakfast on the verandah of the Galle Face Hotel. On the lawn near the palm trees, the Crow Man was using a slingshot to scare crows that were trying to swoop down on guests. It was at this time that I received a message from Daya Dissanayake to inform me that the author, lyricist and environmentalist Sunil Sarath Perera would give a tribute lecture on Pandit Amaradeva later in the morning to mark his passing away about a month earlier. I had met Sunil in Melbourne and so I decided to attend the talk and I made my way to the lecture hall in a quiet street in Colombo 5. As I entered the lecture room, Sunil Sarath Perera greeted me and we talked for five minutes. He presented a very fine exposition on Amaradeva which he illustrated with music examples that demonstrated Amaradeva’s greatness as a singer and composer. At one point, he invited me to the stage to talk about Sunil Santha.

The Crow Man keeps the birds away from guests at the Galle Face Hotel.

My good friend Sunil Sarath Perera presenting a tribute lecture on Pandit Amaradeva in Colombo on 26 November 2016.

On a late Sunday afternoon (27th), I met with the photographer Dominic Sansoni in the Traveller’s Bar at the Galle Face Hotel. The bar boasts a large collection of photos of famous actors, writers, composers, musicians, military commanders and world leaders who have stayed at the hotel since the 19th century. The Russian play writer Anton Chekhov stayed at the Galle Face Hotel in 1890, as did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1920, Cole Porter in 1929, Lord Louis Mountbatten in 1940, Noel Coward in 1944, Gregory Peck in 1954, Sir David Lean in 1957, Che Guevara in 1958, Sri Lankan born businessman, adventurer and writer Christopher Ondaatje in the 1990s, Sir Ben Kinsley in 2000, and Irish celebrity chef Rachel Allen in 2015.

 Christopher Ondaatje

Dominic and I were talking about art and enjoying afternoon tea with samosas, chicken satay, fruit platter when all of a sudden at 5.45pm we were interrupted by the shrilling sounds of a bagpipe blearing through the windows. Dressed in a Scottish kilt, the musician walked slowly down to the ocean in front of the hotel playing a haunting tune on his pipes. He was accompanied by a smartly dressed flag carrier. To the sounds of a bagpipe, the national flag was pulled down and neatly folded with military precision as the sun was setting into a brilliant red sky. The bagpiper and flag carrier then turned and proceeded to walk solemnly up the steps towards the hotel. This ritual was introduced into the hotel about two years ago. I stayed in the Galle Face Hotel many times in the 1990s, often in a spacious colonial-style room overlooking the Galle Face Green. It remains one of my favourite spots in Colombo.

  Bagpiper and flag carrier conclude their daily ritual at the Galle Face Hotel.

On Monday morning (28th), I travelled on the Intercity express train to Kandy. I was met at Kandy Station in the early afternoon by Dr. Anura Danthanarayana, a keen golf player, who runs a lovely hotel called the Days Inn. This was my home in Kandy for this part of the trip.

After dropping my gear at Days Inn, I went into Kandy town at 3.30pm to meet the art collector Shamil Peiris. Shamil began collecting art about thirty years ago. We had a lively conversation and though he would not specify the exact number of artworks in his collection, he did say he had about 30 artists in his stable, including the world’s largest collection of sculptures by Tissa Ranasinghe, and works by the ‘43 Group, Laki Senanayake, Anoli Perera, Kingsley Gunatillake, and Nalini Jayasuryia. About 15 years ago, Shamil went crazy on abstract art after being exposed to the work of H. A. Karunaratne. Some of his paintings were on his office wall and though Karunaratne is a recluse and doesn’t promote himself, Shamil felt his art could travel easily and was for the world.

