‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’
Chat with the two Sirasa Super Stars

I warmly welcomed the two Sirasa Super Stars – Shanika Madhumali and Arjuna Rookantha with palms together and a sincere "congratulations". They reciprocated with just the right mix of pride and modesty and were ready to be interviewed. I was fortunate in having them visit me and relaxing, answer my questions. While conversing with Nimal Mendis prior to writing my last Sunday’s article I said I would love to meet the Sirasa Super Stars. He helped and so Chamika Perera, PR Executive of MBS Network and MTV Channel, very kindly facilitated the meeting.

The Two

What do they look like - these two artistes - out of the glare of floodlights and sidelights and minus heavy makeup and all that? Simple Sri Lankan young ones with, however, some aura or glow about them that attracts the eye immediately. I suppose it’s a body- enveloping shine of joy, success and being centre stage. But if by that you think they are preening or self conscious, perish the thought. They were just themselves, Shanika, more outgoing, talkative and even teasing while Arjuna waited for you to initiate a conversation, ask a question. He’s certainly the more reserved one!

Arjuna Rookantha (22 years) was in a pair of jeans and Tshirt, while Shanika Madhumali (18) was in a flowing knee length dress of a soft white material fully gathered. The top was a cross over with short straps and bordered in small white roses. She is really petite with a wide smile and bright eyes. Arjuna’s hair is what strikes the observer – shoulder length and curly.

My first question was whether each of them expected to win.

Shanika: "I had small expectations. It was the people who decided on the winner."

Arjuna: "I expected both to win and lose and I was determined not to be disappointed if I was not selected to the top slot. I had self-belief. When singing that day I forgot it was a competition and thought it a show."

Shanika, as her aunt said, is self taught; had no formal training in singing. On the other hand, Arjuna was born to music and lived it from his infancy. His father led a band and then his brother; since practices were in their home, music and singing were forever reverberating in his childhood and later environment. He underwent training in singing, western included, under Nelson Abeydeera, to whom he is very grateful.

They both come from non-affluent families, with Shanika the more disadvantaged, but like the proverbial lotus they have emerged and climbed real high. Shanika has no siblings and she lives with an aunt in Polgahawela. Her mother had returned from Kuwait, she said, and so her happiness was complete. She studied at the Parakramabahu National School, Polgahawela, up to the OL examination. She offered music for the exam. She admits she was never interested in studies; only singing kept her mind and energy engaged. She took part in several school singing competitions and needless to say won them. She spent much of her time listening to songs on her CD player.

Seeing the Sirasa Super Star contest advertised in the newspapers she sent in an application with her aunt’s approval. She was selected and each week she sang better, with her entire village applauding. When the contestants were down to ten, Shanika had to miss one weekly contest due to a severe throat infection which affected a vocal chord. She was hospitalized. She was quick to add it was not due to straining her vocal chords but due to a virus. She would have been out of the competition but for the fact the other nine contestants said they would skip that week and await Shanika’s return. Now that was truly magnanimous since competing for first place as they were, any elimination would normally have been welcome. But not to our youth – untouched by adverse sophistication. She did come back in one week and the rest is well known.

In telling me this incident, Arjuna showed genuine fellow feeling. A more worldly person would have indicated even facially, that had Shanika been eliminated that week the title and fabulous first prize would have been his. But there was sincere companionship between the two, which was good to observe. In fact one point they both categorically asserted was the absence of jealousy and unfair competition among the contestants. Initially there were 107,000 applicants who were all auditioned. You can thus imagine the talent available, plus the stupendous task undertaken by Sirasa TV. Once the number was reduced to 100, the contest began in earnest with a week’s training by Anoja Weerasinghe in stage presence and deportment.

Arjuna hails from Katugastota and is one of a large number of siblings in a musical family. He studied at Sri Rahula Maha Vidyalaya, Katugastota. Taking part in All Island singing contests and regional competitions, he invariably was selected in one of the three top spots. This was his third attempt at being nominated in the Sirasa Super Star contest. He once sang a Tamil song on a Shakti TV competition and won training in India for four weeks. His younger brother, 16, also took part in the show just concluded and climbed up to be one of sixteen. Arjuna plays drums, keyboard and guitars and hopes to form his own band.

