will be a Herculean task for us to mould the younger generation
to appreciate indigenous music (Hela Sangeethaya). For
this, a cultural revolution is necessary. The electronic media,
should educate our younger generation even to appreciate the
golden oldies of Sunil Shantha and other reputed artists of
yesteryear. When we hear their melodious songs they will be
registered in our minds, and we will appreciate them. But
unfortunately very rarely, do our electronic media promote the
high quality music of Sunil Shantha.
I have listened to Sunil Shantha more in foreign
countries like Botswana, Boputaswana, South Africa, England and
Emirates than in Sri Lanka in recent years. Some of the educated
Sri Lankans, living abroad very much appreciate Sunil Shantha’s
music. The prophets are not honoured in their own country.
My memories of Sunil Shantha go back to 1948. I
was ten years old then and at the University of Ceylon — King
George's Hall, Colombo. I had the good fortune to listen to
Sunil Shantha’s renowned song "Olu Pipeela’.
Great Sunil Shantha, after returning from
Shanthineketan and Bhathkanda after obtaining the highest
Visharadha Degree in music attempted to create a Sri Lankan
musical culture based on our own "Hela Tradition" between
the period 1946-1952. During this period, he composed and sang
nearly 250-350 songs, all stamped with his inimitable melodious
tune and his own rhythmic style. His charming pleasant
personality added deeper colour to it.
From 1946-1952, his lilting voice and the
melodies captivated the whole nation. Unfortunately, there were
many "Satans" conspiring to oust him and topple him from his
throne of popularity. That was at Radio Ceylon in 1952. Radio
Ceylon invited Prof. Ratnajankar, to advice how to create a
musical tradition in Sri Lanka. RC insisted all artistes should
appear for a test conducted by Ratanjankar. This, Sunil Shantha
"I have earned the highest qualification from
Ratanjankar. Now it is absurd and ironical for me to appear
before him to be tested. He is not aware of our culture and even
our folk songs. It is stupid to expect a jack tree to bear
coconuts," stated Sunil Shantha.
This "Ratanajankar Affair" was a height of
absurdity. It is like the Australian Cricket Board requesting,
Sir Don Bradman to don pads to prove that he can bat.
After 1952, Sunil Shantha’s downfall began. From
there, it was very much like a story of Greek Dramatist —
Aeschylus (525-456 BC) — Greek Tragedy.
Since 1950s, this great musician was living in
abject poverty at Dehiyagatha. For his livelihood, he started
repairing radio-sets, gramophones, various electrical items and
even descended to the extent of selling dry-fish (Karawala).
He underwent all these difficulties.
In 1976, when I was the head of the Public
Relations Department at Bank of Ceylon, I was presenting the
prestigious "Aradhana Programme", over the air waves of
Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.
Aradhana was the brain child of the then General
Manager, the former Governor of the Central Bank, Mr. A. S.
Jayawardane, who had a marked aesthetic facet to him. On his
instructions along with Mr. I. A. Gurusinha, I met Sunil Shantha
at Dehiyagatha. I could not believe my eyes.
His home can aptly be called a "Kukul Kotuwa".
There were no chairs to sit. A "Booruanda’ and a table
were the only luxury items. All over the place there were many
radio sets, gas stoves and various electrical items brought in
He welcomed the two of us. "For a moment, I
thought that two police officers from Seeduwa and Ja-ela have
come to record my statements regarding my possessing unlicensed
radio sets. Every now and then they come and question me and
they are trying to take me to courts. I am doing these radio
repairs and other electrical repairs to keep our home fires
burning. Leela, my beloved wife, who is like my shadow, and I
have to feed three sons and a daughter’, stated Sunil Shantha.
After a very friendly chat, I kindly invited
Sunil Shantha to feature in our Aradhana programme, for a
few months as our Guest Artiste. Mr. A. S. Jayawardene, Chairman
and the Board of Directors were very keen to help Sunil
financially and they more or less gave me a blank cheque, as it
were, I was free to make him any offer.
