National Anthem of Sri Lanka has been Mired in Controversy

Sri Lanka map1-873x1024A very effective message regarding the contentious issue of the national anthem being sung in Tamil also was sent out early this week to the nation in general and the Tamil people in particular in the form of exemplary concrete action by the triumvirate comprising President Maithripala Sirisena, Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

A symbolically meaningful event unfolded last Monday, March 23rd at Valalaai in the Jaffna peninsula where a number of dignitaries participated. Chief among them were President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Premier cum President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

Over 400 acres of land taken over by the Sri Lankan armed forces for maintaining a high security zone was handed over to the long deprived rightful owners on the occasion.The participation of the ruling triumvirate of Maithri-Ranil-Chandrika at the event conveyed the message that the new dispensation was committed to the gradual downsizing of the military presence in the north and east and the re-settlement of internally displaced people in their original habitat. The presence of the top trio at such a simple ceremony in the north demonstrated the avowed sincerity and goodwill of the new govt in bringing about ethnic reconciliation and amity.

The Valalaai event also served to relay another simple yet powerful signal in the sphere of ethnic relations. The national anthem of Sri Lanka was sung at the event in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. It was a symbolic gesture!The Tamil version of “Sri Lanka Matha” echoing in Valalaai resonated politically throughout the Island.

The past few years had seen the country experiencing an unnecessary problem in the singing of the national anthem(NA) in the Tamil language due to an ill-advised measure by the Rajapaksa regime.A cabinet paper advocating the national anthem being sung only in Sinhala was “shelved” after a heated intra-govt debate. Orders however went out quietly to Govt officials and officers of the armed forces that the national anthem should not be sung in Tamil. There was no official decree but “ officially sanctioned unofficial instructions”resulted in the silencing of the Tamil National anthem.

Unofficial Diktat

The subterfuge adopted was that of maintaining status quo overtly while negating in practice the singing of the national anthem. It was stated that there was no change and that the Constitutional provisions remained. Thus it was said that singing the national anthem was a right that prevailed and had not been taken away.An unofficial diktat however was strictly enforced by which schools, govt institutions etc were “discouraged” from singing the NA in Tamil. The armed forces in the North and East were tasked with the duty of preventing the National anthem being sung in Tamil.

The Tamil people soon got the message and gave up attempts to sing the national anthem in Tamil. School children were compelled to sing the Sinhala words scripted in Tamil. People like Wimal Weerawansa went about saying Tamils wanted to sing in Sinhala and not in Tamil. Thus the right to sing the national anthem in Tamil was suppressed forcibly on the one hand while being falsely asserted on the other, that the right to sing the NA in Tamil remained still.

The issue hurt the sentiments of the Tamil speaking people widely.Besides it seemed utterly absurd to prevent a Tamil version of the national anthem also being sung in areas where Tamils were concentrated or in functions connected to Tamil medium schools.As reported in these columns last week, Democratic Peoples Front (DPF) leader Mano Ganesan raised the issue of the national anthem being sung in Tamil at the National Executive Council meeting.President Sirisena to his credit responded positively and reiterated the Constitutional position that there was no bar on the national anthem being sung in Tamil.He guaranteed that the National Anthem would be sung in Tamil also in the future.

President Sirisena’s positive response evoked a predictable reaction from the pseudo-patriots.There were howls of protest. A campaign of misinformation and disinformation about the national anthem being sung in Tamil got underway.This column while stating the case for singing the national anthem in Tamil was perturbed over the contrived “backlash”. Though appreciative of President Sirisena ,I was concerned whether he would be forced to backtrack due to pressure.

This was how I concluded last week’s article on the national anthem issue-

“Now there is a ray of hope again after President Sirisena’s assurance to Mano Ganesan at the National Executive Council. There has always been a hiatus between pledges and performances in the ethnic relations sphere of Sri Lanka. Already the knives are out to scuttle the move and it remains to be seen whether President Sirisena can bring about a transformation where the National Anthem could be sung by the Tamil speaking people in their mother tongue.It is my hope and prayer that patriotic Tamils should be able to hail “Mother Lanka” as “Sri Lanka Thaaye” in their “Thaai Mozhi” (Mother tongue)”.

