Posters were splashed all over the country on the 8th of July, 1987 and days subsequent. Lines written on walls and on roads. No two posters or slogans looked alike or rather appeared to have been drawn or scribbled by the same person. None of these were printed. None of them were put up by poster-gangs. And yet, they all carried the same message: “We will never forget you, you are immortal.”
It is hard to think of anyone, whether artist, politician, sporting personality or professional, whose death sparked such a spontaneous and widespread expression of a singular sentiment. It speaks volumes of the person. H.R. Jothipala touched a wide section of the population. He was loved by many.
Hettiarachchige Reginald Jothipala, better known as H.R. Jothipala or just Jothipala or popularly as ‘Jothi’ was the first born child of a middle-class family that included four girls and another boy. His father H.R. James was a tailor and mother Ahaliyagoda H.K. Podinona Perera a nurse. Hailing from the southern coastal town of Matara in Sri Lanka, he later moved to the big city and attended St. Lawrence’s College in the Colombo suburb of Maradana and later St. John’s College in Dematagoda. Being a music lover, young Jothipala regularly visited nearby tea kiosks to listen to music as his family did not possess a radio. He was a great fan of Harun Lanthra and Mohamed Rafi.
Jothi began his career as a vocalist singing duets with Wasantha Sandanayake and G.S.B. Rani Perera at SLBC. Even as a young man Jothipala possessed a magnificent natural ability and talent to sing and soon became an established playback singer for actors depicting a wide range of personalities. His voice had the magical ability to match the type of character.
Jothi’s initial foray into recording was hardly auspicious. He was asked to record a song for the late Sirisena Wimalaweera’s film “Podi Putha” which didn’t make the final cut as the Indian composer didn’t consider Jothipala’s voice good enough for films. His debut as a playback singer was the song “Siriyame Sara” for Cyril P. Abeyratne’s film “Surathalee” in 1956. Apparently the film producer Jabir A. Cader had first wanted to assess Jothi’s singing abilities and veteran musician Stanley Omar had to finance the recording. It was recorded under the direction of T.R. Papa at Wahini Studio in India.
Jothipala was blessed with the opportunity to work with highly acclaimed Lankan film maker, Dr. Lester James Peries on the movie “Sandeshaya”. He sang “Pruthugeesikara,” written by veteran lyricist Arisen Ahubudu to a melody composed by the legendary Sunil Santha. This effort shot him to prominence and thereafter Jothi became a much sought after singer for films produced from the late 60’s and throughout the 70’s. At this time Jothipala was not a live-stage performer, but was purely known by his work as a playback singer for the prominent stars of that era such as Edie Jayamanne, Ananda Jayarathna, Gamini Fonseka, Vijaya Kumaranatunge, Ravindra Randeniya and Sanath Goonathilaka as well as many other lesser known actors.
Ridiculed though he was for the Sinhala songs sung to melodies from Hindi movies and even referred to as a ‘pavement singer’ and ‘gallery singer’, Jothipala was nevertheless the most popular playback singer in 1960’s to the 1980’s. The films Kasthuri Suwanda, Thushara, Sweep Ticket, Hitha Honda Minihek, Kauda Raja, Vasana and Sangeetha were arguably the most significant featuring Jothi’s incomparable voice. He also sang under the direction of Pandit W. D. Amaradeva, P.V. Nandasiri, Premasiri Khemadasa, Sarath Dassanayake and Milton Mallawarachchi.
His break into the popular mainstream industry was realized with the album release under the Sooriya label. The label was established by its proprietor Gerald Wickremesooriya as a prestigious provider and producer of quality popular music and quickly earned the reputation for facilitating the production of back to back hits, weekly Sooriya radio shows as well as the Sooriya live concerts.
Jothipala had been invited for one of these legendary Sooriya live concerts where he approached the compere Vijaya Corea and requested an opportunity to be exposed to Sinhala pop. Subsequent to being introduced to Gerald Wickremesooriya through Vijaya Corea, an album was released in 1973 on the Sooriya label “Film Idol H.R. Jothipala goes pop”. The EP included four songs “Durakathanaya”, “Ayubovan”, “Mal Pibidena” and “Irata Muwawela”.
Originally known as a “playback” singer in Sinhala Cinema, Jothi became one of Sri Lanka’s best known superstars in the popular mainstream music scene.
Jothi’s acting debut is considered to be on Robin Tempoe’s film “Sudu Sande Kalu Wala” in 1963, even though he appeared in a group scene in the film “Daskama” in 1958. “Obai Mamai”, “Athulweema Thahanam”, “Sulalitha Sobani”, “Sukiri Kella” and “Bonikka” are some of the films in which Jothipala played memorable roles. Roy De Silva’s film “Sumithuro” in which he played the lead role was also produced by Jothipala.
Jothipala, known to be a people friendly individual who always mingled with the common, was loved not only for his amazing talent but also for his friendly and affectionate personality. It is no wonder that he came to be known as “Hadhavatha Raththaran Jothipala,” meaning “kind-hearted Jothipala,” a loving play on his initials “H.R.”.
The popularity of his songs prompted him to put together his own concert. “Jothi Rathriya” was launched in the 80’s and was an instant hit. He loved singing and he loved his fans. In fact during one show, Jothi had kept on singing to the great appreciation of his fans, despite the organizer having only agreed to pay him for just two songs.
Jothipala married Blossom Winter, a nurse by profession in 1960 and with her he had four daughters: Waruni Wilochani, Regina, Esther and Krishni, who speak of their father with great affection though none of them entered the field of music.
His final stage performance was two days before his death, at the ‘Gam Udaawa’ the signature project of the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Throughout his illustrious career Jothipala sang thousands of songs and performed as a playback singer in more than 100 films in Sri Lanka. He was bestowed Sarasaviya awards for best playback singer in 1982 for his number “Sara Sande” in the film “Mihidum Sihina” and in 1985 for the song “Palu Susanaya” in the film “Obata Divra Kiyannam”.
It’s almost three decades since Jothipala died. Those who expressed their grief in graffiti form and in other ways at the time of his death would not have forgotten him. Many would have themselves passed on. And yet, today, almost 30 years later, their words seem prophetic. Jothi still lives and is still loved, even by those who encountered him long after the 7th of July, 1987.
EDITED BY MALINDA SENEVIRATNE