His is a name known to every Sri Lankan despite age, language, geographical location or generation. A single composition of his is sung at every important occasion of this country. The creator of a melody that resonates the pride of a nation, is Ananda Samarakoon.
They say the brightest stars burn for the shortest time. This aptly describes the life of Ananda Samarakoon. A multi-talented tragic figure of our times, who died at the age of only 51. He goes down in history as the composer of the national anthem of Sri Lanka as well as a vastly creative pool of art.
Ananda Samarakoon was born as Egodahage George Wilfred Alwis Samarakoon to Samuel Samarakoon and Dominga Pieris on the 13th of January in 1911 in the Liyanwela village in Padukka. Like many great musicians young Samarakoon showed his talents in music from school days. He first schooled in Wewala Government Sinhala School. According to an anecdote, he was once caught writing song lyrics instead of doing math. The angered math master ordered him to sing what he had written and sing he did! The song was about the beauty of the Weraha Ganga which he passes every day on his way to school. It’s safe to say the master’s anger was transformed to happiness upon hearing such young talent. Later he transferred to Christian College in Kotte where he composed a song for the school where his mother was also teaching. Sung at an inter-school competition, this song ultimately won them first place.
In the early 1930’s around the age of 20, he started teaching music and art at his former school, the Christian College. His life took a turn with Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to Sri Lanka in 1933. Inspired by the strong cultural roots of Tagore’s performances many young artists joined his school of fine arts, “Shanti Niketan”. Among them was our young and talented Samarakoon. He studied art under Nanda Lal Bose and music and singing under Shanti Devi Gosh. He returned to Sri Lanka in 1937 and started teaching before completing his studies abroad.
At this point, in 1938, Gerald Wickremesooriya, the founder of the Sooriya Label comes across a picture of Ananda Samarakoon and his wife (who also pursued music) in a newspaper and commenced studying oriental music under him. Gerald writes that even at that time, Ananda Samarakoon had great ideas of creating a new kind of Sinhala music. He hails Samarakoon for liberating Sinhala music from the clutches of Hindi music.
The 1940s sees the best of Samarakoon. He records his first song in 1939 followed by many more. Most of them were duets with the young singer Leelawathy. His style of music was never heard before. His songs became famous for its simple lyrics with appeal across audiences and a feel of rural Sri Lanka. After the death of Leelawathy, he sang with Swarna de Silva. “Namo Namo Matha” which later went on to become the National Anthem was recorded with her in 1946. Some other of his best knowns include “Poson Pohoda”, “Podimal Ethano”, “Punchi Suda” and “Siri Saru Saara Ketey”.
In fact, what is known as his greatest achievement “Namo Namo Matha” was not composed as the National Anthem to begin with. It wasn’t even submitted by Ananda Samarakoon when applications were called for an Anthem. He was simply inspired to write it upon seeing his motherland from the air while returning from his time at Shanti Niketan. It was chosen to be the National Anthem by the government in 1951.
In the late 1940s tragedy hit his life again when his only son died at the age of five. He turned his sadness into music when he wrote the song “Pahana Nivi Gya”.
Around the same time, Samarakoon shifted gears and left for India to pursue a career in painting. Even in his art, he was original in that he did not use commercially available water colours but only natural ingredients like powdered red sandalingam, green pigment from gotukola, white from kirimeti or egg white and black from lamp soot and so on. To mix the paint he used cashew milk or woodapple juice! Amazingly these creations lasted for more than 40 years and were better preserved than the typical paintings of the time.
His music was however affected by his loss and depression settled in. Towards the 60’s, his creation, the national anthem was struck by several harsh criticisms following the untimely death of two prime ministers neither of whom had completed their term at office. Many poets, pundits and Buddhist monks accused him of bringing ‘bad luck’ upon the nation through his anthem which placed the unlucky ‘gana’ in the opening words ‘na-mo-na’.
The Government was compelled to amend the situation by changing the lyrics from the original “Namo Namo Matha” to “Sri Lanka Matha”. This change was done without his consent which saddened him further. It seems to have been the last straw for this great composer who took his life at the age of 51.
WRITTEN BY THARAKA RANCHIGODA, CHANDRIKA GADIEWASAM
EDITED BY NADEESHA PAULIS