The story of a song, an uncle, and a niece
There are songs that remain etched in our minds long after we listen to them and long, long after we forget the first time we came across them. They bring to mind certain experiences that we like to forget but for some inscrutable reason don’t want to forget. Like schooldays. First crushes. Unfulfilled romances. Friendships that sour into enmities. And so on. Either way, for better or worse, the words we hum and the tunes we strum stay with us for the simple reason that such songs, the best of them at least, were meant to be retained in the repository of our collective imagination. In other words, they were initially conceived to be as unprofessional and simple as possible. They lend flavour to experience and help us associate a particular memory, bitter or jovial, with a certain time and place.
Just as there are stories behind the first times we hear such tunes, however, there are also stories behind the how, when, and wherefore of those tunes, those who ideated and came up with the melody, those who wrote down the lyrics, and those who lent their voices. Out of 100-odd songs, I’m willing to wager that not even 30 can boast of such worthy prefaces. But those 30 sadly tend to be overlooked, because we aren’t really bothered about their foreword. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Ajantha Ranasinghe wrote “Tharu Arundathi” after coming across a girl across the street that he never dared to introduce himself to?
This is the story of one such song. Before I get to it, though, I need to get to the names of those involved in it. Two names. Victor Silva and Nirasha Perera.
Few would know of Victor and Nirasha and fewer would know that they were the two vocalists behind the song they ended up singing, right before it was appropriated, unjustly I should think, by other more established vocalists. Indeed, outside their immediate circle not many would believe that they were destined to become professionals in the field, right before the professions they’d carved for themselves through their education got them out of that field.
Let’s start with Victor. Victor had a passion for singing. From an early age. But there was a problem. His father didn’t want him to sing. He wanted him to become a Chartered Accountant, back then (as of now) a lucrative career. So during his early schoolboy days at Holy Cross College, Kalutara (his hometown), he didn’t pursue music despite the fact that he could perform quite well. Things changed, however, when he shifted to St Aloysius’ College in Galle and became a boarder. The priest in charge of the boarders was Father Debura, straight from Italy. He was also in charge of the Choir. Naturally, the Father tried the boarders out with their voices. Having heard Victor, he selected him then and there.
Victor obviously had a problem with his father and this he confided to the Reverend Father. The Reverend Father, thankfully, understood him well. “Don’t worry, tell him to see me,” he confidently told the young man, and the next time the parents of the boarders came to meet the priests and the rectors who ran the school, Victor readily took his mother and father to meet Father Debura. The Father had only one question to ask: “Mr Silva, would you like your son to use his voice to sing the praises of God?” The question, craftily crafted, won Victor’s father over: “No Father. Let him sing!” Remembering this conversation decades later, for me, Victor had one thing to say: “By the grace of God, and also Father Debura, I didn’t let my voice waste away!” Subsequently, he was taken in.
In 1965, St Aloysius’ took in Anton Weerasinghe, a layman practising and learning to become a priest (what one called a Scholast). Weerasinghe was versatile, with an ability to play the tabla and guitar and also to compose. Victor, who took part in various dramas and sang for them as well, soon came under his tutelage, when Weerasinghe got him and a friend of his, Eric Gunaratne, to come up with an original song. Having hankered after a tune and a set of lyrics to fit that tune, the boys finally hit upon an original they could be happy with: “Suran Menika”. Weerasinghe heard it, smiled, and polished it in his own special way.
Time passed by rather quickly. Victor left school and moved to Colombo in 1967, having passed his exams well enough to contemplate on his higher education: as usual, in accountancy. Just as it was as looked up to as it is today, however, it was as tough as it is today, so he had to stay at a hostel to get his mind on his education. The hostel he stayed at, situated near Ananda Rajakaruna Mawatha in Borella (back then called Campbell Place), housed several students engaged in various subjects, from medicine to law to engineering to accountancy. Given that they were all boys, they indulged in the usual bajaw session with the guitar (which Victor had by then mastered, to a certain extent). Among those friends he encountered, there was Duleep de Silva, member of the then phenomenally popular Los Flamencos (remember “Bolanda Katha” and “Kalu Kelle”?) and like Victor an article clerk at a company. “What happened was this: one fine day, Duleep asked me to come up with a song. He wanted to get it recorded.”
Neither Duleep nor Victor could versify. But they had another friend, a medical student called Nihal de Silva. Whenever Victor strummed a tune, he would rush to Nihal and the two of them would brainstorm a set of lyrics to suit that tune. So having brainstormed over and over again with respect to the tune that came up at Duleep’s request, the two of them hit on an original. They titled it “Bale Bale”, a mock, tongue-in-cheek reference to the bales of used cloth material that were imported during the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime (owing to the fact that imports were restricted on all fronts). To crown what they’d done, they then came up with two more songs: “Pasal Kaale”, a ditty on the evolution of schoolboys from students to lovers, and “Suneetha”, composed by Anton Weerasinghe, by now domiciled in Manila. Having heard all three with “Suran Menika”, Duleepa took Victor and Nihal to meet Gerald Wickremesooriya.