Valalaai Event

It is against this backdrop that this column derives great satisfaction from the Valalaai event.According to a young Tamil journalist, the national anthem was first sung in Tamil and then in Sinhala. The music was played on tape while a “choir”from the staff of the Jaffna district secretariat sang in both languages. The gathering including the distinguished leaders stood to rapt attention. It was truly a heartwarming spectacle and a harbinger of hope. It demonstrated clearly that the new dispensation of Maithri, Ranil and Chandrika will proceed slowly but steadily in seeking remedial action in issues such as the singing of the national anthem in Tamil also.

To strike a personal note at this juncture -last week’s column by this writer was well received widely. It also resulted in huge amounts of feedback much of it positive. Nevertheless there were negative responses too. What these responses made me realise once again was the similiarity between Sinhala and Tamil hawks and how both groups adopt different paths to arrive at a common destination. Sinhala hardliners do not want the national anthem to be sung in Tamil while Tamil hardliners do not want Tamils to sing the national anthem of Sri Lanka.Thus both want the same result for different reasons.

Much of the negative feedback was also the result of ignorance and prejudice. More heat than light was shed on the issue. I was truly shocked at the total ignorance of many people about the history and background of our national anthem.There were some who admitted their lack of knowledge and wanted to know more about our national anthem’s origins and evolution. Since I have examined the contours of the Tamil national anthem crisis in detail last week, I shall draw on my earlier writings and focus more on Ananda Samarakoon’s composition and its controversial history this week.

A National Anthem is a song of patriotic sentiment affirming loyalty to one’s country or nation adopted officially by that Country or Nation. An anthem becomes a national anthem through Constitutional provision, specific legislation or long – standing tradition.Stylistically the majority of anthems are marches or hymns.They are usually written or composed in the most common language in the Country.There are however some notable exceptions to this rule particularly in multi-ethnic nations.

Retrospective Gaze

As is well known the national anthem of Sri Lanka was written by Ananda Samarakoon. It was however not intended to be the national anthem when it was written.Controversy however was nothing new as far as the national anthem of Sri Lanka is concerned. A retrospective gaze into the evolution and growth of our national anthem shows that the song has been mired in controversy right from the beginning.

The concept of a national anthem was introduced by the British to what was then Ceylon. The modern Ceylon nation itself was a colonial construct.It was the British who integrated different territories under their control into a single entity and set up a unified administration for the Country.

“God save the King/Queen” had become the British national anthem by 1745. This was through usage and custom and not by Parliamentary decree. With the British empire expanding gradually “God save the King/Queen” was sung as the national anthem in all countries and territories ruled by the British.Ceylon was no exception and under Queen Victoria’s rule “God save the Queen” became in practice the national anthem for Ceylon too. This continued throughout the twentieth century also.

The Ceylon National Congress (CNC) set up in 1919 on the lines of the Indian national congress received new impetus in the second quarter of the 20th century when Dudley Shelton Senanayake and Junius Richard Jayewardene became its joint secretaries.The CNC resolved to adopt a national song for Ceylon.Accordingly a lyric was composed by DS Moonesinghe and set to music by the legendary Devar Suryasena son of Sir James Pieris. This was sung in 1943 at the CNC sessions. But “God save the King” continued to reign supreme under the rule of King George the sixth.

Thus when Ceylon gained dominion and later full independence status there was no approved indigenous national anthem .The Lanka Gandharva Sabha was assigned the task of formulating a national anthem. A competition was organized and a panel formed by the Sabha was entrusted the duty of selecting an appropriate anthem.This panel comprised SLB Kapukotuwa, Dr.OHD Wijesekera, Lionel Edirisinghe, Mudliyar EA Abeysekera, LLK Gunatunga and PB Illangasinghe.

Controversial Decision

In a controversial decision, two of the panellists were declared winners.A song written by PB Illangasinghe and set to music by Lionel Edirisinghe was announced to be the new national anthem.It began as – “Sri Lanka Matha/Pala Yasa Mahima/Jaya Jaya” and ended as “Jaya Jaya Dada Nanga/Sri Lanka Matha”.The fact that a song submitted by two members of the selection panel had “won” the national song competition evoked widespread resentment and protests.It was seen as blatantly unfair.

Although the song by the Illengesinghe-Edirisinghe duo was broadcast over the then “Radio Ceylon” on the morning of Independence day as the national song it was not sung at the official Freedom day ceremony due to protests. While the song itself was flawless and above reproach it was the perception of favouritism in the decision to adopt it that fuelled criticism and protests. Thus the song which won the national song competition was unacceptable as far as the people were concerned and began losing credibility.

