Sunil Shantha: You did not depart with your voice


About a month ago I sat down with a prominent composer and vocalist. He was a veteran and as with most veterans, he had a lot to talk about. So we talked. We ambled along the past, revisited certain milestones he’d gone through, and eventually came to a point where we exhausted any possibility for more ambling. We didn’t stop talking though. We instead went off to other topics and points, which he (being a veteran) knew intimately and was only too willing to wax eloquent on. Being the interviewer, I let him remember. And took down what he said.

The subject was music, obviously. So I asked him about the debate between what’s referred to as ape de (ours) and the Oriental tradition, the latter of which has clearly influenced the former for reasons not too difficult to discern. I’m no musicologist, but it doesn’t take a musicologist to figure out the “revolution” as such that compelled itself in the early sixties, when the then Radio Ceylon brought over experts from North India to assess, pass, and if necessary filter musicians who’d call the shots for the next few decades.

I then put across a question I’d been dying to ask the man. Here it is, word to word: “In the light of this cultural invasion, how would you assess those who were forcibly removed from Radio Ceylon or went on self-imposed exiles because their music was considered too ‘plebeian’ for the tastes of those refined outsiders?” The man was quick with his reply: “Well, no one can seriously contend that those outsiders, or their so-called ‘agents’ in here back then, did a disservice to the music industry.”

I mentioned some names. Firstly I mentioned Piyasiri Wijeratne. Piyasiri wasn’t an exile, but thanks to the “Raghadari Revolution” (as I like to call it) his voice drifted away until we forgot him. The musician was adamant with his verdict: “He didn’t have a great voice.” I then mentioned a singer who composed or sang or wrote more than 250 songs and hence, can’t be ranked alongside the more obscure Wijeratne: Sunil Shantha.

The man was slower to reply, but he had a verdict to deliver on him too: “He didn’t possess a great voice either. His melodies were simple and he was basically a ‘kantharu’ singer. People commend him for nourishing Sinhala music, but the truth of the matter is that he came from a tradition which subsisted on hymns and sermons in the Church. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget that he was a Catholic, hardly a qualification for someone venerated for his contribution to folk music.” There was, as always, a hint of bigotry there (what’s not musical about kantharu after all, and what’s wrong in being a Catholic when it comes to contributing to our music?) but for me, his comment merits attention for another reason.

For years, decades, and more than a century, Sunil Shantha was ridiculed. He was marginalised and belittled. Some claimed that his vocal range was limited. Others claimed that his melodies were too simple. Few, very few in fact, saw in him the musical prodigy that he was. They either passed away soon or had their opinions rubbished by what I referred to in my article on Clarence Wijewardena as “bamunu critics.” I make no apologies for that term and I make no exceptions for anyone, be it a newcomer or a veteran from our music industry.

I believe it’s time to reassess the man. He deserves approbation. Not ridicule. As no less a figure than the late Tissa Abeysekara frequently noted, he was the first musician from here who aligned his melodies with the syllables, permutations, and essence of the Sinhala language. Yes, his melodies were simple, yes they were meant for the ear and not the academe, and yes they were aimed more at the aesthete than the musicologist. But in all seriousness, was there anything in what the man did that made him deserve his later exile from his career? The simple answer, no.

Sunil Shantha was born as Don Joseph John on April 14, 1915 in Dehiyagatha, Jaela. His parents were staunch Catholics but didn’t live long enough to see him grow up: he was not quite three months when he lost his father and not quite three years when he lost his mother. He was raised thereafter by his maternal grandmother and some uncles from her side of the family.

Don Joseph passed from his school, St Aloysius’ in Galle, and became the first in the island at his final exams. Around that time, in 1933, he was trained as a teacher at the Roman Catholic Teacher Training School in Maggona and began his career at Mount Calvary College in Hapugala, a school in which he eventually developed a formidable music culture. It’s probably a measure of how committed he was that, within the next six years, he was able to lead his students to three consecutive victories at the Southern Schools Music Competition.

Not surprisingly, by 1939 his worth had been noticed, measured, and praised, and that year, he passed the intermediate level in the prestigious Gandharva Examination. Within the next six years his life moved quickly: he went to Shanthiniketan where the North Indian tradition was in sway and then proceeded to the Bhathkande, where the more plebeian, Bengali tradition fired his imagination intensely. He received his Visharada Degree from there in 1944, and by that time he’d had enough with what Professor Carlo Fonseka once wittily described as a very “unmusical name.” So off went Don Joseph John, and in came Sunil Shantha. He joined Radio Ceylon barely a year later, when Sri Lanka had gained independence. He was 30 at the time.