 H. A, KARUNARATNE…..Untitled | 1988 | Oil on canvas | 96.5 x 76 cm.

We also discussed the challenges of art patronage in Sri Lanka and the role art promoting houses in Colombo could play such as the Saskia Gallery, Barefoot Gallery and Hempel Galleries. While many people appreciate art, cultivating a strong collector base with those who can afford to buy art has not reached its full potential. The number of buyers in Sri Lanka with very large art collections is tiny. We could count them on our fingers. Much also depends on the economy. The art market is volatile. Most people only buy art when they have extra money. Art is a luxury item (unlike food) and if the economy goes down, the art market goes down too.

I spent the next two days at the Temple of the Tooth with the Kavikara Maduva. I had studied this group of ritual singers from a traditional Paramparava for my PhD in the late 1990s.[1] Three members of the group I had worked with twenty years ago died in 2014, and a new generation of singers born in the 1980s is now reinvigorating this unique Sinhala-Buddhist music tradition, which was introduced into the Temple of the Tooth about 250 years ago. I was given permission to enter the Sanctum in the upper chamber during the Nanumura Mangalle, the Ritual of Sacred Cleaning, so that I could observe their performance. The repertoire is the same, the performance practice is unchanged and it is probably the only example of a living Sinhala singing tradition to have survived from the Kandyan period. After the ritual I spent time with the group catching up on their news.

Temple of the Tooth, Kandy.

Crowds gather around the Lower Chamber in the Temple of the Tooth waiting to collect Nanu following the Nanumura ritual in the Upper Chamber. Compared to the 1990s when I was conducting fieldwork inside the Maligawa there were fewer people, but today the temple attracts incredibly huge crowds of Sinhalese-Buddhists and foreign tourists alike.

 Long queues of Sinhalese-Buddhists stretching from the Upper Chamber

 Crowds outside the Sanctum where the Sacred Tooth Relic of Lord Buddha is kept

I spent a few days visiting sites used by Mountbatten and Force 136 in WWII, including the SEAC headquarters in the Botanical Gardens. I also spent an afternoon at the Riverdale Bungalow which became the residence of Force 136 commander Colin Mackenzie in November 1944. The bungalow was chosen because it was in a quiet secluded spot which kept SOE out of the public eye.

SEAC Building at Peradeniya Gardens used by Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asian Command, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Photo by Tony Donaldson

The Riverdale bungalow is owned today by Mrs. Dilky Senanayake. I was first introduced to Dilky and her son Thulantha through my good friend Norman Martinesz, who was out of the country at the time of my visit to Riverdale at his homes in England and France.

In the 1940s, the Riverdale bungalow was owned by Sidney Smith, a British tea planter. According to Dilky, Sidney was a good friend of her father-in-law, Dr. James Senanayake. He was also Sidney’s doctor. There were rumours that Sidney was a British spy, but so far I have found no evidence to verify it.

In 1954, Sidney decided to return to England and he offered first option on the bungalow to James. He purchased the bungalow and it has remained in the family to this day. The bungalow, which was used by David Lean in his award winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai was recently refurbished and is now a luxury boutique hotel. It is a beautiful spot.

In the gardens at Riverdale – absolutely gorgeous!

I had a splendid afternoon with Dilky and Thulantha talking about the history of the bungalow in WW II and its connection with Force 136. We sat on the terrace outside with stunning views. Force 136 was the Special Operations Executive (SOE) organisation operating in Asia in WWII. Its headquarters was established in late 1941 in Meerut, India, but after Mountbatten relocated his headquarters to Kandy on 15 April 1944, Force 136 established an Advanced Headquarters in Kandy on the same day with Leonard Guise and Peter Lindsay who took up residence in a former tea planter’s bungalow at Yahalatenne. The main Force 136 headquarters remained in Meerut for another seven months.

