Anthonypillai Emmanuel Manoharan known to the world at large as A. E. Manoharan was a multi-faceted personality possessing many talents. He was a singer, musician, broadcaster and stage and screen actor but it was his singing that brought him great honour.
Manoharan, who passed away on 23 January this year at the age of 73, was an ebullient singer with a flamboyant appearance. Manoharan made his name as a rocking singer of popular musical numbers mostly in the Baila music genre. He was proficient in Tamil, Sinhala and English and could sing in all three languages and was hailed as the “Thamizh Poppisaich Chakkaravarthi” (Emperor of Tamil Pop Music) of Sri Lanka.
Stage and screen career
Although he made his name and earned much fame as a singer, the versatile Manoharan was also a stage and screen actor. In fact his stage and screen debuts precede his debut as a pop singer. A.E. Manoharan has acted in 260 films in the Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi Languages. Many of the films were in Tamil and to a lesser extent Malayalam. In India his screen name in most films was “Ceylon Manohar”. He was living in the Chennai suburb of Kanthansaavadi at the time of his death. Tamil Nadu media organs reported his demise as “Ceylon Manohar” passing away.
Manoharan may have acted in many movies in India but the cruel truth was that he did not make an impact in any movie. The reason for this being that none of the roles were substantial. They were essentially “bit” roles. Manoharan acted in films starring some great actors like Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Jaishanker, Muthuraman, Mammooty, Mohanlal, Rajkumar, Chiranjeevi and many others. But Manoharan seldom got a worthwhile part where he could make a mark.
He generally acted in minor roles, usually playing the villain’s henchman or hero’s sidekick or a relative of the heroine. In the film ‘Jay Jay’ for instance Manoharan acted as the father of the heroine played by none other than Pooja Umashankar. Sadly Indian filmdom did not utilise his immeasurable singing talent in their films either.
Among the Tamil films “Ceylon Manohar” has acted in India are ‘Maangudi Minor,’ ‘En Kaelivikku Enna Pathil,’ ‘Naan Poatta Savaal,’ ‘Lorry Driver Rajakkannu,’ ‘Neethipathy’ and ‘Manithanil Ithanai Nirangalaa’. Among his Malayalam movies are ‘Maamaangam,’ ‘Thadayara,’ ‘Shakthi,’ ‘Kazhukan,’ ‘Kolilaakkam,’ ‘Thachcoli Ambu’ and ‘Aavaesham’. Among his Telugu films are ‘Chattanikki Kallu Levu’ and ‘Aarani Mantalu’. Manoharan has also acted in three Sri Lankan Tamil Films. They are ‘Paasa Nilaa,’ ‘Puthiya Kaatru’ and ‘Vaadaikkaatru’. In ‘Paasa Nilaa’ Manoharan, then a student, played the lead role. The film produced in Jaffna was directed by Joseph Devananda who later directed many Sinhala films as Joe Dev Ananand. The film ‘Puthiya Kaatru’ was produced by Trade Unionist V.P. Ganesan, the father of Cabinet Minister Mano Ganesan. Manoharan had a guest role in the film.
‘Vaadaikkaatru’ was directed by the legendary Premnath Moraes. It was based on a novel by popular writer ‘Sengai Aazhiyaan’. Manoharan acted in the role of Simeon the second lead in the film. Manoharan got to sing in all three Tamil films made in Sri Lanka. He also sang a song ‘Udarata Menike’ with Tamil Nadu singer L.R. Easwari in the film ‘Pilot Premnath,’ which was an Indo-Lanka joint production starring Sivaji Ganesan and Malani Fonseka in the main roles.
Manoharan’s stage and screen debuts as a lead actor or hero were in Jaffna. The drama was ‘Ithaya Oasai’ and the film ‘Paasa Nilaa’. How this came about is an interesting tale. A brief look at his early life is necessary to understand this background better.
Manoharan was born in 1945 at Bogawantalawa in the Central Province of the island then known as Ceylon. His father was a Jaffna Tamil from Eeachamoattai near Paashaiyoor in Jaffna. While teaching in the up country, he fell in love with a highlands lass from the Indian Tamil community and married her. This was frowned upon by his Jaffna relatives and the man domiciled himself permanently in Bogawantalawa, where he became the Principal of Bogawantalawa Maha Vidyalayam.
The family was devoutly Catholic and pillars of the Holy Rosary Church in Bogawantalawa, where Manoharan’s flair for singing was first noted. He was part of the church choir from a very young age. His father played the organ and mother was choir leader. Apparently music and singing were a family virtue.