Meanwhile another song was slowly beginning to capture popular imagination of the people as a potential national anthem. This was the famous “Namo Namo Matha” written by Ananda Samarakoon who was a well-known painter as well as poet.

Ananda Samarakoon was born on January 13, 1911 in a small village, Liyanwela, near Watareka in the Padukka area. His parents, Samuel Samarakoon and Dominga Pieris were Christians. The son was christened George Wilfred. His full name was Egodahage George Wilfred Alwis Samarakoon. There was no Ananda in his name then and he was known as George Wilfred during childhood and early twenties.

Young George Wilfred studied at Christian College, Kotte (now Sri Jayewardenepura MMV)In 1934, he joined the staff of Christian College, as a teacher of art and music. Inspired by Rabindranath Tagore , George Wilfred joined Shantinekathan, Tagore’s School of Fine Arts in Bengal.He joined Shantinekathan in 1936 and studied art under the famous Bengali artist Nanda Lal Bose, and music and singing under Shanti Devi Gosh. He came back in 1937 without completing his course and started teaching again. Upon his return George Wilfred became known as Ananda Samarakoon. In 1940, he joined the staff of Mahinda College, Galle.


“Namo Namo Matha” was not written originally for the purpose of being a national anthem. Its genesis is interesting. Samarakoon used to pay frequent trips to India even after his academic pursuit at “Shanthiniketan” had ended.On one occasion he returned from India by air on his first ever plane trip. Samarakoon looking down from the skies was enthralled and excited at the sight of his native land . He jotted down a few words and lines that came to mind immediately after landing.

On October 20th 1940 he was at his ancestral residence in Padukka . Unable to sleep he tossed and turned in his bed. Suddenly he got up at about 10 pm and began writing a tribute to his motherland relying on the short notes written after his air trip from India.Samarakoon wrote late into the night and the immortal “Namo Namo Matha” was born. He then took it to Mahinda College where he was teaching and taught it to Students after setting it to music. The song
became popular and was included in a musical record in 1946. Being a fine singer himself Samarakoon recorded the song with his partner Swarna de Silva the sister of famous flautist Dunstan de Silva.

The song was also included in a book of poems published by him. It was called “Geetha Kumudini”. Sadly Samarakoon was unable to re-imburse the printing costs incurred to the printer RKW Siriwardena and handed over copyright to him.Samarakoon was to regret this later when his creation was acknowledged as national anthem.When the Gandarva Sabha conducted the competition to select a national song Samarakoon was away from the Island in India but his wife and brother had submitted “Namo Namo Matha” for the competition. Though fully deserving it was overlooked and “Sri Lanka Matha ,Yasa Mahima” by the Illengesinghe-Edirisinghe duo was selected.

Despite “winning” the competition “Yasa Mahima” was spurned by most people because of the manner in which it was declared winner. “Namo Namo Matha” without any official status was enjoying wide exposure and popular acclaim. Its popularity among ordinary people was so great that public opinion favoured “Namo Namo Matha” over “Yasa Mahima”.The song became famous after a 50 member choir from Musaeus College,Colombo sang it on a public occasion. It was also broadcast on Radio frequently. “Namo Namo Matha” though without official
recognition was now becoming popular as a “de-facto” national anthem.

“Namo namo Matha”

In 1950 the then Finance minister JR Jayewardene presented a cabinet memorandum that the widely popular “Namo Namo Matha” be formally acknowledged as the official anthem. Prime minister DS Senanayake set up a Parliamentary select committee under the Home Affairs and Rural Development minister Sir EAP Wijeratne (Father of Dr.Nissanka Wijeratne) to finalise the issue. The committee headed by Wijeratne considered “Namo Namo Matha” and some other lyrics and decided that Samarakoon’s song should be the national anthem.

There was however a minor hitch. The committee wanted a minor change in the words. Samarakoon was then in India and returned home in mid -1951 after being summoned by Sir Edwin AP Wijeratne.The song had originally been composed when the country was under the British.Now it was independent.It was therefore felt that the 10th line in the song was inappropriate and had to be changed. Samarakoon agreed to change the line. So the line “Nawa jeewana Damine” was altered to “Nawa Jeewana Demine Nithina Apa pupudu Karan Matha” with the wholehearted consent and approval of Ananda Samarakoon.