Why did Colin Mackenzie wait seven months before moving the main Force 136 headquarters to Kandy? Mountbatten had an “intense personal interest” in Force 136’s move to Kandy but he accepted that decision should be made internally within SOE and he did not wish to interfere.[2] The matter was discussed between Mackenzie and the Chief of SOE, Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins. One reason Mackenzie had chosen Meerut for his headquarters was because no one else operated there which allowed SOE to operate out of public view and without interference and it was felt that it could continue to do so after Mountbatten moved the SEAC Headquarters to Kandy so long as Force 136 had a liaison office in Kandy. Mackenzie was also aware that SOE’s Oriental Mission, which had operated out of Singapore from May 1941 to early 1942, had largely failed to achieve its objectives because of constant interference from both the local civil and military authorities.  Both resented SOE’s presence. This is why Meerut was an ideal location for SOE in India. However, after the SEAC headquarters was relocated to Kandy, Ceylon became the focal point for Mountbatten’s planning in the war against Japan and when Mackenzie reviewed the situation in September 1944, he decided Force 136 had to move its main headquarters to Kandy, which took place in late November.[3]

A site for the headquarters was discreetly selected on a small hill 16 km from Mountbatten’s headquarters on the other side of Kandy. Basha buildings were constructed for the new headquarters while basha huts were built next to the headquarters to accommodate around 70 staff. The basha huts were constructed with interwoven coconut palm leaves, a cement floor with undressed timber or bamboo. The structure was simple with no nails or fasteners. Everything was bound by coir ropes. When it came to putting safes and filling cabinets into the basha buildings, the roof would be lifted, an elephant team would be sent for and “…an enormous elephant would step delicately up to the wall, swing his trunk over it and lift out the safes and the filing cabinets and put them down where they were needed.”[4]

Basha huts were later constructed in the gardens of Riverdale to accommodate the Deputy Commander Force 136 Brigadier John Anstey, Propaganda and Psychological Warfare chief Alec Peterson, Bickham Sweet-Escott, who joined Force 136 as Chief-of-Staff in January 1945 after the wind up of SOE’s Force 133 in the Middle East, and Lt. Col Jean de Crèvecœur, the French officer responsible for Force 136 intelligence on Indo-China.[5]

A sumptuous Sri Lankan buffet lunch was prepared for me at Riverdale. After lunch, Dilky showed me a beautiful set of ink drawings by the artist Laki Senanayake of “Treescapes” which were printed in a limited edition of 500 under the title Drawings from the Royal Botanical Gardens Peradeniya.

The next morning, the Sunil Santha Society arranged for me to travel north to visit Laki at his home at Diyabubula, about 15 km south-east of Dambulla. Laki is perhaps best known for his beautifully intricate textures of jungles, insects, birds, owls, elephants, erotic figures, and sometimes unicorns, or a mongoose, butterfly or pink cat. His output includes drawings, watercolours, paintings, sculptures, murals, silk screen works, and digital artworks. He also designed Sri Lankan banknotes that show his distinctive vocabulary for depicting birds and jungles.

Author (right) with the artist Laki Senanayake at Diyabubula.

Laki’s home is an open type of structure built into the jungle. I found him wearing a sarong and sitting in a chair overlooking the lake built into his home. He was peering through binoculars at birds and wildlife that inhabit his world. He pointed to a tree full of termites and he expounded on the benefits of keeping termites around his home. We talked for a few hours and he invited me for lunch. He was charming and graceful.

On the wall behind the dining table was a big ink drawing of a jungle scene. A closer examination revealed another layer in the drawing of an elephant merged into the jungle setting. It was not immediately clear an elephant was there and it reminded me of the experience one often encounters in the jungles of South and Southeast Asia which only allows us to see a few feet in front of us.

The remaining two weeks in Sri Lanka was spent researching Sunil Santha. I began collecting oral history interviews from singers, musicians, family and friends, who had worked with Sunil or knew him well. Lanka Santha arranged for Kapila Dissasekara to assist me with the interviews and background research. Kapila is a huge man, and the nephew of the legendary singer and Radio Ceylon recording engineer Narada Dissasekara. We got on famously. I liked his passion, resolute commitment, and I could not have asked for a better assistant. We weren’t quite sure where the enterprise was going or whether it would get there, but we were both committed to getting to the truth about Sunil Santha.

