Centennial Birthday of Sunil Shantha, the greatest singer, music composer and indisputable golden voice of Sri Lanka falls on 14th April 2015. Sunil Shantha who made an excellent contribution to introduce the identity of Sri Lankan music composed with traditional folk songs of indigenous style of music is gratefully remembered by the entire nation.
He was a generous personality who valued the prestige of inborn talents of artists. He never surrendered to those who clandestinely plotted to damage the identity of Sri Lankan music.
His unbeatable voice and sweet melodies are still etched in the everlasting memories of Sri Lankan fans local and abroad. He firmly believed that Sri Lankan identity around the globe should be built by our own creation of national music.
In recognition of his indomitable share of dedication to music it is important to pen a note of appreciation on the commemoration of his 100th Birthday
Sunil Shantha was born to a Roman Catholic family in Ja-Ela on Sinhala New Year day 14th April, 1915. His father was Baddaliyanage Don Pemiyanu who worked in fishery industry and mother was Maharage Engalthina Perera who was a house wife. It was a great loss to him when both his parents passed away after three months of his birth.
His uncles helped develop his career since childhood. He studied in several schools and changed schools from time to time over financial difficulties. First he entered Dehiyagaha School and later studied at St. Benedict’s College and St. Aloysius’ College.
After trained as a teacher at the Maggona Roman Catholic Training School, Sunil Shantha was appointed to the Mount Calvary College in 1936.
During this period he developed the music section of Mount Calvary College to bring it to a higher position.
Blessed with innate talents in music from childhood, he was encouraged to play harmonium by his uncle Joseph.
He was fortunate to learn folk songs and Vannam gee from Master Urapola Banda. He displayed his ability to play the Sitar and Violin at very young age and later completed the Gandharwa Exam with the support and advice of L.B. Kapukotuwa.
He displayed his skills in playing different roles in drama characters during his teenage. At the primary school he acted in drama Dutugenumu and performed in dramas-Merchant of Vennis and Macbeth at the training college.
In 1939 Sunil entered Shanthinikethanaya and mastered in singing and instrumental together with Vanga music. After one year he entered the University of Bhathkhande in 1940 and completed Visharadha Degree in four years. During his University career he studied painting and sculpture too. He came back to Sri Lanka in 1944.
The birth name of Sunil Shantha was Baddaliyanage Don Joseph John. His original name at the beginning of his University career in India was Sunil Shanthi which was later changed as Sunil Shantha.
Sunil’s music career could be divided into two periods.
It was in 1946 when Sunil Shantha began his career in singing and experiments in composing skills till 1952. After a lapse of 15 years he re-entered singing career in 1967. He continued his musical career till April 11, 1981 on which date he passed way.
On his return from India his first formal performance of singing was at the Munidasa Kumaranatunga memorial ceremony held on 2nd March 1946 at YMCA hall.
“Olu Pipila Vela Lela Denawa” a melody and lyrics of his own was Sunil’s debut which became hot favorite overnight. This was the first song recorded by Radio Ceylon. Within a short period of six years nearly 150 songs recorded by him became highly popular at each and every household. The sweetness of those incomparable melodies will radiate in the air for ever. “Adara Nadiye”, “Lanka Lanka” , “Kurulu Adare”, “Kokilayange”, “Handapane”, “Bo Vitiya Dang” , “Mihikatha Nalawala “ Nelavi Senahenne , Dudanoda Binda are among the popular songs recorded during this period.
In 1952 Radio Ceylon contracted Indian Musician Pandith Ratnajankar to conduct the audition test for grading the artists.
Even if protests were made by some artists against this audition test, finally only Sunil Shantha boycotted the audition test reasoning out that a Musician qualified in Sri Lankan indigenous music should be given this responsible task. He also pointed out that he had obtained his certificate of Visharadha Degree from Pandith Ratnajankar who also was one of Sunil’s teachers at Bhathkande University.
His refusal to appear before this audition test caused him disqualified as a radio artist. As a result of his rejection avenues of exhibiting his musical expertise at Radio Ceylon for Sunil Shantha were closed by its Authorities.
His return to Radio Ceylon in 1967 on the invitation of the then management realizing their mistake was appreciated by the entire nation. Sri Lankan fans were fortunate to listen to his voice and songs again. Madura Madu, one of new programs conducted by him was created at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) .
He was appointed a member of the Committee along with W.D.Amaradeva and H.W.Rupasinghe for auditioning the artists again after Ratnajankar did it in 1952. It was a turn of events back to his favor by virtue of Truth.