Gerald, who had started the Sooriya label, was thrilled. He got them to come to his residence, in Colpetty. Having gotten hold of another popular performer, Chandima de Alwis (band member of The Spitfires, a beat group), apparently now domiciled in Australia, they all went and met Gerald and ultimately persuaded him to record all four songs. The recording, Victor remembers, was done by Patrick Denipitiya, an Old Boy of St Aloysius’, and was completed by the end of 1970. The following year, at the height of the insurrection, the four of them would record four more songs at the Dalugama Studios, polishing up the recording from 6 pm to 6 am. “Back then, if you got one tune or word wrong, you had to start from scratch all over again!”
Several stints at the SLBC English Commercial Service aboard the Sooriya Show (hosted by Vijaya Corea, who introduced him as a “rising star”) later, Victor found himself returning to the career he’d left behind, in Accountancy, when (“by the grace of God”) he managed to pass his exams quite well. “My father was extremely happy. I had proved to him that I could sing and balance the books.” By 1972, he was working comfortably (“to my heart’s content”) at the Ceylon Tobacco Company. But before he abandoned singing, at least for a short while, he’d meet one person who’d figure in his life a few years later: Nimal Mendis.
This is where Nirasha comes in. Victor married Nirasha’s mother’s younger sister in 1973. When the two of them would meet at family parties, they’d almost always be selected to perform middle class baila and pop tunes like “Koheda Yanne Rukmani?”, which was first performed and popularised at Nirasha’s school (Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya) and was a rehashed version of the nursery rhyme “Where Are You Going My Pretty Maid?” Uncle and niece would meet each other for a more serious song, however, when in 1978 Nimal Mendis, composing the music for Sumitra Peries’s film Ganga Addara, requested him to perform a theme song. There was a catch though: he had to perform it with a small girl. “Obviously, Nirasha fitted the bill!” Victor heartily chortles.
Ganga Addara, as those who’ve seen the film and the later, rather crassly made television remake would know, popularised Vijaya Kumaratunga through the titular song (performed, though never with the same intensity and sense of conviction, by other young vocalists). But there’s another tune, slotted in at the beginning of the film while the opening credits are rolling on. Sumitra Peries and the film’s producers, the Sumathipala family (Milina Sumathipala), had taken in Maurice Dahanayake’s son, Channa, and one of the Sumathipala daughters, Shalini, to act as the juvenile versions of the two protagonists and lovers in the story, played as adults by Vasanthi Chathurani and Sanath Gunathilake. The opening credits sequence really has no bearing on the larger narrative, but was used as a means of portraying the young innocence of the love that turns our heroine, Nirmala (Vasanthi) insane and in the end forces her to commit suicide.
This opening tune was, as with Nimal Mendis’s other works, written in English, and while it didn’t make sense, it was not intended to be an overtly serious song either. The chorus, Victor and Nirasha remembers for me, ran on like this:
Tralalalala sing together…
As for the second verse:
Swim like a fish…
Fly like a bird…
Be happy, little boy, little girl…
No time to feel sad…
My lass, my lad…
Love is a wonderful thing….
(Victor and Nirasha argue over the last line: the latter informs me that it was actually “Love is a magical word…” In any case, it doesn’t really matter.)
Nimal Mendis, as I mentioned before, wrote in English. To translate it into Sinhala, he got a Tamil gentleman from Panadura: Augustus Vinayagaratnam, who had already worked with Nimal for “Ganga Addara” (the titular song) and, earlier, “Upul Nuwan” (featured in Lester James Peries’s Ahasin Polawata, which also featured Vijaya and Vasanthi and which also was produced by the Sumathipalas). In the end, Augustus, rising up to the occasion, met the primary challenge this entailed: keep to the spirit of the original while communicating it to the vernacular audience. If “Tralalalala You” was meant to be so innocent, so jovial, that it was born (in one sense) to be sung as a carefree interlude, then Augustus delivered on the brief he was given. Nimal, obviously, was happy.
On the 31st of March, 1978, Nirasha and Victor went off to a studio near the Archbishop’s House (the Joe-Neth Studio) in Borella. They had met about twice or thrice, before, at Mendis’s residence, an annexe off Jawatta Road. At the time Nirasha would have been 12, Victor about 30. “Mind you, we hadn’t recorded a song like this before. Not even Uncle Victor!” Nirasha remembers, with a gleam in her eye.