  Kapila Dissasekara

My first interview was with Nalini Ranasinghe at her home on the outskirts of Kandy. Nalini has a pure Oriental voice devoid of Western influence with an expressive quality that suited Sunil Santha’s songs and complemented his voice to near perfection.

  Nalini Ranasinghe

She first came to Sunil’s attention in 1967 after appearing on an amateur show at Radio Ceylon. She sang duets with Sunil on Sarada walaa gaba and Mal gomu gumu for Madura Madua, a radio program loaded with experiments. She was also in the group songs that were broadcast on the Pancha Madhura program on Radio Ceylon which was aimed at giving support to the Mahaveli River Development Project. I interviewed Nalini for five hours. Kapila was delayed coming up from Colombo by almost three hours. He arrived late into the interview.

During the interview, I asked Nalini to describe what it was like to sing and record with Sunil Santha. She said: “He always came to Radio Ceylon with a smile. He came dressed in our national attire wearing a long-sleeve white shirt and a sarong. I never saw him wearing shoes in the recording studio. He must have kept his shoes in the car because he would enter the studio barefoot. Before recording a song, he would explain to each singer how each and every word of the song should be sung.”

“He was the greatest teacher in the music field in our country because he never held back or kept techniques and knowledge to himself, but gave it freely to everyone. He never raised his voice in the studio. He spoke softly. If Ivor Denis made a mistake, for instance, Sunil would gently say to him: “Ivor, you have to sing this part this way – slowly.” He never gave cause for any singer or musician to be afraid of him, but rather created a comfortable environment in the studio for singers to record his songs. It was so relaxing and easy.”

“He had one of the most melodious voices I have ever heard. I am humbly proud to have sung with Sunil Santha as one of the greatest musicians of Sri Lanka. Contrary to what some people have said, he was not against any music. He respected all music traditions, but mixed many elements he drew on to create a unique music for Sri Lanka. Even after enduring great harassment, he took it in a different manner, in a polite way. He was never bitter towards those who harassed him.” [6]

We finished the interview around 7pm and as I bid Nalini farewell, we clasped hands and she took my field notebook and wrote a lovely appreciation in Sinhala script. She was really touched that I had taken the time and effort to come a long distance from Australia to her home to listen to her life story. Kapila and I left and took a bus into Kandy. We dined at the Empire café next to the Temple of the Tooth.

We interviewed Amitha Dalugama in Colombo a week later. Amitha came to Sunil’s attention after he returned to SLBC in 1967 when he began searching for talented young singers for his songs. Amitha told me Sunil did not waste time in idle chatter and would only speak when he had a good reason to do so. She sang with Sunil on the songs Reyey sonduru rayey and Emba ganga. We decided to do the interview on the rooftop at the apartment. I was not too thrilled about it due to the street noise and technical difficulties but it was the only option available at short notice. She showed me her treasures of photos, newspaper cuttings, record sleeves and CDs. It was a special moment.

Amitha Dalugama singing accompanying herself on a tanpura… and Amitha being interviewed in Colombo, December 2016

Amitha shared all she knew, including an account of the day Emba ganga was recorded at Radio Ceylon. There was much laughter during the interview. One amusing story was about her first meeting with Lionel Edirisinghe, the Head of the Music Department at the Institute of Aesthetic Studies in Colombo, which was established in 1952 as the nation’s leading tertiary arts institution.  The meeting took place in 1963. Amitha was attending an interview for a place in the music performance course when Lionel suddenly asked her: “Can you sing well?”

“Yes, I can sing well” she replied.

“Can you sing some songs?”

Amitha had come to interview unprepared to sing and so she stood and sang the national anthem, the only song she could think of at that moment. As she finished the song, Lionel asked: “Don’t you know any other songs?”

“I know the songs, but I became scared coming here today and I can only remember this song.”[7]

A list of the successful applicants was posted on a notice board in the afternoon. Amitha was thrilled to see her name on the list. She spent the next six years studying vocal and violin performance.