I told Sunil Shantha, BoC is prepared to pay him
Rs. 10,000 per programme. Sunil thanked me profusely for the
request and turned down my plea. Then graised the amount
to Rs. 15,000 and another special payment for the chestra and to
provide official transport. This was in way back in 1976.
"Mr. Epasinghe, now I cannot articulate musical
notes (Swara) properly and sing. I am not fair by you and
the Bank of Ceylon to take this assignment. One day, I must die
as Sunil Shantha. I do not want to tarnish my good name. It is
true that I am financially in dire straits. I am so sorry that I
cannot sell my name for rupees and cents and to be a mockery of
myself. I am not haughty. I value principles. Please thank Mr.
Jayawardane on my behalf. It was very nice of him to help a
poverty-stricken artiste." "These words still echo in my mind.
This great artiest Sunil Shantha firmly believed
that a feature of national music should be the capacity to
appeal to all sections of the land educated and non-educated,
young and old.
He embarked on a course of action whose goal was
to develop a national music tradition of high quality, and to
propagate his new national musical culture. For this he adopted
three principal strategies.
(a) Publication of song books with notations.
(b) Conducting of musical classes.
(c) Presenting radio programmes.
His broadcasting career was terminated in 1952,
as a result of his campaign against the auditioning of Sinhala
musicians by an Indian Prof. S. N. Ratanjankar. He was banned
from the Radio Ceylon for the "crime" of trying to create a
musical identity of our own.
It was during the mid-fifties that
internationally reputed our own Lester James Peiris, requested
Sunil Shantha to compose songs for his films ‘Rekhava’
and ‘Sandeshya’. These songs became instant hits,
although we hear them very rarely now over the air-waves.
We must all pay a tribute to this great film
‘maker Lester James Peiris for extending a helping hand to this
"Geeisiwara," recognizing the sterling qualities of his
Another gentleman who helped Sunil Shantha in
1967 was the administrator par excellence — Mr. Neville
Jayaweera, the then Director General of Broadcasting
Corporation. He invited Sunil Shantha for an auditioning panel
together with W. D. Amaradeva and H. W. Rupasinghe. Thereafter,
Sunil presented a number of broadcasts of creative and
experimental music, including the well-known "MADURA MADHU"
series. But, it would be true to say that all his melodies
which have captured the hearts of millions and millions were
composed between 1946-1952 period.
Another factor for Sunil Shantha’s success as a
musician was his close association with the Hela Haula Group,
group and specially the great Sinhala Scholar Munidasa
Kumaratunga. Along with Munidasa Kumaranatunga, he upheld the
Sacred Trinity Desa - Basa - Resa, country language and
race. Brilliant Sinhala scholars like Jayantha Weerasekera,
Rapiyal Tennekoon, Amarasiri Gunawadu, Hubert Dissanayake,
Arisen Ahubudu, Gunapala Senadhira, Wellala Jayamaha, Kithsiri
Kumarasinghe, Father Marcelline Jayakody were some of his lyric
Sunil Shantha was the greatest Sinhala musician
of the 20th century. Not only as a musician, but also as a
person who nourished the literature of music, his name will go
down in our cherished history. Some of the musical books that he
wrote are Hela Ridiwalawa, I ‘Sunil Handa’,
‘Guwan Totilla’, ‘Hela Mihira’, ‘Sunil Gee’, ’Mihiriyawa‘,
Born on 14th April 1915 at Kapungoda, Pamunugama
to a Catholic family, Sunil Shantha (Don Joseph John) lost his
parents when he was still very young. The maternal grandmother
looked after him. He studied at Dehiyagatha School, St.
Benedict’s College, Kotahena, St. Aloysius College, Galle and
In 1931, he came first in the Island in the
School Leaving Examination and was awarded the Weeraratne Prize.