Manoharan was schooled initially at Bogawantalawa and Talawakelle. Later on he was sent to St. Mary’s College, Nawalapitiya where the great singer C.T. Fernando too had studied earlier. CT with his breakout song ‘Pin Sindu Wanne’ had begun to make waves as a singer at that time. The school was very proud of its old boy and Manoharan was no exception. He too wanted to emulate CT at that impressionable tender age. Later on Manoharan was to acknowledge in interviews that C.T. Fernando was an inspiration and role model.
After completing his primary education at Nawalapitiya, Manoharan was sent to St. John’s College, Jaffna for his secondary education. He was boarded at the school hostel. He was a popular student known for his playfulness. He made a name for himself as an actor in school dramas and a singer in concerts. The peak of his school career at St. John’s was the ‘Ithaya Oasai’ drama.
‘Ithaya Oasai’ (Sound of the Heart) was a drama put on the boards by the students of St. John’s College, Jaffna in 1963/64. The play proved so popular that it was staged to members of the public in Jaffna, Kandy, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Colombo. The chief actor in the play was the handsome curly-haired Manoharan studying in the then Higher School Certificate (HSC) class. A remarkable feature of the lead actor played by Manoharan in the drama was that he sang in his own voice on stage without lip-synching the songs.
The highlight of the drama was a song set to the tune of ‘Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai,’ the theme song sung in nasal tones by Mukesh in the Hindi film of the same name ‘Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai’ starring Raj Kapoor and Padmini. The opening lines were “Oru Vaanambaadi Veeznthathadaa, Athan Vaalvu Indroadu Mudinthathadaa, En Kangalil Kanneeer Sinthuthadaa” (A skylark has fallen, its life is over from today, tears flow from my eyes). The song about the death of a skylark was written, set to the melody of the Shankar-Jaikishan tune and sung mournfully by Manoharan himself. The drama was well-received in Jaffna. Many were impressed by Manoharan’s acting. Among these was a schoolmaster from Jaffna College, Vaddukkoddai called Joseph Devananda. He and a colleague Devan Kulathungam embarked upon a film making venture in 1965. It was shot in 16 mm film. The story and dialogues relating to school students was co-written by both pedagogues referred to as “Dev and Dev” by Jaffna College students.
The film was directed by Devananda with Devan Kulathungam as associate director. Manoharan’s performance in the ‘Ithaya Oasai’ drama had made quite an impression on Devananda. He selected the Johnian student to play the lead role of Kumar in the film named ‘Paasa Nilaa’ (Loving Moon). It was the fourth Tamil film to be made in Lanka.
The film shot in different locations in Jaffna and at the Peradeniya botanical gardens, Galle Face Green and Dehiwala Zoo was released in 1966. An enchanting number ‘Thendral Thavalum’ sung by Manoharan in the film was a hit. Since the film was in 16 mm it was screened at the Jaffna town hall and at school halls. Interestingly enough the live-wire behind ‘Paasa Nilaa’ Joseph Devananda was to move on later from teaching to the cinema field as a film maker. He became famous as the film director Joe Dev Anand who made popular Sinhala films like Geetha, Sujeewa, Sunethtra, Obai Mamai, Sukiri Kella, Minisun Athara Minisek and the Sri Lankan Tamil film ‘Rathathin Rathamae’.
Manoharan with his penchant for singing and acting did not focus on his studies as he ought to have done. He completed his HSC with poor grades and did not gain admission to a Sri Lankan university. Thereafter his father sent him to St. Joseph’s College, Trichirappalli (Trichy) in India where he followed a BA degree course specialising in English literature.
Bitten by the acting bug
Unfortunately the “acting” bug had bitten Manoharan severely after his brief stint as the hero of Paasa Nilaa. He would vanish from Trichy for long periods and go to the state capital Chennai then known as Madras where he tried to get a break as an actor in the Tamil film industry. He failed miserably except for a solitary part in a film produced by the legendary MMA Chinnappa Devar.
The film was ‘Maanavan’ (student) and released in 1970. Manoharan had a tiny role as a student in the film which starred Jaishanker, Lakshmi, Muthuraman, Kamal Hassan, “Kutti” Padmini and others. Manoharan was part of the ensemble in a group dance sequence for the song “Visiladichaan kunjugalaa, kunjugalaa” featuring Kamal and Padmini. Manoharan uttered only one line in the film. It was “Mani Thaan Saar” meaning “it was Mani only, sir”. That line by Manoharan became famous among undergrads at St. Joseph’s College who began teasing him by that line thereafter.
A contemporary of Manoharan at Trichy, R.P. Rajanayahem has written about Manoharan’s days at St. Joseph’s in his blog. Incidentally Rajanayahem himself was involved with films and journalism later. Rajanayahem says that Manoharan referred to as “Ceylon Manohar” then was quite popular at St. Joseph’s. Since he had acted in “Paasa Nilaa” he was nicknamed as “Paasa Nilaa” first. After the “Maanavan” film he was teased for his one liner role and dubbed “Mani thaan saar”. Later in a drama staged at college, Manoharan acted as the leader of a gang of robbers and was called “Baas”(Boss) on stage. Manoharan made such a great impact as “Baas” that thereafter his nickname became “Baas”. Manoharan’s undergrad colleagues continued to call him “Baas” in their post-varsity days too.
