Jothipala: From the depths of despair to heady heights

Saturday, 14 March 2020 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 H.R. Jothipala

Sinhala cinema’s super star Gamini Fonseka once described H.R. Jothipala as a playback singer “who sang to joy, emotion and grief, the three essential areas in film songs”. In an excerpted interview published in these columns a fortnight ago, Gamini stated forthrightly: “Of all singers, H.R. Jothipala is exclusive. He has come to stay. As long as the island – Sri Lanka – exists in the world map, Jothipala will never die.”

The full impact of Gamini Fonseka’s assessment about the immortality of Jothipala the singer and his songs hit me over the past few weeks after I had written the first part of the article on Jothi for ‘Spotlight’. 

During the first week, I received several mails from people thanking me for the article. Some said they were looking forward to the second part. When the article did not appear last week, I got a second lot of mails querying as to why the second part did not appear. Several people requested that the article on Jothi should be continued.

These mails relating to a singer who had passed away almost 34 years ago made me realise the unassailable truth and wisdom of Gamini Fonseka’s words. If this was the response to an article in English about H.R. Jothipala, what would be the response to a Sinhala article on Jothi, I wondered.

A loveable personality

As stated in the first part of this article HR Jothipala had a loveable personality. What endeared Jothi to most persons who interacted with him was his unpretentious simplicity, easy accessibility, good-natured friendliness and a joyful lifestyle. He was not of the privileged classes. He rose up from humble beginnings and reached stardom as a singer through perseverance and talent. H.R. Jothipala’s rise to fame is an impressive tale worth recounting.

Hettiarachchige Reginald Jothipala was born on 12 February 1936 at Ketawalamulla in Dematagoda. His father Hettiarachchige Reginald James was a tailor by profession. His mother H.K. Podinona Perera was employed in a hospital. Both his parents hailed from Matara in the Southern Province. They sought a new life by moving to Colombo after marriage. 

Jothipala was the eldest child in a family of four girls and two boys. Jothi studied at the newly established St. John’s College in Dematagoda and at St. Lawrence College in Maradana. After leaving school, he enrolled at a vocational training institute in Maradana to learn welding and machine operating.

Jothipala’s efforts to acquire academic learning or vocational training never succeeded because he was far more interested in music, song and singing than in obtaining academic certificates or technical skills. Some of his erstwhile schoolmates have revealed in media interviews that Jothi – as he was known since childhood days – was always keen to sing and entertain his friends with songs. He would do so by drumming on tables or “playing drums” on empty tins and cans. 

The family was not well-off financially and could not afford a radio at home. So young Jothi would loiter around a tea kiosk that had a radio blaring forth perpetually. Jothi used to sing along at times when familiar songs were aired. He was rather fond of Hindi songs. Talat Mahmood and Mohammed Rafi were his favourite singers then. 

Jothipala, who never learnt music in school or underwent formal training as a singer, was a “natural” who could play it by ear. His goal in life was to become a popular singer. He sang wherever and whenever he got a chance – at parties, weddings, stage shows and processions.

Stanley Omar 

to the rescue

Jothipala faced an uphill struggle in trying to break through into the musical world as an accredited singer. In spite of his lack of training as a singer, he did succeed ultimately due to two factors. One was his sheer talent. The other was the help of good souls who were impressed by that talent. The first among those who discovered Jothi’s talent and helped him in this regard was the well-known musician of Malay heritage, “Kalasuri” Stanley Omar.

In those days several people interested and involved in music and singing used to gather at the Gunaratne Hotel in Maradana. It was there that Omar came across Jothi. It was Omar who introduced the 16-year-old Jothipala to well-known journalist and radio personality Ariyadasa Peiris in 1952. Ariyadasa Peiris pioneered several radio shows on ‘Radio Ceylon’ aimed at fostering the arts. One of these was ‘Adhunika Peya’ that encouraged singing by amateurs. It was sponsored by a confectionery.