And to top it all, the song they were recording had to be recorded with some schoolchildren from Sangamitta Balika Vidyalaya in Borella. “They would have all been primary schoolgirls, from Grade Four or Six. I was taken to one studio with Uncle Victor, and I put on an earphone. The other girls didn’t. What they sang, they had to sing with all the gusto they could bring out. It was really and truly a raw, unfiltered, unprofessional, and yes, innocent song. ‘Cherubic’ in the best sense of that word. In fact I don’t think it was meant to be recorded as a serious tune. None of us had voices which had been polished or refined. Nimal wanted that kind of tune, that kind of recording. But there was a problem. No matter how hard we tried, the girls couldn’t muster up the gusto he needed.”
At the studio there had been Mendis as the composer, Augustus as the lyricist, and Sarath Fernando as the orchestrator. All three of them tried to uplift the girls’ spirits, to no avail. “I remember Uncle Sarath making faces at them, trying to keep them amused. We obviously needed to make them feel the song they sang. So Nimal hit on a solution. He asked me to sing the first line of the first verse, and when it was sung again by the girls, to take a step back from the microphone and sing it with the rest of the girls. That way my voice would blend in with theirs and at the same time I wouldn’t stand out from them. I remember him telling Uncle Victor also to step away from the mike. It was a risk we all had to take. And at the end of the day, it was a risk that paid off. Handsomely.”
If took all of five or six takes for Nimal Mendis to get what he wanted, and the end result was to his liking. It was, as Nirasha so aptly puts it to me, a very unprofessional song, one that ran along and flowed along succinctly to the tenor of a group of children who probably weren’t aware of what they were doing. Incidentally Augustus’s lyrics reflected this, so well that they retain the rawness of Nimal’s composition. As for the song, well, here are some of the lyrics:
දෑතේ බැදිලා ඈතට දුවලා
නොපෙනී යනවද සුදු නංගී
ඉනිමං බැදලා ලස්සන හොයලා
ගමනක් යනවද සුදු මල්ලී
The name of the tune? “Ran Tikiri Sina.”
The story of “Ran Tikiri Sina” doesn’t end here though. The afterword it compels can be, in Nirasha’s and Victor’s own words, be summed up as follows: despite the producers and the composer, it was sadly and ultimately hijacked and, if I may use that term, appropriated by more established players who, ironically, missed out on one quality of the tune that the two original vocalists had not: the sense of innocence that no polished voice could convey or do justice to. “In hindsight I think it was erroneous on the part of these vocalists to choose ‘Ran Tikiri Sina.’ Not because we sang it originally, but because it wasn’t meant to be sung in a professional, suave way. It needed to retain a welter of joviality. That’s what Nimal Mendis got with the original recording, that’s what was never replicated elsewhere. Moreover, we had a saving grace in the form of the children who performed it with us. We had one reply to give audiences: ‘If the recording you hear doesn’t have a children’s ensemble, then it isn’t ours!’”
There was another saving grace. Hudson Samarasinghe, then at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), got hold of the story behind “Ran Tikiri Sina”. He thought for some days, paid a visit to the Sumathipalas, procured an original spool of the tune, returned to the SLBC, and got it recorded there. “As long as I’m in this division, I won’t let another version of this song be broadcast,” he is reported to have told Victor, who recounts this to me this rather happily. “Hudson saved us. We would have wasted away, particularly since we gave up our musical careers afterwards, if not for him.” More was to come, happily.
20 years after Ganga Addara was released, that is in 1999, the Sumathipalas held a felicitation ceremony involving everyone who had been a part of the film, from Sumitra Peries to Tissa Abeysekara (the scriptwriter) to Donald Karunaratne (the cameraman) to of course Nirasha and Victor. When the awards were duly handed over, to the two of them, and the acknowledgement read out in public, the journalists and media men and women present at the occasion were rather astonished. “For over a decade they had associated ‘Ran Tikiri Sina’ with another set of vocalists. They were astounded to realise that we were the original performers. Not long afterwards, we got requests for interviews, and we were thenceforth featured in several newspapers which carried such telling headlines as ‘Ran Tikiri Sina smiles again.” To top it all, Chandimal Fernando, who too had performed the tune, though not for commercial purposes, called the two of them to sing it with him onstage: “The first time we sang it onstage, to be honest.”
I met Victor Silva and Nirasha Perera at their residence in Rosmead Place the other day and I was happy, relieved almost, that 40 years have passed. 40 years, that is, since the recording of the song this article is about, specifically 40 years to March 31. A lot has happened. Some of it needn’t be recounted, others have been recounted. By me and by everyone else. In the meantime, all we can say, looking at these two gentle people and perusing the lyrics of the tune they hummed, is what someone once said of music in general: “It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”
I first heard “Ran Tikiri Sina” on air from the lips of other established singers. Watching Ganga Addara made me realise that such songs are appropriated by those who piggybank on the successes they encounter, whether at the hands of critics or of popular audiences. Victor and Nirasha have much to be happy about in that respect, I think. For now and forever. So thank you. For now and forever.
Written for: Daily Mirror, March 27 and 29 2018
Posted by Uditha Devapriya
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