The next day (7th) Lanka Santha and I were scheduled to meet with the Chairman of SLBC, Nanda Muruttetuwegama, to obtain his permission to access materials on Sunil Santha in the SLBC Archives. In the early morning Lanka sent a message to say his sister Kala was critically ill and he would be unable to join me and so I went to SLBC with Vijith in a tuk tuk. We were quickly ushered in to the Chairman’s office and had a pleasant conversation with him. I could sense he genuinely wanted to help me and he showed a great interest in my research. He instructed his staff to search for the materials I had requested, but things didn’t work out and I was unable to obtain a single item from the archives.

It is one thing to meet the SLBC Chairman but when one gets down to the rank-and-file, one encounters a civil service mentality that obstructs what researchers need to do. The sad thing is that making the archives at SLBC accessible to scholars and researchers is not a top agenda for the SLBC. This works against the interests of Sri Lanka because we only get part of the story and don’t get to fully know the history. To this day, we still only have part of the story about Sunil Santha because letters, documents, photos, and even some of his recordings have vanished or cannot be found. It is little wonder that many commentators resort to inventing stories about Sunil Santha because getting to the truth is not possible if historical sources are not made available to scholars and researchers.

I left SLBC in the early afternoon and went to the Traveller’s Bar to have tea with Ranil Samarasuriya who runs a luxury boutique hotel called The Elephant Stables. He was helping Thulantha to develop Riverdale into a boutique hotel. Ranil was unable to meet me in Kandy when I was at Riverdale, so we arranged to meet in Colombo. We sat under a portrait of Mountbatten and talked for over an hour about Force 136’s connection with Riverdale, and some of their operations mounted from Ceylon.

Early the next morning (8th) Lloyd Fernando, Vijith, Daya and I travelled to Jaela to interview Ivor Denis and Anthony Perera. Ivor is 85 and Anthony 76. We first went to Ivor’s home in Seeduwa on the busy Colombo Road but found it too noisy to record the interview there, so Lloyd drove us down a quiet road in Kindigoda which ran alongside the Dandugam Oya, a river that could easily be a reference in a Sunil Santha song. We did the interview nearby in an open church.

 Dandugam Oya (Aththanagalu Oya), the river in Kindigoda where we interviewed Ivor Denis.

From the day Ivor met Sunil Santha in 1952, he has been his most fervent disciple. He has kept the trust and loyalty to his guru. One subject we discussed was the songs Sunil Santha composed for the films Rekava [The Line of Destiny] and Sandeshaya [The Message], which were directed by Lester James Peries.

Sunil was a reluctant film music composer. Lester, who had been interested in music from his schooldays, had decided in the late 1940s that his first full-length film would feature songs and dances and he wanted Sunil Santha to be involved in composing music for it. But it took Lester two years to persuade Sunil to accept his invitation to compose music for his films as Vijith Kumar Senaratne explains:

“In the 1940s, while Lester James Peries was living and working in London as a journalist, he heard Sunil Santha’s Olu Pipila song. He realised the freshness and the difference in the style of singing and the musical form of the song and decided to use Sunil Santha as his Music Director in his future film projects. Some years later, Lester returned to live in Sri Lanka and he often met Sunil at his home in Ja-ela to try and persuade him to join him on his film projects. However, due to the poor quality of Sinhala film music at that time, Sunil refused Lester’s request to compose the music for RekavaSunil felt it was better to struggle on his own to create a music style than to involve himself in cheap Sinhala film music. But Lester was persistent and kept on talking to Sunil about his plan to create a better Sinhala cinema.”

One day Lester went to meet Sunil with Fr. Marcelline Jayakody who was very close to Sunil. Sunil finally agreed to compose the music for the Rekavasongs but with conditions. The first condition was that Fr. Jayakody should write the lyrics. The second condition was that his pupil Ivor Denis and the musician B. S. Perera should record the proposed songs for the film instead of Sunil. Lester agreed to all conditions.” [8]

Lester’s idea for creating “a better Sinhala cinema” meant that he wanted to make films with a “humanistic spirit.” He was more committed to the stories and characters and “cared about their destiny” which could involve many aspects beyond “the narrow confines of political concerns,”[9] or cinematic love thrills. This is why it took almost ten years for Sinhalese audiences to begin appreciating his films.

