Reading between song lines: A mild critique of Nanda Malini and Sunil Ariyaratne
I remember early mornings and late afternoons in Kurunegala during vacations spent in Kurunegala at my maternal grandparents’ house, anticipating the wonders of play and discovery and the ways in which these dreams are realised, albeit in fracture and through reconfiguration of reality. And I remember the voice of Nanda Malini over the then Radio Ceylon, soon to be the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. They are among my earliest memories.
Even today, if ever I listen to “Mal mal heenaya”, “Rukaththana gaha mudune,” “Surangeeta duka hithuna” and many of her earlier songs, I go back to that time and that innocence. Much later, during the “Satyaye Geethaya” era, I came to understand and appreciate better that which I had derived through political tracts. I still think “Me jeevana ganga dharaye” taught me more about solidarity and community than the Communist Manifesto.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Nanda Malini’s songs cut through the sterility and reductionism of the kinds of Marxism we were exposed to at that time. I came to appreciate the import of culture and the fact that identity is less an easy political tool than it is a timeless factor in not just the political field but a key to any informed practice, political or otherwise. Both in the discovery of self and the exploration of the broader notion of “community”.
I “read” her “Thun hele kele meda sinha petau”, “Mage deshaya, mage jathiya, mage agama”, and “Me Sinhala apage ratai” not as the chauvinistic drivel she has since made them out to be, but a call for a return to civilisation, a return to history and a return to ourselves, so important in the 500 year long struggle to liberate ourlseves from colonial domination, both economic and cultural. I “read” them, but did not once entertain any antipathy to other religions or other ethnic groups.
Among all these, there is probably no other song that took up permanent residence in my sensibilities, as “Chandra madulu yata suranganavan doo sanahannata geetha gayanava”. I have spent many years dreaming of singing this and other lullabies like “balolee” she has enriched with her voice to children I planned to have, and today they help bring sleep to my little daughter.
I have known for a long time that a work of art, be it a song, a poem, a film or any other creative form, does not belong solely to the creator. It belongs at once to the recipient. And so, when Nanda Malini said in the late eighties that she could no longer sing of love, it did not bother me. When she chose to embrace a crass secular political position, courtesy her main lyricist, Sunil Ariyaratne, I chose to brush it off with a simple, “the artiste’s recantation destroys the artist but not the art”.
Today I realise that I was unforgivably erroneous. A disavowal of this kind if political and has to be treated in those terms, in the very least. Today I write this because the King Barnet column in the Irida Divaina of a couple of weeks ago taught me in no uncertain terms that the worst one could do to an artiste is to allow him/her to wallow in the heady liquor of mystification. Nanda Malini’s voice and Sunil Ariyaratne’s lyrics are political by their own definition. Their subsequent comments on their own creations are as political. I write simply because I take issue with the positions they take.
According to King Barnet, this celebrated singer had been possessed by a demon/disease: Sinhala Phobia. King Barnet had been quite upset by the fact that in a recent version of the song “Chandra madulu yata”, Nanda Malini had chosen to strike off a few lines, i.e. those that sought to comfort a little girl by referring to the “Sihala le” (Sinhala blood) that ran in her veins.
This Sinhala Phobia, as I pointed out, is not a recent phenomenon. I have always thought that if one thing hampered the full flowering of Nanda Malini’s stature as the voice of the nation, it was the fact that she was trapped in the limitations of Ariyaratne’s ideological parameters. And of course their movement. This is why when she came out with the “Araliya Landata” collection, where all the lyrics were by previously unknown poets, I was pleased. She may have broken from that particular bind, but it seems she is yet ensnared by Ariyaratne’s peculiar political agenda.
Just a few weeks ago, Ariyaratne and composer Rohana Weerasinghe, successfully sued a young vocalist for having “distorted” one of Nanda Malini’s songs, “Thun hele kele meda sinha petau”. I thought it strange, considering that it has been quite some time since Nanda Malini refused to sing this song because she considered it chauvinistic. Ariyaratne and Weerasinghe won a cool two hundred and fifty thousand bucks as damages. Can Nanda, likewise, sue herself, for “distorting” her “Chandra madulu yata”? I wonder. In any event, shouldn’t the lyricist, Mahinda Algama sue her? Or is he also possessed by this anti-Sinhala demon? King Barnet consoles himself by the fact that the attempt to re-record the National Anthem was aborted. “If these people can vikurthify their own work, what would they not do with the National Anthem?” he asks. Apt.
I believe it is time to undress these people. Nanda Malini, it is well known among those who were university students during the hey day of her “Pavana Prasangaya”, wore the belligerent garments of a revolutionary. She posed off as the voice of the nation’s conscience. She rode the then popular deshapremi wave. During those “I-can’t-sing-the-saundarya (aesthetic)” days, when she thundered revolution from the many “Pavana” concerts, she sold the “saundarya” casettes of her previous avatar on the side. So much for integrity and revolutionary ethics.
There was a time when she vowed that if her songs were banned, she would sing on the pavement. This was the time that Sunil Ariyaratne got her to refer to India as the country of the “hotabariyo”. When both these people found the heat too hot to handle, they fled the UNP-JVPbheeshanaya. They took refuge in this very same country of the”hotabariyo”. That was not all. She returned, courtesy Hema Premadasa’s invitation/protection, to receive an award from the “Vanitha” magazine as one of the seven women of the age.