Composition of Sigiri gee like Siha Raja Yassa Piri, Hamal Maru and Gangawe Gee like Emba Ganga and Walakulin Besa were new experiments that gained high popularity.
Ambalame Pina, Uthura Negenahira, Thelgala Hisa Peeran Nano, Mal Mal Varam were a few more popular songs recorded after 1967.
Sunil Shantha was compelled to explore his innate talented composition of melodies for Rekawa screened in 1956 on the invitation of Lester James Peries. This offer was initially rejected but after persuasion by Father Marcelline Jayakody, only the composition of melodies for Rekhawa was accepted. It was six lovely melodies to the lyrics of Father Marcelline Jayakody. Rekawa songs like Sigiri Landakage, Olu Nelum,Vesak Kekulu, Sudu Sanda Eliye and Anurapura” became so popular that helped brighten the future music career of Sisira and Indrani Senaratne. In appreciation of his excellence in music, Lester offered Sunil to compose melodies for his second film Sandeshaya under more criticism and challenges. But Lester stood firm with his decision to offer Sunil Shantha for Sandeshaya music. Accordingly he composed historical seven melodies of his competence as “Pruthugeesi Karaya”, “Rejina Mamai”, “Kate Kiri Suwanda” “ Sudata Sude” , “Ko Hathuro” which became hot favorites of every household overnight.
It was the talk of the common public, writers, authors and scholars that Sunil’s contribution to film industry was only for two films Rekawa and Sandeshaya. His composition of a beautiful melody, Dum Dum Dum Bara Bage sung by famous comedian singer Freddie Silva for the film Kolamba Sanniya to the lyrics of Mercelyn Jayakody directed by Sunil Ariyaratne did not receive much publicity.
Sunil Shantha was also a playback singer. Thriloka Natha, the theme song of which lyrics written by Rapiel Thennakoon for the film Ambapali was sung by Sunil Shantha himself, a melody of his own creation. It was a Vanga film dubbed into Sinhala dialogue screened in 1964.
In 1969, he sang the lovely English song “My Dream is Rose” to the Film Romeo Juliet’s Kathawak (A Story of Romeo Juliet) lyrics written by Father Mercelyn Jayakody and music composed by Shelton Premarathna. This became the first English song to be recorded in the history of Sinhala Film Industry.
He was a humble character who offered his opportunity of playback singing to his student Ivor Dennis.
He was a person conversant with a variety of abilities in both Sinhala and English languages and the vocabulary of Sinhala improved in association with Hela Hawla of Munidasa Kumarathunga. Numerous articles and books written by him were published in the press on indigenous and classical music. Ridi Walawe, Hela Mihira, Desiya Sangeethaya and Guwan Thotilla were among the published books. He was also a good photographer.
He associated with number of reputed national scholars and lyric writers. Those lyrics of Father Marceline Jayakody, Hubath Dissanayake, Gunapala Senadira, Arisen Ahubudu, Rapiel Thennakoon and H.M.Kudaligama shed brightness of light to his creations.. Among the other lyric composers were Karunaratna Abeysekara and Amarasiri Gunawardena. Also Ivor Dennis, Patrick Denipitiya, Nandadasa Kodagoda and Indarani Iriyagolla were among his students.
Even with difficulties he helped other artists. He extended his best to Amaradeva to fly to India for further studies in music. In memory of his friend Suriya Shankar Molligoda, a contemporary singer who helped Sunil, a lovely song was composed by Sunil which still resonates in the memory of fans all over.
He was married to a charming lady who had courage to face the difficulties shared with her husband. All four children became professional in the fields of science and engineering. The writer of this article had fortune to meet the sons of Sunil Shantha at James Peris Hall of University of Peradeniya in early 1970’s. They never monopolized their father’s songs with high esteem to prestigious values of the great songs.
Frustrated by the unfortunate incidents at Radio Ceylon in an attempt to tarnish his rising popularity, he left Radio Ceylon for good. He became so impoverished that he sold dry fish and did car repairs in order to feed his family.
The name of this greatest maestro of music shines at the apex of Sri Lanka Musical tower of sweeter melodies composed in a shorter period of time. His songs became etched in the heart of all Sri Lankans irrespective of social status. The remarkable letter addressed to Sunil in appreciation of his excellence in music by the daughter of Lord Soulbury, the then Governor of Sri Lanka was the best example.
Mother Lanka lost a patriotic son with competent power of creative music. The image of Sunil Shantha sculptured by fascinating art of music of his virtuosity stands immortal around the four corners of the island highly respected by the nation.(Asian Tribune)