Rajanayahem also says that Manoharan was an avid fan of the doyen of Tamil actors Sivaji Ganesan. Manoharan was averse to M.G. Ramachandran (MGR) and loved Sivaji. He would sing only songs from films starring Sivaji Ganesan and not MGR.
“Ceylon Manohar’s renditions of songs sung by T.M. Soundararajan and lip-synched by Sivaji were much liked by fellow students. Apart from being a singer of Sivaji film songs, Manoharan was also part of the St. Joseph’s Church choir. He also proved his prowess as an actor by playing the main character Anthony in a Tamil drama called ‘Gnaana Oli’ (Light of Wisdom). The drama originally staged by the drama troupe of actor “Major” Sunderarajan was re-enacted by the students of St. Joseph’s College, Trichy. The same drama was made into a film later and Sivaji Ganesan played “Anthony” in the movie.
During his undergraduate days in Tamil Nadu, Manoharan established contact with the great comedian and singer J.P. Chandrababu, who himself had studied for some years at St. Joseph’s College in Grandpass, Colombo. Chandrababu whose full name was Joseph Panimayathas Rodriguez had at one time been a widely sought after comic actor, who sang his own songs on screen. But from the mid-sixties of the last century, Chandrababu’s career was on the decline. He could not help Manoharan to get a break in films. Manoharan however was to tell friends later that he had learnt the art of yodelling from Chandrababu.
Manoharan also used to sing film songs sung by Chandrababu on stage in those days. His favourite Chandrababu song was ‘Kanmani Paappaa’ from the film ‘Thattungal Thirakkappadum’ directed by Chandrababu himself.
Back to his first love, singing
Unable to enter the Tamil film world in India Manoharan went back home in a rather disillusioned state. After returning to Lanka, Manoharan became a teacher of English at St. Patrick’s College, Talawakelle briefly. The sojourn with Chandrababu and his disappointment over getting an acting opportunity in Indian Tamil films made Manoharan turn to his first love – singing. His main interest and objective in life was now to make a name as singer.
Manoharan kept travelling to Colombo and other towns to get a chance to sing on stage. These were no major stage shows but minor ones organised on an amateurish level. Still, Manoharan did not let go of the opportunities to perform on stages, no matter how insignificant the event was. He excelled in singing the songs sung by Chandrababu on screen. He also sang the songs of C.T. Fernando and Kishore Kumar, improvising with substituted Tamil words. Soon he gave up his teaching job to focus more on singing and music.
Meanwhile, the music scene in Sri Lanka was transforming and progressing in new directions. Inspired by the likes of Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Cliff Richard, Ricky Nelson and of course the Beatles a new genre of popular music was emerging. Earlier mainly due to the efforts of the legendary Wally Bastiansz, a distinctive Ceylonese/Sri Lankan variety of musical form described as “Baila” had evolved and become very popular. Now a captivating type of music blending the Baila with Western pop song music had started emerging.
A new kind of popular music and songs known as “pop music” began blossoming and blooming in the Island nation. More and more songs were written, composed, played and sung by more and more singers and musicians. It was Sinhala pop and Tamil pop but it was also Ceylon and later Sri Lankan pop. Sinhala pop songs were sung to predominantly Tamil audiences and Tamil pop songs to pre-dominantly Sinhala audiences. There were mixed, multi-ethnic audiences where artistes from different ethnicities performed. To those who were in their teens and in their twenties and thirties in those days, the prevailing musical climate was that of heavenly bliss!
In the seventies of the last century the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) with the visionary Susil Moonesinghe at the helm provided much scope for the growth and development of Sri Lankan Tamil arts and culture. An important manifestation of this enlightened approach at the SLBC was the encouragement and promotion of Sri Lankan Tamil songs. There was a concerted effort to include more and more Sri Lankan Tamil songs with novel, new programs. One such initiative was the weekly programme called ‘Poppisaip Paadalgal’ or ‘Pop music songs’. It was broadcast for half an hour from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays. It was immensely popular and provided a lot of opportunities to promising new singers and musicians.
It was this SLBC program that catapulted A.E. Manoharan to all-island fame. He saw the growing popularity of Tamil pop songs and realised that the emerging phenomenon was his passport to success. He began writing songs and setting them to music. Manoharan had written a Tamil song based on the well -known children’s fable about the “Kaaham” (crow), “vadai” (spicy doughnut) and “Nari” (fox). The traditional tale is about how a crow stole a vadai from an old woman and was about to eat it when a fox accosted the bird. The fox flattered the crow that its voice was melodious and asked it to sing. The foolish crow opened its beak and the vadai fell. The waiting fox ran off with the vadai.
