The Forgotten Genius


By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The deft hand which created many a beautiful painting and many a memorable melody including our National Anthem, reached for a bottle of sleeping pills, perhaps hesitantly, on 2nd April 1962 and silenced the golden voice of Ananda Samarakoon, for ever, three days later. Maybe it is due to inherent ingratitude of our nation or negative attitude to suicide, that the genius of Anada Samarakoon has been forgotten even though there were heated exchanges, earlier in the year, about the language of the National Anthem. Sadly, it was yet another controversy that cut down prematurely, at the age of 51, the productive life of this composer, lyricist, singer and painter; his sensitive, artistic mind not being able to comprehend and accept the decapitation of his master piece. As predicted by himself, may be because of the propensity for depression in the past, the resultant bout of depression spiralled out of control, leading to his untimely demise.

We will never know how much more he would have enriched Sinhala music, if not for this avoidable tragedy, but in his short life, plagued often with want and suffering, he achieved something unique; he changed Sinhala music for ever by establishing a genre of music we could call our own, rather than continuing the tradition of slavishly copying North Indian music. On the occasion of the centenary of his birth, Prof Sunil Ariyaratna wrote in ‘Sarasaviya’: "Ananda Samarakoon as the creator of our national anthem but equally, or, rather more importantly, he should be recognised and venerated as the originator of our own genre of music ... ,the other two great musicians, Sunil Shantha and Amaradewa advancing on what he created"

Egodahage George Wilfred Alwis Samarakoon was born to Christian parents on 13th January 1911 in Liyanwela, a village close to Padukka. Even during primary education at Wewala Government Sinhala School he demonstrated his musical prowess. Caught by the teacher for writing a song, instead of following the arithmetic lesson, the punishment was to sing it to the class, which he did with an instantly created tune, to the rapturous applause. His teacher was dumbfounded. He his had secondary education at Christian College, Kotte and, later, he became a teacher of art and music, a few years after obtaining the English School Leaving Certificate in the fist division.

Though Samarakoon’s musical and artistic talents became apparent at a very early age, the real transformation occurred after he had watched the performances of Rabindranath Tagore’s tour group which arrived in Sri Lanka in May 1934. It was the last of three visits by this great cultural icon of the 20th Century, which incidentally turned out to be his last ever overseas tour. Tagore was accompanied by his daughter-in-law Pratima Tagore and renowned artist Nandalal Bose as well as 23 students from Santiniketan. In addition to a number of public functions which included the laying of the foundation stone for ‘Sri Palee’ in Horana, at the invitation of Wilmot A Perera, Tagore himself took part in the performances of ‘Shapa Mochana’ staged in Colombo and Jaffna. Having read, years later, the Sinhala translation of this play by my father Justin Wijayawardhana, I can well visualise what an amazing spectacle it would have been. Enamoured by Tagore’s creativity, Samarakoon joined Tagore’s Cultural University, Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan in 1936 and returned after just six months, completely transformed. He had become a Buddhist and adopted the name Ananda (Samarakoon).

Gramophone songs

Samarakoon was a pioneer in this earliest form of mass entertainment. He recorded in 1939 for HMV:

"Ennada Menike Mamath Diyambata, Kadanta Kekatiya Mal

Boho Lassanai, Oho Lassanai, Oho Lassanai, Oho Pipichcha Kekatiya Mal"

He may not have realised it would be the trailblazer for the new genre of original Sinhala music. It was a duet with Leelawathy, his first singing partner who died young unfortunately. Many more hits followed, a number of them becoming eternal favourites:

"Vile Malak Pipila Hari Pudumai"

"Besa Seethala Gangule, Peena Peena NamukoNago"

"Punchi Suda, Sudu Ketiya, Kohibada Udaye"

"Pudamu Me Kusum, ThrilokanathaPada Padma Venda Vetiyena Prithi Sagare"

"Ese Madhura Jeevanaye Geetha, Namu Ama Dahare"

"Podi Mal Ethano, Surathal Ethano"

"Sumano, Podi Sumano, Thani yama Noweda Palee"

"Ramya Vana Malee, Oba Katu Godaka EaiKele"

"Ese Madhura Jeevanaye Geetha NamuAma Dahare"

"Siri Saru Sara Kethey, Goyam Paseeela Mahime"

"Poson Pohodina Punsanda Paya, Shanthi De Ambare"

There are many more, all equally enjoyable, even after all the years and in spite of new artistes and diverse styles emerging. It is all due to a formula of simple, appealing lyrics painting a beautiful picture with ear-pleasing, lilting melodies sung to perfection enhanced by soothing music. He sang most duets with Leelawathy initially and after her death with Amara and Swarna de Silva.

Namo Namo Matha

Some of us are fortunate enough to travel the world and every time we fly back and get the first glimpse of the wonderful ’Pearl of the Indian Ocean’ we are overwhelmed by its beauty. Unlike us, it is said that the first time Ananda Samarakoon flew back from India in October 1940, having done previous journeys by train, he put his thoughts to verse and ‘Namo Namo Matha’ was born. He spoke for all of us when he penned:

"Sundara siribarini surendiethi Sobhamana Lanka

Dhanya dhanayaneka mal palaturu piri Jayabhoomiya ramya"

He was the music teacher in Mahinda College, Galle and got the children to sing it as a patriotic song, the cry for freedom being embedded in the line "Nava jeevana demine nevatha apa avadikaran Matha" meaning ‘Awake us again for a new dawn". He recorded it with Swarna de Silva in 1946 and it became an instantant hit.

