T. M. Jayaratne: The man behind the voice

I first encountered T. M. Jayaratne through the films of K. A. W. Perera. I never bothered to check out his other work because, for me, he was at his best when he was crooning about love, be it young, requited, spurned, or revived. The themes these movies evoked, I felt, were most sincerely articulated by his voice. It wasn’t until much later that I realised that he had forayed into other productions, that he led other lives, and that like all such artistes from his time he couldn’t be compartmentalised. I met him about a month ago. Here’s an attempt at a sketch.

T. M. was born in the village of Dodanwala near Kandy in 1944. He was firstly sent to St Anthony’s College in Katugastota, where he forayed into Western music. “What we did for our music class was gather around our teacher and her piano and sing those usual childhood melodies, like ‘Row Row Row Your Boat’ and ‘Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree.’ Not surprisingly, we became more inclined towards Western music.”

Of his elders at St Anthony’s, T. M. remembers the Rector, Reverend Father Rosati, with unmistakeable nostalgia. A graduate from the University of London, Father Rosati always sought to endear himself to the students. “We adored him. In fact you couldn’t escape him. He used to visit our classes and ask us questions. If we answered him correctly, he’d praise us and give us lozenges. After handing those lozenges, he’d smile at the others and say, ‘And for those who didn’t get the correct answer, please don’t get annoyed with me, I have some for you as well.’ That he was loved by us was only to be expected.”

T. M.’s father, a government servant, had been prone to those compulsory transfers which “afflict” such workers in general. Barely two years after T. M. was enrolled at St Anthony’s, for instance, he had been requested to leave for Nuwara Eliya. Since it meant finding another school for his son, he decided to travel alone. “He’d leave for work on Monday morning and come back on Friday evening to spend the weekend with us. He endured this routine for two years, after which he got another transfer, this time to Anuradhapura. He pushed for a delay. He got it delayed for two years.”

Once those two years were up, predictably, the transfer request was renewed. “We needed to act fast. There was an aunt of mine who lived in Kurunegala. Father got himself a transfer there. I was taken from St Anthony’s and put into Maliyadeva College.” He entered Grade Seven after the switch.

So how had things been at Maliyadeva? “It wasn’t easy to get used to the shift,” T. M. remembers, “In hindsight, I believe that was because of the kind of culture we had at St Anthony’s. Lessons were always conducted in English, though elsewhere we spoke in Sinhala. Maliyadeva was more indigenous, more sensitive to our culture. English was limited to one subject. I realised this was true even in the way music was taught. There were no nursery rhymes. Only ragas and Hindustani melodies.”

It’s probably a sign of the connoisseur in the man, but he doesn’t take this as a license to bemoan what had been taught at St Anthony’s. “We loved the melodies we grew up with there. If you think about it, there’s really no difference between the ‘Do Re Mi’ I had absorbed and the ‘Sa Ri Ga Ma’ I was absorbing now. I believe that helped me appreciate both the East and the West.” This, incidentally, had been supplemented by the senior music master at Maliyadeva, K. M. Dayapala.

Apparently Dayapala had encouraged him and his friends to sit for certain external music exams while pursuing their studies. T. M. remembers him as a persistent teacher who nevertheless strived to keep his students a cut above the rest. That explains why he pushed them to get through all three stages of that exam, conducted by the Gandharva Sabha and held in Kandy. They were all based on two categories: Vocal and Instrumental. With respect to the latter, Dayapala initiated young T. M. into the violin.

The exams ended. The results came. While the University entrance exams were around the corner, a gazette notification calling for applications from those who aspired to teach music was published. Dayapala requested his students to sit through the University entrance and apply immediately afterwards.

Having done just that, T. M. was called to and subsequently interviewed at the Education Department in Kollupitiya. Four weeks later, he was called again along with three women. “I thought that the others had been swept off and this was to select the cream of the crop. Daunted, I abandoned any hopes and illusions I had of becoming a teacher. Imagine how amazed and excited I was when the Director informed me that I had been appointed to a school in Colombo!” This was in 1966.