Ariyadasa Peiris obliged Stanley Omar by letting Jothipala participate in ‘Adhunika Peya’. The Hindi film ‘Aaram’ starring Dev Anand and Madhubala had been released in 1951. The film’s songs for which music was composed by Anil Biswas had become widely popular. Jothipala sang a number from this film ‘Shukriyaa, Shukriya Ai Pyaar Tera, Shukriya’. Jothipala’s favourite singer, the legendary Talat Mahmood, had sung it for the film. It was known as the “Shukriya (Thank You) song”. 

Jothipala won first place on that occasion and got his first-ever singing ‘prize’. It was a box of honey-flavoured lozenges deemed good for the throat. Subsequently Jothipala won the Best Singer award in another show, ‘Jayagrahaka Pelapaliya,’ too. This was also hosted by Ariyadasa Peiris. The prize this time was a Parker 51 pen. 

It was once again Stanley Omar who went the extra mile to promote Jothipala’s singing among reputed musicians and singers on a festive occasion. The well-known singer G.S.B. Rani got married to Ranawaka Arachchige Anton Perera in February 1953. Though known professionally as G.S.B. Rani, the singer’s initials represented her real name Gnai Seenar Bangsajayah. 

G.S.B. Rani Perera who later served as a Director of ITV was of Malay ethnicity. The journalist Sisira Kumara Manikkarachchi organised a musical event at Nugegoda to felicitate the newlywed couple. The music was conducted by R.A. Chandrasena. Stanley Omar too was an invitee.

Stanley Omar took along with him the uninvited Jothipala. He introduced him to Chandrasena and his wife the singer Sriyani and asked the music composer to give the young lad a chance to sing. This was done. Jothipala sang and captivated the audience. He was asked to sing again and again. The event provided Jothi a tremendous boost.

One of the persons impressed by Jothi was the singer-actor Maurice Dahanayake. Due to the efforts of Maurice Dahanayake, Jothipala got a chance to voice one word three times in a song. The song was ‘Mahaweli Nadiye’ sung by Wasantha Sandanayake. All that Jothipala had to do was shout out the word “Thotiyo” thrice. This Jothi did and was elated. His voice was on a record for the first time. 

Later on Jothipala got more chances to really sing for records as opposed to shouting “Thotiyo”. He sang his first duet ‘Labeiee Sithalada Ale Kale’ with G.S.B. Rani. His first duet with a male singer was again with Wasantha Sandanayake. This was ‘Ada Ada Eyiee Maruwa,’ where Jothi shared a full song instead of interjecting three words. Jothipala’s first solo was ‘Mage Ran Ranjanee’. This was made possible by his benefactor and friend Stanley Omar who composed the music.

The Chandrasenas step in

Meanwhile Jothipala’s singing at the Anton Perera-G.S.B. Rani felicitation event had greatly impressed maestro R.A. Chandrasena and spouse Sriyani Chandrasena. Ranasinghe Aarachchige Chandrasena known as “RAC” and “Chandrasena Master” founded the “Chandrasena Sangeethaayathanaya” or Chandrasena Institute of Music in 1951. He was a musician, singer, music composer and music teacher. Chandrasena married the singer Shriyaawathie Perera who later became known as Sriyani Chandrasena.

The Chandrasenas liked Jothipala’s singing and took the aspiring artiste under their wing. Chandrasena included Jothipala as a singer in his popular musical extravaganzas like ‘Chathurangani’ and ‘Panchangani’. More importantly it was Chandrasena who was instrumental in giving Jothipala the first opportunity to be a playback singer in films. This however did not materialise due to an entirely tragi-comic reason.

B.A.W. Jayamanne, (Eddie Jayamanne’s brother) of Negombo’s Minerva Theatre Group fame, produced, directed, wrote screenplays and acted in many Sinhala films in the late forties and fifties of the 20th century. The Jayamannes were integral to the making of the first Sinhala talkie ‘Kadawuna Poronduwa’ in 1947. B.A.W. was regarded as a pioneer of Sinhala cinema though many of his creations were heavily influenced by Indian movies.

