Celebrating Our Homegrown Musical Genius:VICTOR RATNAYAKE


Victor Ratnayake

By Prof. Carlo Fonseka

According to Prof Sunil Ariyaratne, the supreme scholarly authority on Sinhala Music, in our whole recorded history of some 2600 years, Pundit Amaradeva (1927 – 2016) must be reckoned as the Creator of the musical tradition called Sinhala Music. It was Pundit Amaradeva who gave the amalgam constituting Sinhala Music its final solid form. As his Magsaysay Award citation notes, his music "… reflects a unique synthesis of the country’s varied heritage combining the influences of North Indian ragas, folk melodies, and Portugese waltzes and hymns …" The very fact that it was Pundit Amaradeva who created the final synthesis made him automatically, literally and metaphorically, the Sovereign in the kingdom of Sinhala Music.

Enter Victor Ratnayake

Way back in 1993, when Pundit Amaradeva was at the height of his creative power, universally acclaimed, loved and worshipped as our musical sovereign, in an article I wrote on Victor Ratnayake, I dared to pose the question: After Amaradeva, who? My unmistakable answer was: Victor Ratnayake. Time passed. Centuries turned. By the first decade of the 21st century, adorned with the highest national and international honours available to the eminent in his field, Pundit Amaradeva devoted the last years of his life to the consolidation of the musical tradition he created, and the encouragement of the musically talented in this country who turned to him for inspiration. In the meantime, Victor Ratnayake blossomed and matured. The University of the Visual and Performing Arts recognized his genius by awarding him its highest academic accolade, a higher doctorate. In the fullness of years and honours when Pundit Amaradeva passed away peacefully on the 3rd of November 2016, Dr. Victor Ratnayake automatically inherited the crown in the kingdom of Sinhala Music.


Three men – Ananda Samarakoon, Sunil Santha and W D Amaradeva – played critical roles in the genesis of modern Sinhala Music. A feature that was common to all three of them was that their musical education was largely acquired in India. The most senior, Ananda Samarakoon consciously fashioned his music mainly in the Tagorean tradition. Sunil Santha, having immersed himself deeply in the Indian musical tradition, became acutely conscious of its profound influence on him and attempted heroically to molt his Indian musical court. Amaradeva, conscious of the importance of the Indian influence, created a luxuriant synthesis, which we know as modern Sinhala Music. It is this synthesis that Dr. Victor Ratnayake inherited. Unlike the founders however, Victor Ratnayake’s musical education was completely acquired in the land of his birth. He was truly a homegrown genius.

Historical parallel

What comes to mind at this point is an episode in our country’s history. The story is that Buddhism was brought to our country during the reign of Devanampiyatissa by Venerable Mahinda, the son of Emperor Dharmasoka, in the 3rd century BC. Venerable Mahinda and his retinue were accorded royal patronage. Mahameghavana was gifted to Venerable Mahinda, which ensured their material security. Once Venerable Mahinda had settled down, King Devanampiyatissa asked him whether Buddhism was now established in the country. Venerable Mahinda’s answer was that it was "established but that its roots are not yet gone deep." In response, King Devanampiyatissa enquired "when will the roots go deep?" Venerable Mahinda’s answer was remarkable and relevant for our present purpose: "When a son born in Tambapanni (Lanka) of Sinhalese parents becomes a monk in Lanka, studies the Vinaya in Lanka, and recites it in Lanka, then the roots of the Sasana are deep set".

In the kingdom of Sinhala Music, the one who fulfills the attributes enumerated by Venerable Mahinda, is Dr. Victor Ratnayake. We now have a firmly established musical tradition we can call our own and be proud of.

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