Sir EAP Wijeratne then presented a cabinet paper in August 1951 recommending “Namo Namo Matha” as the national anthem.It was unanimously approved by cabinet and formally adopted on November 22nd 1951.Premier DS Senanayake stated that a suitable Tamil translation also be formally adopted.The select committee headed by Sir EAP Wijeratne had accepted in principle that there be a Tamil version of the national anthem.The Tamil scholar Pundit M.Nallathamby was entrusted this task and a neat Transliteration was done.The Tamil version came into use and was extensively used in official functions in the pre-dominantly Tamil speaking Northern and Eastern provinces.

Four years after Freedom on February 4th 1952 , “Namo Namo Matha” was sung at Independence day ceremonies as the official national anthem.The Tamil version “Namo Namo Thaye” was sung in related independence day functions at the Jaffna,Vavuniya,Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa Kachcheries. With an appropriate transliteration available the Tamils of Sri Lanka found themselves singing the national anthem with emotion and fervour in their mother tongue.When Sir John Kotelawela visited Jaffna in 1954 the Tamil version of the national anthem was sung at functions felicitating the Prime minister.

On March 12th 1952 the Government published huge advertisements in Sinhala,Tamil and English newspapers announcing that “Namo Namo Matha” was the national anthem. While words in Sinhala and Tamil were published in the Sinhala and Tamil newspapers respectively the English newspapers had Sinhala words written in English.

Official Anthem

While Namo Namo Matha was now being sung as the official anthem there was no uniformity in the melody or manner of singing. Different choirs and singers were rendering it in different ways.This was causing much confusion.So the Government decided to appoint a committee to ensure that uniformity was ensured in rendering the national anthem.An eleven member committee was appointed in 1953. Among its members were Ananda Samarakoon himself, Devar Suryasena and JDA Perera.

This committee set out guidelines as to how the anthem should be sung and also defined the exact tune for it.The melody was a refined version of the original tune composed by Samarakoon. On June 24th 1954 the cabinet of Sir John Kotelawela formally endorsed the tune and singing of the National Anthem. The reputed firm Cargills then agents for HMV records was given the order to make records of the national anthem.A disc was also cut for the Tamil version of the national anthem. While the melody and music was the same as that of the Sinhala version by Ananda Samarakoon the Tamil words written by Pundit Nallathamby were sung by two women singers Sangari and Meena. The Tamil version was first broadcast officially on “Radio Ceylon” on February 4th 1955.

While the Sinhala version was sung in most official functions in Colombo and Sinhala majority provinces the Tamil version was sung in Tamil majority areas and Tamil medium schools. This accommodative attitude was displayed even after Sinhala was made the sole official language and Tamil had no official status at all.

Tamil received national language but not official language status in the 1978 Constitution. The National anthem in Sinhala was given Constitutional status through clause seven of the same Constitution. However the Tamil translation was also given Constitutional recognition by way of the third schedule to the seventh clause.The official gazette as well as Copies of the 1978 Constitution published in Tamil had the Tamil words of the national anthem.

Tamil received elevation as an official language along with Sinhala by way of the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1987. Tamil as an official language received further enhancement in the administrative and legislative spheres through the 16th amendment to the Constitution in 1988.Thus the elevation of Tamil as an official language provided greater impetus for the national anthem to be sung in Tamil also.

Ananda Samarakoon

An extremely troubling aspect in the controversial history of the national anthem was the tragic plight of its creator Ananda Samarakoon.The poet was star crossed in many ways.The copyright ownership of “Namo Namo Matha” was formally acquired by the Government after payment of Rupees 2500 on June 24th 1954.. The money however did not go to Ananda Samarakoon as he had already transferred copyright to Siriwardena the printing press owner who had first published the song in a book of poems.

Having one’s composition officially recognized as the national anthem was indeed a great achievement.Ananda Samarakoon having accomplished this feat was entitled to bask in glory after reaching that milepost. Alas!That was not to be so.Instead of a dream existence there commenced an ordeal that turned out to be a cruel nightmare for the poet.

In 1956 SWRD Bandaranaike became Prime minister riding the crest of a Sinhala nationalist wave. The new Government hailed as “Apey Aanduwe” ran into a series of problems and difficulties soon. There were political demonstrations against the government, strikes by workers, communal violence and natural disasters like floods, fires and landslides.

In the search for scapegoats certain elements (with vested interests perhaps) pounced upon the national anthem.In a burst of superstitious or irrational frenzy “Namo Namo Matha” was singled out as the cause for all the troubles afflicting the country under the Bandaranaike dispensation.A vicious campaign was launched against “Namo Namo Matha”.