The songs and music for Rekava and Sandeshaya were recorded at a studio in Madras which had better facilities than was available in Colombo in the 1950s. Sunil appointed Ivor to lead the Sinhalese singers who flew to Madras for the recording sessions. The orchestra was made up of Indian musicians from Madras that specialized in recording film music. While Sunil was satisfied with the recording of the songs for Rekava, he was deeply unhappy with the recordings of the music he composed for the Sandeshaya songs.

 A scene from Rekava

Sandeshaya was produced by K. Gunaratnam’s productions.[10] The music director for the film was R. Muttusamy. Born in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu in 1926, Muttusamy migrated to Ceylon in 1952 and worked for the Radio Ceylon Tamil Orchestra. He later joined K. Gunaratnam’s productions as a music director for their films. However, Muttusamy didn’t understand or didn’t care for Sunil’s musical language and he proceeded to do the most extraordinary things to his music. He introduced into the Sandeshaya songs a shehnai, a double-reed wind instrument associated with Bismillah Khan and temples and weddings in North India. Sunil’s aspiration was to create an indigenous music for Sri Lanka and to achieve this, one of the things he did was to avoid Indian colours or influences in his music and he never used a shehnai. Muttusamy also changed part of the melody in the song Puruthugeesi kaarayaa without consulting the composer.

In talking about his experience with Muttusamy in Madras in 1959 Ivor said: “Sunil Santha was not present when the music for Sandeshaya was being recorded in Madras, and if he had been there, he would have objected to the orchestrations and changes to the melody of Puruthugeesi kaarayaa. He was unhappy about it and he was not happy about the shehnai being used on his songs because of its strong Indian colour.”[11]

 Vijith (2nd from right) discusses a point about Sunil Santha’s music with Ivor Denis at Kindigoda, as Lloyd and Daya look on. Photo by Tony Donaldson

It was this approach to indigenous music that led many people to think Sunil was against Indian music which was untrue. In his music classes, Sunil taught Indian raga music more than his own songs. He believed raga music was a good basis for teaching students the fundamentals of music. He just didn’t feel it should be extended into his own compositions or creativity for developing indigenous music in Sri Lanka.

After the interview, we accompanied Ivor to his home and I bid him farewell. I met him again when he came to my lecture in Colombo.

I had initially planned to do five interviews but because things were going so well, Lanka Santha and Kapila kept finding more people for me to interview and it reached a point where we were doing two interviews a day.

  The author (at centre) with Nalina Gunarathna and Buddhima Subasinghe on the Rise & Shine show at Rupavahini on 12 December 2016.

While the local newspapers gave good coverage for my lecture on Sunil Santha, some of what was published was misleading or the product of lazy journalism from inventing quotes to cutting and pasting material from the Internet without any attempt to check or verify the data. My experience with television was better. On Friday 9 December, Vijith and Pushkara Wanniarachchi came to my apartment at 11am and together we set off for the ITN studios in heavy traffic. We were scheduled to appear on a show hosted by TV veteran Indunil Dissanayake. The show was pre-recorded and broadcast on ITN the following Monday at 7.30am.

Thirty minutes before the ITN broadcast, I did a live half hour interview with Buddhima Subasinghe and Nalina Gunarathna on the Rise & Shine show televised on Channel Eye at Rupavahini. What I liked about Buddhima and Nalina was that they were fresh and new and didn’t try to bait me with a hidden agenda. Lanka watched the broadcast from the back of the studio. Buddhima and Nalina didn’t seem to realize he had been watching the show but as we were leaving Rupavahini, they quickly came down the corridor to spend a few minutes talking with him. We were taking photos when suddenly the composer Nadeeka Gurage walked in with a guitar strapped around him. He was supposed to appear on Rise & Shine with me but was delayed getting to the studio as he had to drive up from a film shoot in a location in the south of the island. Nadeeka, Lanka and I went to the Otters Aquatic Club for a delicious breakfast of string hoppers and curries in quiet idyllic surroundings and we had a memorable conversation on the state of music in Sri Lanka.