Manoharan, however had a different version in his song titled ‘Naan Ilangaik Kaaham’ (I am a Lankan crow). In this song the crow is not duped by the fox. Instead of opening its beak immediately when the fox asks it to sing, the crow carefully transfers the vadai to its talons and holds it firm instead of letting it fall. After all it was a smart “Lankan Crow” was it not? The song has the opening line “Vadai vadaiyena Suttu Vitraal Vaayaadik Kilavi” (A garrulous old woman fried and sold vadais). The catchy chorus imitated the crow’s cawing “Kaa, kaa, kaa, kakakaa, kaa, kaa, kaa).
There was a musical troupe in Wattala called Thundersparks in those days. It was headed by a guitarist called Wilson. In 1971 Manoharan brought Thundersparks to the SLBC at his own expense and recorded the Lankan crow song. It became a hit overnight. Soon many lips were chanting “Kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa”. “Saivakkadai” (Vegetarian Cafe) waiters were singing “Kaa, kaa” as they served customers with vadai.
The SLBC invited Manoharan to its studios and recorded more of his songs. Manoharan, the failed film actor had re-invented himself as a singer of Tamil pop songs. The popularity of his songs rose rapidly. So much so that in 1973 he was crowned in Jaffna by the then Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Chelliah Kumarasuriyar, as the “Thamizh Poppisaich Chakkaravarthy” (Emperor of Tamil pop music).
Love for Sri Lanka and its people
Manoharan was proficient in Tamil, Sinhala and English and could sing in all three languages. In later years he sang in the Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada languages too. Manoharan possessed an aptitude for languages and had the knack of extemporaneously rendering the same verses in different languages during performances. He had a magnificent stage presence and could electrify an audience in no time. He sang with the great contemporaries of his time in Sinhala and Tamil music catering to multi-ethnic audiences.
What was most commendable and praiseworthy in many of his songs was his discernible love and affection for Sri Lanka and its people. Blessed are those Sri Lankans who have lived in different parts of the country, travelled widely within its borders and interacted with all people cutting across ethnic and religious barriers during times of peace and tranquillity. Those who have had such broad experiences unsullied by narrow sectarianism know that the Island is truly “God’s own country” populated by a friendly, good-natured people.
Manoharan was one such person and it was reflected in his songs. He sang of Lanka and its beauty, of its landscapes, mountains, rivers, people, arts, heritage, places of worship and above all the unity amidst diversity of her people. Manoharan was a rare artiste who helped in his own small way to help bridge the ethnic divide. He sang many Sinhala songs such as’“Suranganeeta Maalu Genaawaa’ and popularised them among world-wide Tamil audiences as well as Indian audiences of different ethnicities.
Manoharan in his heyday has sung in concerts, music shows and songfests throughout the island. He was perhaps the most loved Tamil singer (next to Rukmani Devi) of Sinhala music aficionados in his time. Sadly the ‘Black July’ anti-Tamil violence of 1983 and subsequent deterioration of ethnic relations compelled him to seek a new home and new life abroad. Still he would occasionally visit Lanka and participate in events.
Sustained by singing
In spite of success as a popular singer of pop music Manoharan was unable to get over his fascination for films. The burning desire to become a movie actor persisted within him. The opportunities to act in ‘Puthiya Kaatru’ and ‘Vaadaikkaatru’ and the brief encounter with ‘Pilot Premnath’ enflamed those embers again. Even before July 1983, Manoharan visited India frequently seeking a break in films. After ‘Black July’ he permanently re-located there.
Again it was his singing more than his acting which sustained him in India. The income from playing minor roles in films was not sufficient. Manoharan sang in clubs, hotels and also performed in stage events regularly in India. He also toured many North American, European and Australasian cities with Sri Lankan Tamil concentrations and engaged in shows there. There were many chances for Manoharan to seek citizenship in a Western country but chose not to because he wanted to return to Tamil Nadu and pursue his dream of being a successful actor in cinema. Manoharan’s health began to decline after he passed 60. His kidneys were affected, resulting in dialysis treatment. Finally he passed away in his sleep peacefully.
Seeing his funeral in India was quite painful. In spite of having acted in so many Indian films, none connected to the film industry were present. Only a few Sri Lankans in Chennai, neighbours and church members were present. One could not reflect upon the huge crowds that flocked to hear him in the past and wonder whether the Sri Lankan song bird had blundered by seeking the mirage of celebrity status as an actor in India instead of remaining amidst hardship in his own, native Sri Lanka and doing what he did best – Singing!
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)