The charge was that the notations in “Namo Namo Matha” were unlucky and the cause for the Country’s ills and misfortunes. The letter “Na” at the beginning was described as a malefix.The inauspicious “Ganaka” or “Gana” at the beginning of the national anthem had an ill-effect on the country it was alleged. A ‘gana’ is the placing of the first three syllables – how the long and short syllables occur. The opening words of the anthem ‘na-mo-na’ short-long-short constituted an unlucky gana it was stated.

“Amaraneeva Lanka”

As criticism mounted Ananda Samarakoon was constrained to defend himself against the charges. He engaged in many newspaper debates and also spoke at public meetings in defence of “Namo Namo Matha”. To make matters worse Samarakoon underwent financial difficulties. Although he conducted a regular program on the Educational service run by “Radio Ceylon” his creative compositions did not meet with much commercial success.He produced a song and dance pageant “Amaraneeya Lanka” in 1957 but it was a major flop. The onslaught against “Namo Namo Matha” destroyed Samarakoon’s peace of mind.

In September 1959 ,the Prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated. Elections to Parliament in March 1960 saw a hung Parliament emerge. Dudley Senanayake’s short lived minority government fell. Fresh elections were called. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was swept to power in July 1960. Bandaranaike’s widow Sirima became Prime minister.The new Government took the campaign against “Namo Namo Matha” seriously.

The Home and Cultural Affairs minister Maithripala Senanayake appointed a committe of “experts” to examine the issue and determine whether the national anthem was the cause of the Country’s troubles.The committee recommended that the words “Namo Namo Matha” be changed to “Sri Lanka Matha”. Ananda Samarakoon protested vehemently and opposed the proposed change. The Government however went ahead and unilaterally amended the national anthem from “Namo Namo Matha” to “Sri Lanka Matha” in February 1961.Ananda Samarakoon’s consent was not obtained.Since copyright was now vested with the Government there was no legal remedy available to the poet to prevent this arbitrary action.

Debilitating Effect

The act however had a distressing and debilitating effect on the poet.The well –known journalist Kumudini Hettiarachchi wrote a poignant article about Ananda Samarakoon in the “Sunday Times” some years ago. In that article she quotes the poet’s nephew Sunil Samarakoon about how the matter affected his uncle.

One day when Sunil was eleven years old his uncle had parked his baby Austin car near the gates and shouted out to Sunil “Puthe ,Mage oluwa galawala, wena ekak hikarala” (son my head has been removed and another fixed instead) “When Loku Thaththa told me that his head had been removed and another placed there, I was just a child and didn’t catch the significance, until much later. He was, of course, referring to the substitution of Namo, Namo Matha, with Sri Lanka Matha in the National Anthem,” said Sunil Samarakoon, nephew of Ananda Samarakoon, the composer of Sri Lanka’s National Anthem.

“I remember the day he came home to talk to my father, as he usually did when he had a problem. When I went to greet him as soon as he parked his car, he put his hand on my shoulder and said those words about the oluva (head) in despair. He was never the same again. He became morose. They had changed it without even consulting him.” Wrote Kumudini quoting Sunil.

On April 5th 1962 Ananda Samarakoon was found dead.. His door was broken open as he was not answering knocks on his door. The inquest revealed that he had died of an overdose of sleeping tablets.There was a letter on his desk to then opposition leader Dudley Senanayake complaining of how his anthem had been mutilated. There was also a serene painting on his easel of Lord Buddha meditating and a deer looking on.

A few days before his death, Samarakoon wrote a letter to the ‘Timesman’ column on the “Times of Ceylon” newspaper .He wrote, “The anthem has been beheaded. It has not only destroyed the song, but also destroyed the life of the composer. I am frustrated and broken-hearted. It is a misfortune to live in a country where such things happen to a humble composer. Death would be preferable”.This then is the tragic tale of the poet who composed the national anthem of Sri Lanka.

75th Anniversary

October 20th 1940 was the date on which Ananda Samarakoon wrote “Namo Namo Matha”. This year will mark the 75th anniversary of the song which is now Sri Lanka’s national anthem. The Sri Lankan nation would do well to have a grand commemoration of this significant anniversary. The occasion could be utilised to cement ethnic reconciliation further by emphasising the common heritage of our national anthem.It would be far more useful to celebrate the 75th anniversary of our national anthem rather than to squabble over the language in which it has to be sung.(DBS Jeyraj)

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