 Lanka and Nadeeka at Otters. (Photo by Tony Donaldson)

We left Otters and Lanka drove me to my apartment. As we winded slowly through the streets in Colombo 5, he told me his sister Kala was terminally ill in hospital and he talked about her condition which explained why he was unable to meet me earlier. It was sad news. Sunil Santha Junior had arrived in Sri Lanka a few days earlier to be with his sister. She passed away a month later on 15 January 2017.

After lunch, Lanka and I collected an oral history interview from Ariyasena Millawithanachchi, the son of a professional photographer. Ariyasena began a successful career as an announcer for Radio Ceylon’s Commercial Service in 1957. He impressed me as a man of quiet dignity and great integrity. His insider knowledge of Radio Ceylon was valuable for my research.

  Interviewing former SLBC Radio announcer Ariyasena Millawithanachchi

The next morning I interviewed the singer Christopher Paul at his home in Mount Lavinia. Lanka Santha came too. Christo, as he is known to his friends, though he is in his 80s, he loves singing and during our interview he would often burst into a song. He was introduced to Sunil Santha in 1956 through Francis Perera, his music teacher at St Sebastian’s College and he studied under Sunil Santha for the next three years.

Lanka Santha talks about his father with Christopher Paul. (Photo by Tony Donaldson)

Christo paid tribute to his guru Sunil Santha for giving him the correct training to become a very fine singer and a Radio Ceylon recording artist. Christo came to fame with Bello Muthu Bello, a song inspired by pearl harvesting in Batticaloa. His popularity soared further after he recorded Pem Loke Pura in which the lyrics in Sinhala were set to the melody of Wooden Heart by Elvis Presley.

Christo talked about the day in February 1957 when he joined with Sunil Santha and Ivor Denis to perform a program of songs at a state reception at Temple Trees for Chinese Premier Chou En Lai and Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

Christo was also with Sunil in the darkest days of his life when his third son Jagath died after drowning in suspicious circumstances in a swimming pool at the Blue Oceanic Hotel in Negombo on a Saturday evening in late February 1981.  Jagath was attending the Steel Corporation’s Engineers Union AGM and was supposed to sing at a party but didn’t turn up. There was a power cut in the hotel. When power was restored, his colleagues went to look for him and found his body in the hotel pool.

Lanka Santha talked about those dark days like this,

“That evening (Feb 28, 1981), my mother and brother Sunil went to Negombo to identify the body and they came home and told my father that Jagath is dead. My father started crying. I was at the Kaduwela bridge site and they came looking for me and took me home. When I arrived home everyone was crying and I too started weeping. The first thing I asked my brother Sunil was: “How is father going to take this?”

The next morning, my father asked me to go to Negombo hospital and bring the body. He specifically told me to say that we do not suspect foul play. He went on to explain why and said we do not want Jagath’s body to look bad. He continued to say that whatever happened has happened and we could not get Jagath back. If I went to the postmortem and said that we did suspect foul play, then the body would not be returned till the inquiries were over.”

With all the interviews and research tasks, I had little time to think about the lecture other than to spend an hour with Dr. Ruvan to discuss how we would combine the English and Sinhala presentations. The Sunil Santha Society are a terrific bunch of people. Everyone is utterly committed to the cause and there are no internal jealousies or jockeying for power. We had a lot of fun and they were professional in organizing every detail from catering, publishing the lecture in a nice book in two languages, to providing audio-visual facilities. We had a good turnout for the lecture, an almost full house. We began with the auspicious lighting of the lamp ceremony. I joined in the ceremony alongside Sunil Santha (Junior), Lanka, Ivor Denis, Dr. Ruvan, and other members of the society. Distinguished scholars, singers, musicians, composers, Buddhist monks, and a representative from the church filled the front rows. A lively and contentious question time followed the lecture. We joined the audience for a light supper before going to Lanka’s apartment for our final get-together over another great meal.