R.A. Chandrasena along with the South Indian music director S.S. Vedha had composed music for B.A.W.’s film ‘Iranganie’ in 1954. Jayamanne embarked on producing another film, ‘Mathabhedaya’ in 1955. B.A.W. wanted R.A. Chandrasena to be in charge of music for this film. The film – as in the case of most Sinhala films then – was to be made in India. Wanting to give Jothipala his first break in playback singing, Chandrasena persuaded Jayamanne to let the budding songster sing one song in the movie. B.A.W. agreed.

Thereafter Chandrasena organised a series of rehearsals for Jothipala at his residence. The song Jothipala was to sing for ‘Mathabhedaya’ was ‘Ginnaki Hada Mage’. The original tune was from the philosophical Hindi film song ‘Zindagi Dene Wale Sun’ from the film ‘Dil-E-Nadan’ released in 1953. It was sung by the great Talat Mahmood – Jothipala’s favourite singer – who also acted in the film. 

The song was picturised on Talat and actress Shyama. The music composer was Ghulam Mohammed. The musical arrangement by Ghulam was rather exquisite. Western string instrumental music blended with a melody based on the Hindustani raga ‘Bhoop’. Therefore Chandrasena wanted Jothi to rehearse diligently.

This Jothipala did with great enthusiasm. Jothi was delighted that he was going to sing his first number as a playback singer. Furthermore it was going to be a melody sung by Talat Mahmood whom he idolised. He arduously practiced under Chandrasena’s strict guidance. Finally the maestro was satisfied. Since most Sinhala films were made in India in those days, the songs too were to be recorded in an Indian studio. So a studio in Madras (now Chennai) was booked and dates fixed. Jothipala was instructed to be ready to fly out to India on a specific date and time.

Passport fiasco

An excited Jothipala made preparations. In those days flights between Colombo and Chennai were from Ratmalana to Meenambaakkam. Katunayake was yet a British air base. Jothipala made his way to Ratmalana on the specified day and time with his baggage. When Jothi arrived at the Ratmalana airport, he was in for a shock. Jothipala discovered that he had neither a passport nor visa to travel to India. The naïve, childlike Jothi had not realised that such documents were required to travel abroad. He had not even bothered to inquire from anyone in this regard. Chandrasena was furious. He had never imagined Jothipala would be so ignorant about such matters. So Chandrasena too had not inquired from Jothi earlier. Now it was too late. The others proceeded as planned to India without Jothi.

‘Mathabhedaya’ was released on 14 April 1955 to coincide with the Sinhala-Tamil New Year. The song ‘Ginnaki Hada Mage’ was sung by Mohideen Baig for the film. Jothipala was shattered. He wrote a poignant letter to R.A. Chandrasena whom he addressed as his friend and teacher.

Jothipala’s passport fiasco story began circulating in the world of cinema and music. Though amused, many felt sorry for him. Jothi’s friends and well-wishers tried hard to get him another chance to sing for films. 

After the release of ‘Mathabhedaya,’ B.A.W. Jayamanne began producing another film, ‘Perakadoru Bena’. The director was Antony Baskar Raj known as A.B. Raj. He was an Indian national who lived in Sri Lanka for several years and directed over 12 Sinhala films. A.B. Raj is the father of award-winning Tamil actress Saranya Ponvannan. 

The music for the film was composed by S.S. Vedha, the well-known Tamil music composer who used to work in many films produced by B.A.W. Jayamanne. The musical orchestra was conducted by B.S. Perera. Jothipala approached B.A.W. Jayamanne along with B.S. Perera. B.A.W. was somewhat sympathetic to Jothi’s plight. The producer told B.S. Perera to give Jothi a song in the film with the director A.B. Raj’s approval.