When he arrived in Sri Lanka, much had happened. Ananda Samarakoon had initiated a revolution of sorts to cleanse our music of any foreign accretions. He was not very successful at it. That was expected. After all, it was hard to shake off the raghadari tradition and it was hard to forge a musical idiom that could subsist for long without it.

True, Samarakoon had valiantly made an effort, and much of his work – like “Ennada Menike” and “Vile Malak Pipila” – testified to that. But for a complete and unhindered process of cleansing and purification, there needed to be an authority, someone strong enough to challenge the conventional wisdom and wield an idiom that was at once rooted in our land. To do that, he needed to align his melodies with our language.

Shantha began achieving this with the first ever song recorded for Radio Ceylon, “Olu Pipila.” It was an instant success, needless to say. At a time when both the well-to-do and the less well off found it fashionable to insert Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” at a marriage ceremony, Shantha’s simple and folksy tune gushed in wildly. Soon enough, whenever there was a wedding, that tune would almost always be played out.

And in a sense, his other songs caught on in much the same way. They became simpler and less frilled as the years went by – notice the difference between the likes of “Emba Ganga” and “Mal Mal Mal” and the likes of “Poda Dam Sisile” and “Ho Ga Ralla Binde” – probably reflecting his need for austerity, simplicity in a music tradition that combined language and melody.

But there were commonalities that brought them all together: like the poetry of the English Romantics and the more melodramatic ruminations of Tagore, they were meant for the aesthete. With their praise of village life, the waves of the sea, and the quiet dignity of the peasantry, they remind me of the later poetry of Wordsworth: simple, enchanting, essentially inbred, and without a doubt quaint.

Notice, for instance, the lyrics that open up “Mal Mal Mal”
මල් මල් මල් රතු රතඹල මල්
මල් මල් මල් නිල් මානෙල් මල්
මල් මල් මල් සුදු අරලිය මල්
මේ හැම හොඳ රුව ඇති මල්

Shantha gives the impression of being a witness to the beauty and sense of wonderment in these flowers. He lists them, one by one, ending each verse with a reminder that they are filled with just that: beauty and a sense of wonderment. In these songs, which to me represent his most fruitful period (until his fall from grace after the Raghadari Revolution), he becomes a witness and receptacle to the land of his birth: a witness, not player. He doesn’t bring out any message per se (though some of his work, such as “Walakulin Basa”, inspired development drives that sought to make use of our natural resources), and for this reason, he was like Keats and the later Wordsworth.

I don’t see any point in dwelling on what befell him later on. Compilers and historians have recorded all that and have condemned those who should be condemned. He didn’t deserve the fall he had to suffer and he didn’t have to suffer the indignity he had to bear up with until his death. Sure, no one would believe that he worked as a mere radio repairer today, but that’s because no one with any sense of decency would expect that a man who composed “Olu Nelum Neriya Rangala” and “Pruthugeesi Karaya” could be forced to stoop to such a level.

From those still living with us, I can think of only one person writing in English who seriously considers him as a worthy: Carlo Fonseka. Here’s what the good Professor once said: “Sunil Shantha belongs to the ‘ancient period’ of the history of modern Sinhala music. It is generally agreed to have dawned in the 1940s. It was during the brief period from about 1945 to 1950 that Sunil Shantha created the veritable torrent of songs that took the world of Sinhala music by storm.”

That “ancient period” of modern Sinhala music had to evolve. Evolution, however, shouldn’t be at the cost of rubbishing the past. What happened to Shantha was tragic and avoidable, going by that.

Yes, I find it difficult to believe that more than 35 years after he died and more than a century after he was born, there are still those who deride him on account of his religious background. No, I shan’t stir up a hornet’s nest here. All I will say is this: he could have been treated better. And if he had, he would have gone on composing, gone on writing, and gone on singing. We wouldn’t have been worse off because of that and we would have profited if he’d been allowed to go on.

He wasn’t. Consequently, we lost.

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

A freelance writer and a commentator who has written to several publications in Sri Lanka; Ceylon Today, The Nation, The Daily News, and The Sunday Island, particularly on the performing arts.


Social Media



Latest Posts by Uditha Devapriya

One thought on “Sunil Shantha: You did not depart with your voice

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>