With his love for music, Sunil passed the Intermediate Gandarva Examination, obtained certificate in physical training and learned to play piano accordion and the guitar. At the same time he started learning Sinhala folk songs and Vannams from Urapola Banda Gurunnanse. Sunil left for India, first to Santiniketan in 1939 and then to Bhatkhande Sangit Vidyapit in 1941 for four years. He obtained Sangeeth Visharad Degree becoming the only Ceylonese to obtain first in the first division in both instrumental (Sitar) and vocal.
In December 1944 returned to Sri Lanka as a highly qualified musician named ‘Sunil Shantha’.
As the Government has appointed a new post of a music inspector, Sunil Shantha did not return back to teaching at Schools but started a music class at Kanuwana, Ja-Ela. Enlightened by the books of Munidasa Kumaratunga and Rapiel Tennakoon, Sunil Shantha started his quest in creating Sinhala music with its origin. During this time he stayed at the house of Suriyashankar Molligoda in Bambalapitiya. Mastered in Western and Indian music, used his talents to revive our own Sinhala music which he believed was already in existence but have forgotten as a result of various foreign invasions.
A pivotal figure in creating its own identity in Sinhala music and educating on the same, Sunil Shantha was known as “Gurudevi” by his students.
Born in Dehiyagatha, Ja-Ela, Sunil Shantha was brought up by his Grandmother and Uncles since his parents were passed away while he was a baby. Birth name Baddaliyanage Don Joseph John, later changed. He studied at Dehiyagatha School, St. Benedict’s College, St. Aloysius College, Galle and Tudella School.
Sunil Shantha learned to play the harmonium from his youngest uncle M.J. Perera who was a music lover. His talents were exhibited from very young age where he became first in the island in the school leaving certificate exam winning the Weeraratne award. Leaving school with the aim of becoming a teacher, Sunil passed the Teachers Final Examination in 1933 and started his career as a teacher at Mt. Calvary School. His talents in drama and music were exhibited with his students winning the Southern Schools Music Competition three times during 1936 to 1939 and the Calvary School winning the Challenge cup.
In 2nd March 1946 Sunil Shantha performed for the first time at Kumaratunga Commemoration ceremony, which lead the way to his first recording of the song “Olu Pipeela” at Radio Ceylon, the first recorded song in Sri Lanka. His next melodious songs “Handapane”, “Kokilayange”, “Lanka Lanka”, “Jesu Upanne”, “Bovitiya Dan Palukan Ware” gained instant popularity. His song “Imihiri Suwadethi Mal Ai Metharam Hanikata Parawuye” was dedicated to the death of his friend Suriyashankar Molligoda.
In 1946 Sunil Shantha published his first song book “Ridi Walawa” followed by “Hela Ridi Walawa”, “Mihiriyawa Mal Mihira”, “Heli Mihira”, “Sunil Handa”, “Song Folio”, “Song of Lanka”, “Guvan Thotilla”, “Desheeya Sangeethaya”, “Sangeethaye Atthiwarama”.
Sunil Shantha’s battle against Indian tunes in use for Sinhala songs led to many rivals. Pandit Ratanjankar, Sunil’s master at Bhatkande in India was brought to Radio Ceylon in 1952 to audition and grade Sri Lankan artists. Artists who refused the audition were stated to be expelled from Radio Ceylon and Sunil Shantha was one artist to be expelled along with Ananda Samarakoon and P Dunstan De Silva. Sunil Shantha’s recordings at Radio Ceylon were damaged. Thereafter, Sunil tried many trades for a living; selling cloths, photography, repairing electric items.
During the same time he married Bernadet Leelawathi Jayasekara, a trained teacher.
He started music classes in Maradana Newtown building promising to teach 10 students free of charge, though he faced financial difficulties. He recognized the talents of the emerging violinist Albert Perera (popular as W.D. Amaradewa), who played for his songs and supported by allowing to teach music in his music class at Panadura. Popular singer Ivor Denis and musician Patrick Denipitiya are also among Sunil’s best students. The journalist D.B. Dhanapala supported Sunil Shantha financially by the campaigns done through Lankadeepa newspaper at the time.
Sunil Shantha’s next step to popularity was in 1956 with the invitation by Dr. Lester James Peiris to compose melodies for the songs in his film “Rekhawa”. Written by Fr. Marcelline Jayakody, the songs “Sigiri Landakge”, “Olu Nelum”, “Vesak Kekulu”, “Sudu Sanda Eliye” and “Anurapura” became masterpieces. In 1960 he composed the song “Prutugeesikaraya” sung by H.R. Jothipala for the second film by Dr. Lester James Peiris “Sandeshaya”. This song set to a speedy beat was a big hit which even played on Radio Moscow. Sunil also sang the song “Thriloka Natha” written by Rapiel Tennakoon for the film “Ambapali” in 1964.
Neville Jayaweera, Director General of the re-established Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) invited Sunil Shantha to return with his musical program “Madhura Madhu” on radio. Accepting this invitation, Sunil Shantha resumed his musical journey in 1967. He performed “Olu Pipeela” along with his outstanding pupil Ivor Denis at the newly established CBC. Sunil Shantha auditioned artists for CBC with the assistance of H.W. Rupasinghe and W.D. Amaradeva.
He created revolutionary music such as songs “Emba Ganga”, “Tel Gaala Hisa Peeran Neno” and believed in his own voice than depend on instruments. “Poda Daham Sarane” song which used only the ringing of a temple bell in the background, “Ambalame Pina”, “Tikiri Liya” played using only the Udakki and the commemorative song for S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike which did not use any music are some instances.
In 1968, Sunil Shantha’s songs were recorded on Sooriya label which were originally recorded by the Sarasavi studios.
In 1969 Sunil Shantha sang the first English song in a Sinhala film: the song “My Dreams are Roses” written by Fr. Marcelline Jayakody and composed by Shelton Premaratna for the film “Romeo Juliet Kathawak” by G.D.L. Perera. At a time when there was a debate among scholars whether there is written music in Sigiri songs, Sunil created songs from ‘Sigiri Kurutu Gee’ proving the intelligence of ancestors who built great buildings like Sigiriya. Thus released a record under Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation in 1977: “Sunil Gee”.
Sunil and the family had to move out of their house during 1970’s as requested by the land lady. It was his uncle’s widow Agnes Perera who lend the helping hand of providing a section of her house for Sunil and his family. Poultry shed was cleaned to be used as the study room. Amidst all, Sunil Shantha ensured that his four children are well educated, three sons became Engineers and the daughter a Veterinary Surgeon.
With the misery of his youngest son’s untimely death on 28th February 1981, Sunil Shantha bid farewell on 11th April 1981 as a result of a heart attack. His eyes were donated to two people.
Sunil Shantha, not just a musician and a teacher, but a great human being loved by all for his great qualities, simplicity and standing by his principles. He pioneered Sinhala music of its own with simple words and mellow music popular to date.
Sunil Shantha’s 100th birth anniversary was celebrated with a musical show titled ‘Olu Pipeela’ on 18th April 2015 at BMICH and a Conference on his contributions held on 24th October 2015.