In 1934, he entered the Roman Catholic Training School, Maggona
and took upto teaching. Later, he proceeded to Shanthiniketan
and followed a course in music and passed with distinction. To
further his studies in music he proceeded to Maris College of
Hindustan Music, Lucknow University of Music. Bhathkandha and
earned the Visharadha title. He obtained a First Class and
topped the batch in 1944. In December 1944 he came back to
He had an inauspicious start to his career in
Sri Lanka. His intention was to join the Department of Education
as an Inspector of Schools in music, the post he was fully
qualified. But he was appointed as a school teacher for a paltry
salary paid for a Sinhalese Trained Teacher. He quite correctly
refused this appointment.
Later, he commenced conducting private music
classes. His first public appearance was on 2nd March 1946,
where he sang the commemorative song on Munidasa Kumaratunga at
a meeting held to commemorate the Great Sinhala Scholar.
In 1946, Sunil Shantha’s OLU PIPEELA was
recorded by Radio Ceylon. Incidentally, this was the first song
to be recorded by this institution. I doubt very much whether
there was any artiste other than Sunil Shantha, who became so
popular in a such a short period of time.
He was very sensitive on the language used in
his lyrics. He was vastly influenced by the village environment.
Some of his early songs and compositions like ‘OLU PIPEELA’,
‘HANDAPANE’, RELLA NAGENNA, HO HO GA RALLA NEGE, BOWITIYA DAN
PALUKAN WARE’, ‘SUWADA ROSA MAL NELA’, ‘MIHIKATHA NALAWALA,’
‘KOKILAYANGE’ captured all music lovers for the purity of
the language, poetic diction, simplicity and lucidity.
Tennekoon’s celebrated poem ‘KUKULU HEVILLA’ was regarded
as a masterpiece.
I am very happy to deliver my address in the
presence of Vijitha Herath, who is an Honours Graduate in
Mathematics from the University of Kelaniya. He is currently
Minister of Cultural Affairs and National Heritage.
Firstly, I request him to explore the
possibilities of reviving the Golden Voice of Sunil Shantha in
the electronic media as the present day generation should be
aware of this great musician Sunil Shantha. I kindly appeal to
the Minister of Media — Mangala Samaraweera to take necessary
action to instruct the electronic media to broadcast and
telecast Sunil Shantha's songs for the listening pleasure of
I hope that in the future, the Cultural Ministry
and Cultural Department will annually organize the Sunil Shantha
Commemorative Meeting with Sunil Shantha Samajaya.
Further, I appeal to the Minister of Cultural
Affairs to compile a complete book on Sunil Shantha.
When everything is said and done, Sunil Shantha,
without any doubt was unique in the history of Sri Lanka music.
This is for three outstanding reasons.
Firstly, he was a deep scholar of the centuries
old musical system of India. Secondly, he had an unprecedented
knack to adopt his music theory to make it practical from the
point of view of Sri Lankan lovers of music. Thirdly, he
synthesized in his composition and vocalization the classical
and popular aspects. This made it possible for even school
children to appreciate his music.
My address will be incomplete if I do not pay a
tribute to Mrs. Leela Sunil Shantha. This great lady is truly a
"Diriya Mathawa". This noble lady and Sunil Shantha faced
all the challenges in life, but educated their three sons and
daughter. Sons are Sunil Shantha (Junior), Lanka Shantha, Jagath
Shantha (deceased) all Engineers and daughter Kala Shantha, a
Sunil Shantha passed away on 11th April 1981,
heart broken six weeks after his younger son Jagath's untimely
In winding up my address, I wish to quote a
verse from Pandita Vagga — Dhammapada, which epitomize
Sunil Shantha The Great musician.
Selo Yatha Eka Gano.
Na vatena Na Sameerathi
Evan Ninda Pasansasu
Na Samijanti Panditha
As a solid rock that cannot be shaken by the
wind, the Wise is not moved by blame or praise.