It was included, as the last song, in a book of songs he published under the title "Geetha Kumudini" but as he could not pay for printing, he sold the manuscript to the printer thus losing copyright, an action he must have greatly regretted.

National Anthem

On the eve of Independence, the Gandharva Sabah organized a competition and appointed a committee to select the National Anthem. They chose "Sri Lanka Matha, Pala Yasa Mahima" over "Namo Namo Matha" but the public refused to accept it as the lyricist and the composer of the winning song were members of the selection committee. Favouritism is nothing new!

On the morning of 4th February 1948, though Radio Ceylon played "Sri Lanka Matha", "God save the King" was still our National Anthem which was played at the official ceremony,

The Forgotten

together with "Namo Namo Matha" and "Sri Lanka Matha" as national songs. Due to ever increasing popularity, "Namo Namo Matha" was recommended to be adopted as our National Anthem by J R Jayewardena, who was the Minister of Finance, in 1950. The government adopted it on 22 November 1951 with a minor adaptation; "Nava jeevana demine newatha apa avadikaran Matha" to "Nava jeevana demine nithina apa pubudu karan Matha", as we had already got Independence. It was translated to Tamil by Mr M Nallathamby. Our real National Anthem was played for the first time during the Independence Day Celebration of 1952 and the Tamil version had been sung in Tamil speaking areas.

Changing the Anthem

DS died unexpectedly on 22nd March 1952 and SWRD was assassinated on 26th September 1959. No Prime minister could complete his term and there was something wrong with Independent Ceylon. Who is to be blamed? Experts started looking for a scapegoat and, very quickly, suspicion fell on the National Anthem as it was considered to have the wrong ‘Gana’. Apparently, ‘Gana’ is determined by the way the first three syllables are placed; how the long and short syllables occur. The first three syllables of the National Anthem, ‘na-mo-na’ are ‘short-long-short’, considered an inauspicious combination. Heated exchanges, just like the recent one, took place and Ananda Samarakoon expressed his total opposition to any change to the opening line he created.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike government changed "Namo Namo Matha" to "Sri Lanka Matha"in February 1961 without any consultation with Ananda Samarakoon. There was no obligation, as the government had bought the royalties for the princely sum of Rs. 2,500. Even that may not have gone to Samarakoon as he had already sold the copyright to the printer. In the extreme, the government could have opted for a new anthem. Looking back, the fortunes of the country did not improve with Sirimavo’s Government in spite of this change.

Other work

When his only child, a son aged five years, died Smarakoon was heart-broken and depressed. He went back to India, in 1948, to do painting and has had successful exhibitions in India, Singapore and Malaysia. He returned in 1951 and started on music again but the output did not match the golden era of 1940s.

He composed songs for films, the most notable being "Mana Ranjana Dharshaniya Lanka" which won the title of the most popular song in Sinhala Cinema till 1956, in a competition Lake House organized for "Buddha Jayanthi"

In his unmatched series of biographies titled ‘Amara Samara’, my good friend, the late Amara Hewamadduma recounts the difficulties Samarakoon experienced in a chapter titled, "The musician who soothed the heart of the nation but suffered immensely throughout life", (Amara Samara-2, p. 74-82), Amare has reproduced three of Samarakoon’s painting as well but leaves the reader in no doubt at the cruel way our society treated a genius.

Akke, Akke, Ara Balannako

Special mention should be made of this great song sung by Surya Sankar Molligoda but composed and written by AnadaSamarakoon. I consider it a masterpiece as it creates the atmosphere, very vividly of monsoon rains lashing a village; "Sulangthadai, Viduliyadakotai, Hena handa pethirai, Mahavalakulak may ennai. The reassurance of the ‘ayya’ is so touching; "Nangi sudo mage andannaepa, Ammahanika den eai, Billonoveyoyagorawanne, Ahasehenanade". It demonstrates that simplicity is the ultimate beauty.

Kumudini Hettiarachchi wrote a lovely piece titled, "When words killed a great man", in ‘the Sunday Times’ of Feb. 04 2001, based on an interview with Ananda Samarakoon’s nephew, Sunil, whose description of that tragic event is as follows:

" Hurrying to the Maha Gedera, clinging to his father's arm, breaking open his uncle's door and finding him fast asleep ... permanently asleep, never to wake again ... an overdose of sleeping tablets ... a letter to Dudley Senanayake ... a beautiful painting of the Buddha in meditation under a tree, with a deer at the edge of the jungle curiously looking on. The last painting of composer, lyricist, singer and painter Ananda Samarakoon."

That painting is surely a national treasure and it should be hung on a suitable memorial. Till then, let us, at least for a moment, think of this unfortunate genius, every time we sing our National Anthem, his greatest gift to our Nation!

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...