One of the songs planned for the film was the duet ‘Muhudey Pathuley’. B.S. Perera felt Jothi could be the male singer in the duet with Rukmani Devi. When Jothi was taken to the A.B. Raj, the director asked Jothi to sing. After listening to Jothi twice, A.B. Raj bluntly rejected him saying the voice was unsuitable for films. A crestfallen Jothipala returned home. ‘Perakadoru Bena’ was released on 14 October 1955. Mohideen Baig sang ‘Muhudey Pathuley’ instead of Jothipala.

More bad news

Jothi’s friends continued with their efforts to promote him. The reputed clarinetist and music composer T.F. Latheef was a good friend of Jothi. Latheef was assigned the task of music direction for the film ‘Podi Putha’ by Sirisena Wimalaweera. The reputed film maker who set up the film studio ‘Navajeewana’ in Kiribathgoda had directed films such as ‘Saradiel’ and ‘Asoka’. Now Wimalaweera was producing, directing and acting the key role in ‘Podi Putha’. Latheef wanted to give his friend Jothipala a chance to sing for ‘Podi Putha’.

Among the songs planned by Latheef for the film was ‘Kiri Muhuda’ based on the film duet ‘Dekho Mane Nahin Roothi Hasina’ from the Hindi film ‘Taxi Driver’ starring Dev Anand. The singers were Jagmohan Bakshi and Asha Bhosle. Music was composed by S.D. Burman. Latheef decided to let G.S.B. Rani Perera and H.R. Jothipala sing the ‘Kiri Muhuda’ duet. Wimalaweera too was agreeable. So Jothipala went to Nawajeewana studio and recorded the song with Rani Perera. He was very happy and eagerly awaited the release of ‘Podi Putha’.

Sirisena Wimalaweera’s award-winning ‘Podi Putha’ was screened to the public on 25 November 1955. Jothipala was on cloud nine. Jothi went with a group of friends to see the matinee show on the first day. They waited for ‘Kiri Muhuda’ song to play on screen. When it did, Jothipala was shocked. It was not Jothi’s voice that was heard. It was another singer, Haroon Lantra, who sang along with G.S.B. Rani Perera. Jothi and friends were thoroughly dismayed. Just to make sure, Jothi and a friend watched the next show also to see the song sequence again. All doubts vanished. Haroon Lantra and GSB Rani Perera were the singers. A saddened Jothi and his friend left the theatre.

Jothipala made inquiries from T.F. Latheef. The apologetic music director told Jothi what had happened. A few weeks before the release the Indian sound engineer at the studio had told Wimalaweera that Jothipala’s voice was of poor standard. He had insisted that Jothipala be replaced. Wimalweera too concurred. Latheef protested but he was overruled by the producer-director who agreed with the sound engineer. So Haroon Lantra and Rani Perera were summoned at short notice and the song was re-recorded again. Latheef had not told Jothi of this because he could not face his friend to break the bad news.

Destiny intervenes

Nineteen-year-old Jothipala was devastated. Years later Jothi was to disclose in a media interview that the ‘Kiri Muhuda’ episode was one of the lowest points in his life. He had even contemplated suicide. He felt humiliated and did not venture outside home. He avoided friends for a while. Jothi recovered after some time and resumed singing. How could a songbird refrain from singing? But Jothi decided that he would never be a playback singer. He stopped trying for a chance to sing in films again and told his friends also to stop.

For several months Jothipala remained firm in his resolve of not singing in films. Destiny however intervened in the form of his friend and benefactor Stanley Omar. The man who had helped in so many ways to launch Jothipala’s career acted without Jothi’s knowledge to boost his friend’s career.

Utilising his influence and contacts Stanley Omar enabled Jothipala to obtain another chance to sing for a film. After much persuasion, Jothi grasped the opportunity. H.R. Jothipala became a playback singer in 1956 by singing for ‘Surathalee’. From then onwards, there was no looking back. 

How this state of affairs came about and the astounding ascendancy of Jothipala as a playback singer will be related in detail in the third and final part of this article.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected].)

Recent columns