Saturday, 11 April 2015 00:40
Sunil Santha’s voice still reverberates as we approach the ‘Avurudda’. This year’s ‘Avurudu’ is of special significance. Tuesday 14 April marks the 100th birth anniversary of the great singer.
We have been enjoying Sunil Santha’s songs since the mid-1940s. The simple words – mostly his own – the lilting voice, perfect rendering, mellow music, all these helped us to hum these tunes for seven decades. We still remember the words of ‘Olu Pipila’, ‘Handapane’, ‘Bovitiya dang’, ‘Kokiliyange’ and many more. We still sing them. We listen to them on CDs thanks to the SLBC and his eldest son Lanka’s efforts to preserve these immortal songs.
We loved his voice. We admired his pleasing personality. We treasured his simplicity. We respected his steadfastness. We valued his integrity.
He appeared at a time when Sinhala music was looking for a clear path. The other celebrated singer Ananda Samarakoon had paved the way. Sunil Santha appeared at the right time.
Don Joseph John returned to Sri Lanka in December 1994 as Sunil Santha with a Diploma for Singing from Maris College of Hindustan Music - referred to as the Bhatkande Music Academy in Allahabad, and a degree for sitar playing, also from the same academy. He was the first Sri Lankan to qualify in both fields.
The association with his uncle, Father Moses Perera at the Rakwana Church, gave him an opening to meet scholars Munidasa Cumaratunga, Jayantha Weerasekera, Raphael Tennakoon and Hubert Dissanyake. He was soon composing tunes for lyrics written by these stalwarts of the ‘Hela Havula’.
Having collected his ‘Sangeet Visharad’ certificate at the Bhatkande graduation ceremony in April 1945, he gave a simple explanation on what music meant. “Music depends on constant training. The man gets a natural instrument in the form of the throat. With training musical sounds/vowels just appear.” Sunil Santha
In May 1945, he sang ‘Sumano, Sumano’ and ‘Ridee Valaave’ at a concert held at the Colombo Town Hall and mesmerised the audience. He started music classes at Kanuwana near Jaela and started looking for a path for Sinhala music with another talented singer, Suriyashanker Molligoda. (The latter had an untimely death when he was just 33.) He regularly appeared in numerous variety entertainments. He was the biggest draw at these and fans thronged to get a glimpse of him and hear him sing.
Sunil Santha continued to educate those interested in music through newspaper articles and his own publications. Music classes were held in a few Colombo schools and in the Colombo University through ‘Mela’, the university’s cultural society.
He got a raw deal from Radio Ceylon when he (along with Ananda Samarakoon and P Dunstan de Silva) refused to appear before Professor Ratanajankar to be auditioned and graded as a radio singer. The authorities closed the doors on him. His argument was that having been a ‘golaya’ of Ratanajankar he knew his capabilities and why another grading, he asked.
Much has been written about the tough time he spent in the years that followed.
I met Sunil Santha during that time at his small house at Dehiyagathe near Jaela where he spent a hard but pleasant life with his school teacher wife Leela and the four children – three boys and a girl. He was still a smart man in his early fifties.
I was then with the Sunday Observer and we had a long chat for a feature in the paper, penned by the versatile journalist E.C.T. Candappa. I wrote a feature for the ‘Silumina’. Photographer Chandra Weerawardena had no problem is getting Sunil Santha and family to pose for a few pictures.
I also recollect the day I went with another senior journalist colleague, S. Subasinghe to invite him for the Sarasaviya Film Festival in 1968. He was most reluctant but obviously finding it difficult to say ‘no’ to us, he said: “If you can get Ivor (Dennis) to come, I will come.” We spoke to Ivor and he was most willing. Sunil Santha thus appeared on stage after many years at the Ladies College auditorium where Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was the Chief Guest.
The efforts of SLBC DG Neville Jayawe to bring him back to SLBC towards the latter part of the 1960s saw a resurgence of Sinhal radio music through his program ‘Madhura Madhu’. This experimental programme was a new experience to the listeners.
While Sunil Santha’s melodies in Lester James Peries’ ‘Rekawa’ and ‘Sansdeshaya’ is still being talked about, many have forgotten that he sang the first English song in a Sinhala film. It was in G.D.L. Perera’s ‘Romeo saha Juliet’ and the lyrics of the song, ‘My dreams are roses’ were written by Father Marcelline Jayakody and the melody and music was by Shelton Premaratne.
In later years, I used to meet him driving a Bug Fiat.
When he passed away on 11 April 1981, Sunil Santha was a happy father having given a university education to the children. The three sons had graduated as engineers and the daughter was to become a veterinary surgeon. But he could not come to terms with the unexpected death by drowning of one son while being on a picnic. He didn’t survive more than five weeks after the tragedy.
Sunil Santha’s musical journey was an eventful one. He created a new musical culture. He generated a new musical audience. He made people love Sinhala music.
His voice still haunts us.