On September 7 that year, he was posted to Hewawitharana Maha Vidyalaya Rajagiriya, where he taught for the next 26 years. Coincidentally, he was appointed the same day Victor Ratnayake (Aththalapitiya Maha Vidyalaya in Bandarawela), Sanath Nandasiri (Uhana Maha Vidyalaya in Ampara), Mervin Perera (Kohombara Maha Vidyalaya in Ampara), Shelton Perera (Sri Pada Maha Vidyalaya in Hatton), and Sarath Dassanayake (Niwaththakachethiya Maha Vidyalaya in Anuradhapura) were. “Back then I only knew Victor Ratnayake. All our careers converged frequently thereafter, not surprisingly.”

While wading through his job, T. M. would get involved with various stage dramas and concerts which supplemented his income (about 200 rupees). “I would get up to 20 rupees a show,” he smiles, “Not much by today’s standards, but a lot back then considering that my rent was 55 rupees a month!” Those shows, moreover, got him into a vivida prasangaya organised by the Teachers Training College in Maharagama, where he was compelled to perform in place of a singer who hadn’t turned up.

The organiser of that prasangaya, C. de S. Kulathilaka, was subsequently appointed as the Head of the Folk Music Research Unit at the SLBC. He had been impressed with T. M.’s voice, so soon afterwards he took him into the Unit to “perform” refined, accompanied versions of various folk songs he was tasked with recording from across the country. “One of the songs I performed, ‘Badda Watata Sudu Mora Mal’, was heard by a man who called the SLBC, asked after me, and learnt that I taught at a school which neighboured his house. I started working with him soon after.”

That man, who’d end up as his most frequent collaborator, was Premasiri Khemadasa, whose association with T. M. deserves an entire chapter. Spatial constraints prevent me from delving any further, however, so I think it best to get a summing up of arguably our most versatile composer from the 20th century.

“He got me into film music. My first film song with him was for Lester James Peries’ Desa Nisa (‘La Hiru Dahasak’), followed by K. A. W. Perera’s Nedeyo and Janaka saha Manju, the latter of which got me a Presidential Award as the Best Playback Singer for ‘Ko Ma Pathu.’ I ended up with a horde of directors from both the commercial and non-commercial sectors, among them Dharmasena Pathiraja.”

What of Khemadasa the man? “He was quite mercurial. If he wanted something out of you and you didn’t deliver, he could get belligerent. He often was, and he often lost his temper, but he’d immediately cool down and pat your back. With a horde of violinists tutored in Western classical music, among them Eileen Prins and Douglas Ferdinands, he revolutionised Sinhala music as we know it. In this he wasn’t trying to ‘Westernise’ us: he didn’t care if we had to ‘import’ bricks from England, as long as it helped us build the Dalada Maligawa properly. He was a marvel to work under and work with, to be honest.”

So what of T. M.’s career as a teacher? “I was briefly employed as an Assistant Director in the Aesthetics Division of the Ministry of Education when W. J. M. Lokubandara was in charge of the subject. After some time, however, I got tired. So after Lokubandara was succeeded by Richard Pathirana, I tendered my resignation and sought employment as a teacher at Sacred Heart College in Rajagiriya, less than a kilometre from my earlier school. I taught for five years there, and then retired.”

Looking back, it’s quite evident that the man’s career has been prolific. When I put to him that his time would have been qualitatively different to ours in terms of the interrelationships between the composer, the lyricist, and the performer, he agrees and says, “Back then there was a sense of unity. Quality had to be in top form. Today you have digitalised the process: if you get your recording wrong, you can always rely on software to correct it. What gets ‘absented’ there is spontaneity. And sincerity.”

Speaking for myself, I agree. Perhaps it’s a testament to T. M. Jayaratne that he has given us what he could, the way he could, sensitively, sincerely, and spontaneously. He has not been unsuccessful, I know.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 6 2017

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.


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