On that occasion, on the invitation of Hema Premadasa, Nanda Malini sang a song. Paradoxically, it was with her immortal “Ammavarune” that she obliged the wife of one of the principal authors of the bheeshanaya! How soon she had forgotten the laments of the thousands of mothers who had lost their children to the bheeshanaya she herself had lamented through her songs!
The Nanda Malini-Sunil Ariyaratne combine has in many songs attacked the Buddhist order. They have referred to thieving and avariciousbikkhus. This is no reason for complaint. The artiste ought to shred deceit, to demystify even. How then do they refuse to acknowledge the numerous crimes of other religious institutions, for instance? Have they not heard of corrupt Christian priests, child molesters, zealous proselytizers etc.? They could not be ignorant, not least of all because they market themselves off as keen students of the political in all its manifestations. The answer lies more with the character of Ariyaratne than that of Nanda Malini, I believe.
In the case of popular songs, one hears the music and the words, sees the singer (sometimes), but not the lyricist. Two songs by Nanda Malini made me “see” Sunil Ariyaratne: “Pem lova dee dutu ohumada me”(written by Ariyaratne, but clearly referring to Nanda Malini’s ex-husband) and “Kurutu ge gee pothe” (writte about a poet, clearly Ariyaratne himself). “What ego!” I thought.
As the years have passed, Ariyaratne has appeared to have become one of the greatest apologists for the Catholic church. Of course he does not do this directly, he is far too smart to do that. No, in addition to attacking the Sinhalese and the Buddhists, and by omission or commission erasing their existence courtesy the multi-ethnic/multi-religious doctrine, Ariyaratne has studiously developed a pretty Catholic/non-Sinhala Buddhist curriculum vitae. He writes about “kapiringnga”, carols, baila and calypso. He seems to have also studiously cultivated a cabal of avowedly anti-Sinhala “academics”.
He vigorously campaigned for the reinstating of Sucharitha Gamlath. He did nothing of the sort for Nalin de Silva. Today Sucharitha Gamlath sings his praise and operates as his principal defender, as evidenced when J.B. Dissanayake critiqued his song “Seegiri geeyak”. It was Gamlath and not Ariyaratne who took the fight to Dissanayake.
It is hard to believe that someone of the calibre of Carlo Fonseka would be naive enough to be trapped by the wiles of someone like Ariyaratne, but if his recent article on Ariyaratne’s film “Sudu Sevaneli” is anything to go by, the good doctor seems to have slipped. Badly. “Sudu Sevaneli”was adjudged Best Film at the Sarasavi Film Awards. “Sudu Sevaneli” was roundly rejected by our audiences, and that has to say something, although not all. The fact is that there were far better films made that year.
But let us allow this “best film” business to pass. The point is, why should Carlo Fonseka use “Sudu Sevaneli” as an alibi to lay out Ariyaratne’s curriculum vitae? Why speak about Ariyaratne’s “First Class” for instance? Does he not know that “Sarungale”, widely acclaimed as Ariyaratne’s best film, was actually directed by Gamini Fonseka? Has he not seen “Anupama”, a film directed by Ariyaratne without any assistance? Shouldn’t that tell him something about the man’s cinematic class?
I believe it was Ajith Samaranayake who recently said that if one went just by what journalists write and singers sing, they have to be among the most pure, charitable and honourable people around. He pointed out that nothing is further from the truth. There is a huge chasm between the word that is written and the life of the author of that word. There is a mismatch between the song and the singer. Let us be clear. Both these sets of professionals are trapped within certain pernicious production relations. Their work, for the most part, can be categorised as “commodities”. They respond to “market signals”. In a nutshell, they can be purchased. Sadly, they sell themselves dirt cheap. I would add “academics” to this set of professionals, and I am sure Ajith would not disagree.
What does one do with artistes who are this servile to market signals? King Barnet has an answer. According to him, the only way to oust the anti-Sinhala demons that have possessed these two people, is to ban them from singing in Sinhala and writing books in Sinhala. A money-beholden individual is easily cured of such maladies if his/her livelihood is taken away. The truth is, both these individuals owe thanks to the Sinhala language, the Sinhala-Buddhist culture and the thousands of Sinhala Buddhists who make up their “audience” for almost everything they’ve achieved. And everything they own, to keep to the metaphor of capital.
Can we listen to Nanda Malini again? The point is, we can. The best way to defeat a turncoat artiste, I believe, is to cherish his/her art even more than before. I will cherish her songs, sing them to my children, sing them on the pavement, even. Let her or Sunil Ariyaratne sue me. After all, among the lines etched in my heart is the introductory lines from “Satyaye Geethaya”: “asatyayen satyayata, swapnayen yatharthayata, andakaarayen alokayata” (from falsehood to truth, from dream to reality, from darkness to light).
This has to be the age of undressing. If that is the chosen vocation of the artiste, then let him/her first undress him/herself. This side of that exercise lies a deceitful human being. Not worthy of veneration. Time is long. Perhaps Nanda Malini will someday reinvent herself as a corporeal entity made up of the best sentiments of her songs. Maybe Sunil Ariyaratne will too. Until then, let us at least resolve not to deceive ourselves.
First published in the Sunday Island, December 2003