The 25 days I spent in Sri Lanka went beyond my expectations. It makes a real difference when people pull out the stops to make things possible and I am very grateful to the Sunil Santha Society for making this trip so memorable and successful.

© Tony Donaldson, October 2017.

ADDENDUM: Tony Donaldson, 29 October 2017.

As an important historical document, the original recording of the Bandaranayke elegy composed and recorded by Sunil Santha in 1959 as a tribute to Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandarnaike referred to in my article has been uploaded on to YouTube at:


Donaldson, Tony. Force 136 and the Riverdale Bungalow. [An article prepared for Riverdale], Kandy, 2 December 2016.

—-  Sunil Santha: The Man who Invented Sinhala Music for a Modern Age. In English and Sinhala. Translated into Sinhala by Dr. Ruvan Ekanayake. Guru Devi Sunil Santha Memorial Lecture. Colombo: Sunil Santha Samajaya, 14 December 2016.

Hautin, Jean-Pierre. Entretien avec Lester James Peries [Interview with Lester James Peries]. Positif – Revue mensuelle de Cinéma, Nov., 1980, 40 – 44.

Lewcock, Ronald. Laki.  Colombo: Geoffrey Bawa Trust, 2014.

O’Brien, Terence. The Moonlight War: the Story of Clandestine Operations in South-East Asia, 1944-5. London: Collins, 1987.

Records of the Special Operations Executive, 1939-1945. National Archives (Public Records Office) Kew, London.

Roots of Art: H. A. Karunaratne recent paintings. [n.d.]

Sweet-Escott, Bickham. Baker Street Irregular. London: Methuen, 1965.

Ziegler, Philip ed. Personal Diary of Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia, 1943-1946, London: Collins, 1988.


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

[2] PRO/HS/1/331/From CD to B/B100, Meeting with Supreme Commander, 25th March 1944.

[3] PRO/HS/1/209/Warning Order – Move to Kandy, 31 October 1944.

[4] Sweet-Escott, 1965, p. 231.

[5] Op.cit., pp. 231 – 32.

[6] Oral history interview with Nalini Ranasinghe, Peradeniya, 30 November 2016.

[7] Oral history interview with Amitha Dalugama, Colombo, 6 December 2016.

[8] Vijith Kumar Senaratne, personal communication, Colombo, 12 April 2016.

[9] Hautin, 1980.

[10] The film takes place around a Portuguese garrison at the time of colonization. Colonial occupation is felt severely and so Sinhalese leaders in the low-country meet secretly and decide to send a message to the king of Kandy in the central highlands, an impregnable fortress free of foreign occupation. In their message to the king, the leaders say they would be ready to join in an attack launched by the king against the Portuguese invaders to drive them out. Woven into the narrative of the film are songs, dances and antics.

[11] Oral history interview with Ivor Denis, Kindigoda, 8 December 2016.


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4 responses to “In Search of Sunil Santha

  1. Norman Martinesz

    This is a fantastic research document and record of your memorable, cultural trip to Sri Lanka for a really worthy purpose. An absolute delight to read such a well composed and informative article. The personalities involved and the photographs included made it a ‘must read to the finish’ and compelling document. Thank you for sharing this with me. Norman Martinesz

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  4. Hugh Karunanayake

    Wonderful, historic, document. The best SunilSantha melody for me was called “ attanagalu welapilla” a mournful dirge onthe sacrifice made by Sri Sangabo at Attanagalla. It starts like this “ magey himiyaneni, magey bathiyaneni, diyunu dahami Siri Sangabo.” I have searched for an original copy of the tape or record over the past many decades, unsuccessfully. I was told that Radio Ceylon Of the time had a hand in destroying some of the classy work of Sunil Santha. If anyone can help it will be invaluable.

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