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Popular Sinhala Cinema – III – Rukmani Devi; Mohideen Baig ; Gamini Fonseka

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by Laleen Jayamanne

( Continued From Wednesday)

The Multi-Ethnic fan base

Gamini Fonseka, who introduced action (fights) with a new image of proletarian muscular masculinity into Sinhala cinema, was loved by both the Sinhala and Tamil male films fans for those reasons. His film Sarungale, where he played a rather sedentary Tamil Clerk (he spoke Tamil), was especially significant in this cross-cultural context. I read an account of how Tamil fans surrounded him on a platform once, when he got off the Jaffna train to stretch his legs, while returning from the film shoot there. He is that rare Sinhala artiste who spoken of wanting to appeal to the Tamil audience as well.

I have read that Gamini visited Tamil cinema halls with his cinematographer to observe the responses of the fans to Indian super stars. The super star Gamini Fonseka’s film persona as well as his ethical values must be remembered here. When Gunaratnam was murdered there was fear that it was too dangerous to attend his funeral as one might also be targeted by the JVP. Siva Sivanathan who worked for Gunaratnam described how Gamini insisted on walking in the funeral procession with the family, to honor this visionary film producer who had contributed greatly to the development of Lankan cinema and industrial development more broadly and built so many bridges between the North and the South.

Siva Sivanandan’s long experience as a film director and distributor for Gunaratnam was appreciated by Nihalsinha, the General Manager of the SFC who then hired him as Assistant General Manager of the vital revenue generating distribution wing of the new institution. He worked with great success for ten years, before emigrating to Canada with his family. Somasiri Munasinghe, in his tribute to Svianandan after his recent death, says that he left behind a whole library of publications, rare journals, news-paper clippings, etc, all linked to the Lankan film industry and multi-ethnic history from its beginning.

In another country this invaluable collection would have been swiftly obtained by a university library in the interest of future research. I am hoping that it’s still not too late for this to happen through a Lankan University. If that were to happen and along with oral history interviews with the several generations of older journalists who grew up with those film songs and films or rediscovered them laters, then we might get a more nuanced understanding of what has been achieved by our robust and dedicated multi-ethnic artists and technicians, working together under great odds.

Understanding the historical diversity of Lankan popular hybrid traditions of mass culture especially, can offer a corrective to the darker and violently self-destructive actions of virulent Sinhala Nationalism pursuing cultural purity and burning down cinemas and studios owned by Tamils and in the process also destroying a large number of their own Sinhala films stored in these very studios.

These acts of profound violence are not simply the work of crazed mobs, as some say. They are simply the impoverished, poorly educated lumpen proletariat mostly, given electoral roles identifying Tamil property. They are the weaponised end in a long chain of command, activated by nationalist state policies and ideology of an ethno-nationalist state. This deeply rooted ideology treats minorities as second class citizens, a threat to the majority and therefore not part of the culture.

Sound of Pure Sinhala Bera

Ethnomusicological research into Lankan music, by foreign scholars and locals alike tend to follow the official ethno-nationalist narrative of a ‘Pure, Original Sinhala’ sound, say as in Kandyan drumming. It is then differentiated from the Southern, more hybridised Yakbera, for example. The researchers almost completely ignore the decisive influence of mass culture (Nurti plays, the vast reach of radio, gramophone records, films, cassettes, Television and the digital technology) in creating hybrid sonic worlds in this small island nation from the early 20th Century for over one hundred years.

The intellectual and political project of creating ‘pure traditions or apema sindu, rendered in the one correct, pure accent, (swara) of the Sinhala folk, their language and religion or music and films, ends up freezing traditions from evolving. Traditions need replenishing by being open to outside influences. Sound, even more than language itself, is fluid, never stable, given that the speed of sound (though not as fast as light), has the power to instantly penetrate us and vibrate our very nervous system directly like our drumming does.

It’s important to remember the historically informed important words of W.D. Amaradeva who, as a young violinist named Albert Perera, went to India with Baig Master and others to record music for Asokamala. This exposure led him to spend five years in India studying classical vocal raga music and the violin with a guru. It is after this rigorous training that he reinvented himself as Amaradeva. He said:

“Although we had a good folk culture, we did not have a developed musical tradition of our own. We did not have local musical instruments to play a melody even though we had a rich percussion tradition in Sri Lanka in the form of bera (drums).

But all instruments like the sitar, tabla and violin came from other countries. I wanted to fill this void. So, I started composing music for my country […] yet one cannot help being influenced by other types of music as well”.