The Sirasa Singing Reality Show

Sirasa TV, the first to inaugurate a music reality show about five years ago, has done the contestants, the show and even Sri Lanka proud. Its expenses are huge since the makeup and clothes of the final contestants are seen to and lunch and tea given to all those who accompany the contestants for practice sessions and the shows. Hameedias saw to Arjuna’s clothes while cosmetics used were Janet’s products. For the finals Shanika was groomed and dressed by Michael Wijesuriya. I asked her how long her dressing and makeup for the finals took. "Just half an hour" replied Shanika.

The prizes given were fabulous. Shanika was gifted a brand new car worth Rs. 4.5 million and a cash prize of Rs. 1 mn. Stone and String gifted her jewellery worth Rs. 150,000. She received other gifts too. Arjuna’s first runner-up prize was Rs. five lakhs plus a voucher from Stone and String worth 50,000. They said, with gratitude, that they had many fans around the world, a few of whom had sent them money to help them compete.

Get Trilingual, Go International, Be Ambitious

As I wrote in my last week’s column, Nimal Mendis said Arjuna’s voice is world class and he should sing in English to get that one hit accepted by at least the western world of music if not the entire international music scene. Then he would be internationalized and his songs downloaded, bringing him both fame and financial returns. The same of course applies to Shanika. While she’s happy in her present queenly state, Arjuna Rookantha is already planning to widen his audience. When he was in India on a Shakti TV sponsored visit, an Indian composed a Hindi song for him. He means to include this and Tamil songs in an album he hopes to release soon. With Nimal and Paul-marie Mendis helping the two, and other contestants, they should soon be singing English songs too, and that to a much wider audience than merely Sri Lankan. Arjuna mentioned specially the fact he wanted to include Tamil songs in his next album so the Tamil people of Sri Lanka could have a wider repertoire. That is his contribution to building peace and unity in the country. He and others can play a significant role in this since all people listen to music, almost all love it and messages through song most definitely percolate into the mind, much much more than political exhortations.

Shanika, being a teenager, and let’s admit it, a girl, had no ambitions formed as yet. Commercials are already on the way, she said. But Arjuna wants to study music further, have his own studio, teach and train others and of course have a band of his own. In my last Sunday’s article I wrote that Paul-marie had mentioned a 15 year old Taiwanese boy who sang "I will always love you" and surpassed the original singer Whitney Houston. Nimal tells me that this young man has been subsequently signed on by Sony International and thus the way to being internationalized is open wide for him.

Another point made by Nimal is that all TV channels, more so those that conduct the singing reality shows, should cooperate and boost their singers as Sri Lankan singers, not Sirasa or Derana or Swarnavahini artistes.

Gratitude in Abundance

I asked the two Super Stars to acknowledge persons they wished to thank as benefactors and helpers along the way. That was a mistake on my part since they both gave me arm long lists. That is a Sri Lankan trait and wonderfully emphasized in these two singing stars who are so innocently starry-eyed with nary a trace of hubris or ‘I did it all’. I just cannot list all those the two mentioned. Also as Arjuna noted, it could cause problems as happened to him. Some persons on reading an article about him in a Sinhala newspaper faulted him for not mentioning them in his ‘merit list’! I will only say they are both genuinely grateful to Sirasa TV for giving them this chance to utilize an inborn talent which has opened doors to fulfillment, popularity, fame and gain. They thank all people at the Organization from the very top to the bottom with special mention of the crews managing the shows, the judges, the orchestra and PR officials. They thank their parents and relatives, all benefactors and fans, teachers and trainers and very specially those of their respective two villages who are proud of them. As Arjuna perceptively mentioned: "Now parents are not thinking of their children becoming only doctors, engineers and executives. They are glad if a child becomes a Super Star."

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