Ranjith Kumara informed us that Baig Mater’s singing of Siri Buddhagaya was regularly heard all over the country, across villages and towns during Vesak and Sinhala new year festivities, played on the humble cassettes or blaring out on microphones at dansalas. Unlike Rukmani Devi’s voice, Baig Master’s voice was unmistakably accented with sonic traces of his mother tongue Urdu. And it remained so to the end. Would it not also be good then to hear Rukmani Devi sing that one Tamil song she is said to have recorded in a Tamil film and also hear Baig Master sing in Urdu or Tamil or HIndi (if there is a recording), during a national festive occasion? Perhaps at the Fourth of February independence celebration at Gall Face; a hybrid sonic gesture of reconciliation sanhindiyawa, mingling with the sounds of the Indian ocean.

After all, Baig Master did sing in Sinhala, at the 1948 Independence Day celebrations, with a sense of freedom in the air. This contemporary idea of ‘reconciliation’ was first created in South Africa after the white supremacist apartheid regime was defeated. But there was an allied concept essential to it, namely, ‘truth- telling’. The African leadership with Nelson Mandela thought there could be no reconciliation after such racial violence, without also acknowledging it truthfully and redressing the violence.

A Few Home-Truths

1.Sinhala Nationalists protested when the then Education Minister Badiuddin Mohamed arranged Baig Master to sing at the Non-Aligned Conference, saying he was not a Sinhala-Buddhist. When the minister threatened to resign, Mrs Bandranayake permitted him to sing to the gathering of world leaders among whom were Colonel Gaddafi, and other Arab and African Muslim leaders who received his Bodu Gee warmly.

2. When Baig Master performed for the Pakistani President Zia Ul Hak, he was so impressed that he wanted to take him back to Pakistan. When President Premadasa declined the offer, Zia arranged a tour in Pakistan for Master Baig.

3. He lived in a tiny overcrowded house and slept on the floor for forty years. As he lay dying in hospital, consoling his son Ishak, he had noted lightly that he finally had a bed!

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that D.S. Senanayaka (who later became the first Prime Minister), was the chief guest at the premier of Kadawuna Poronduwa (in January 1947 at the Kingsley cinema), as Minister of Agriculture and Lands and also Leader of the House under the State Council system of governance during the last stages of British rule. His presence along with business leaders denoted the importance of the event for Ceylon on the cusp of independence. Rukmani Devi, Eddie and BAW Jayamanne brothers and Mr Nayagam were celebrated for having dared to have produced the first film in Sinhala, under daunting conditions in India.

While the critics deplored the film’s dependence on Indian genres, the people, more receptive, gathered to see and hear it. It was screened in four cinemas in Colombo and in a large number of outer suburbs, while in Kandy, bus-loads of people arrived to view this historic film in a tent specially erected for the screening. Political patronage, Tamil entrepreneurship, Sinhala intellectual high disdain and robust popular mass appeal, were the jostling forces at play with the arrival of a multi-ethnic Lankan cinema and its film culture.

The journalist-cinephiles on the ITN programs were unanimous in their view that both Rukmani Devi and Baig Master did not receive the care and support they deserved as figures of national (and even Indian) recognition, especially during the vulnerable later stages of their lives. While issuing stamps in their honour is a good thing, it is quite insufficient, given the magnitude of the reach of their haunting voices which still resonate politically as well. But Amaradeva and others who created a Sinhala light classical tradition, combining the rich Indian raga melodic patterns with folk songs, received generous state patronage.

Baig Master’s song Buddhan Saranan Gachchami, with lyrics by Karunarathne Abeyesekera and music by Anil Bishwar (an Indian), was 12 mins and 45 seconds long and was first performed in the Hindi film Angulimala, funded by the Thai government. In Ceylon, it was dubbed into Sinhala and the local version of the song commissioned by Gunaratnam. The film was a major success and the song, one of the most frequently requested on Radio Ceylon, according to Ariyasiri Withanage.

He associated with him and arranged the many song recitals at which Master Baig was a popular attraction right across the Sinhala areas of the country, where most of the shows opened with this devotional song. Of the many Bodu Gee he sang this was the favourite. Some Buddhist priests valued him and engaged with him and attended his funeral. This singular song, a collaboration among Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist artists of India and Lanka, is an example of what can be created when we abandon the stifling dead-end idea of ‘cultural purity’ promulgated by the ethno-nationalist state.

Listening now (after the Aragalaya), to the voices of Rukmani Devi and Baig Master singing love duets and shoka gee in those sweetly naive films (Sarala chithrapata) of the early Sinhala cinema just might resonate in a different way (if freed of high critical disdain), suggestive of our intricate cultural interconnections with India.

Al Haj Mohideen Baig and Rukmani Devi, in their highly skilled capacity to cross-sonic traditions and cultures and create hybrid fields of music touching our hearts and minds (hurda gochara and bhuddhi gochara songs, in the wonderful coinage of Ranjan de Silva), are exemplary artists for a confidently multi-ethnic Lanka open to the many creative influences of the sonic worlds at large. (Concluded)

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