The Sinhala Radio Opera and the Indian Cultural Imagination


by Garett Field,

Weslyan University, USA

This lecture is concerned with examining Indian literary and music cultural influences on the gita nataka, or Sinhala radio opera. It focuses on the lives of the two pioneers, Chandrarathna Manawasinghe and Wimal Abhayasundara, and their two critically acclaimed radio operas, Manawasinghe’s Manohari, the first gita nataka broadcast from Radio Ceylon in 1955, and Abhayasundara’s Nishadi, broadcast in 1959. The lecture will focus on the composers’ particular engagement in the study of Sanskrit and Indian classical music, and how these subjects influenced their radio operas’ themes, linguistic register and music.

Chandrarathna Manawasinghe was born in 1913 in the village of Puwakdandawe. He read voraciously as a child, writing that before the age of 12, he had already read much of the classical Sinhala literary canon. Initiated into the Buddhist monkhood at the age of 13, Manawasinghe trained in Sanskrit, Pali, Sinhala poetry composition and astrology. He described the Puwakdandawe temple where he lived as a thriving center for the study and discussion of Sinhala poetry (Manawasinghe 1957: 3).

Transferred to the Kiri Vehera temple in Kataragama, the young bhikku found solace in the natural beauty and quietude pervading the jungle surrounding the temple. As he wrote in the autobiographical introduction to his illustrated songbook, Komala Rekha, in 1954.

The large forest in Kataragama surrounding the temple where I stayed was a beautiful place. I often walked along the banks of the river, under the shade of the Kubuk trees, in the middle of the forest, far away from human contact. There was a small hermitage here that some referred to as "little Kataragama," although it was hardly a village or even a house for that matter. There, I had the opportunity to meet a young Bengali woman, who would sit by the banks of the river, singing Sanskrit verses from Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda while playing the sitar with delicate fingers. I closed my eyes and devoted my full attention to experiencing the rasa of the Sanskrit verses she sang. (Manawasinghe 1957: 5)

This excerpt clearly depicts Manawasinghe’s ability to appreciate Sanskrit poetry and Indian mythology, a preference evident in his own lyrics and radio operas.

For example, the song "Saraswati Gitaya" a collaboration between Manawasinghe and composer W.D. Amaradeva, clearly demonstrates the poet’s penchant for Sanskrit literature. As W. D. Amaradeva has commented:

Due to the many unmodified Sanskrit loanwords, we must assume that Manawasinghe composed this song completely based on Sanskrit slokas. He has even included phrases in the lyric that are not found in Sinhala. For example, Manawasinghe coined the word "kumbhamiwa" found in the phrase "Purna kumbhamiwa ping payodhara" (The immortal nectar of your clay-pot shaped breasts). The word is a blend of Sanskrit and Pali and means a kalayak, ghatayak, or clay pot ... Even though the song contained such linguistic forms not found in Sinhala, I had a strong desire to turn this poem into an unforgettable composition, because these kinds of phrases are very powerful and brash linguistic constructions. (Amaradeva 2007: 59)

This power point slide contains a translation I made from Manawasinghe’s "Saraswati Gitaya." Please take a look:

O Cosmic Enchantress, Sweetness of Song

Pleasant Maiden of White Lotus Ponds

O Goddess Saraswati!

We worship to you, Goddess Saraswati

Gently smiling Immortal Queen

Thou give light to all acts of learning

O Queen Saraswati!

We bow to you, Queen Saraswati

Thy dazzling anklet bells tinkle and shake

From venerable dancing in the white lotus lake

You have fish shaped eyes, and were born in a lotus

The immortal nectar flows from your clay pot shaped breasts

Taking the form of a meritorious beautiful goddess

Your mudra of auspiciousness is signified in your hands

Musicologist and lyricist Professor Sunil Ariyaratne has written that because of lyrics like this, Manawasinghe deserves recognition for firmly establishing a place for song lyrics within Sinhala literary culture (1991: 1-2). Manawasinghe’s lyrics where developed enough to garner respect from Sinhala literary connoisseurs as a form of poetry. Prior, during the first four decades of the twentieth century, producers of the Sri Lankan recording industry thought that the popular appeal of a song depended solely on the melody (Ariyaratne 1986: 55). They viewed song lyrics as a mere "lacquer" applied to the preexisting rhythm and melodic contour of the melody (Ariyaratne 1991: 2). Due to poets like Manawasinghe, this began to change as song-lyrics became poeticized. What I mean by that, is that instead of being deemed unsophisticated and unimportant, lyrics were transformed into an elevated form of expression and came to be considered by many as an offshoot of Sinhala poetry (Ariyaratne 2005: 27-34).

Manawasinghe’s radio opera successor, Wimal Abhayasundara also engaged in Sanskrit and Indian classical music studies. Born in 1921, in the village of Balapitiya, Abhayasundara was a student at the Vidyodaya Pirivena and had similar language training as Manawasinghe had in the Buddhist temple. However, Abhayasundara not only trained in Pali, Sinhala, and Sanskrit, but Hindi as well, passing out with honors from Vidyodaya in 1948 at the age of 27. He also studied English at the Lawrence, Olcott, Ananda, and Pembrooke Colleges, respectively (Tissa Nahimi and P. Abhayasundara 2007: 493-494). Between 1949 and 1953, Abhayasundara worked primarily as an editor at various Sinhala newspapers. In 1955, he began work as an assistant editor on the Sinhala-medium encyclopedia for the sections pertaining to the art. He worked under the influential University of Ceylon linguist, Professor D.E. Hettiarachchi (ibid: 506-5)

Very active as a scholar, in 1959, Abhayasundara published Nishadi, named after his first radio opera. The book contained a 185-page music history of Sinhala song, followed by nine of his own radio opera librettos. The following year, the book won the State Literary award for best work of poetry. In the introduction to the music history, Abhayasundara alludes to his conviction concerning ancient connections between Sinhala literary-music culture and India:

The Vedas are a collection of song lyrics. If you want to measure the esteem at which the Indo Aryans held song, you only have to study the Vedas. The Sama Vedas evince a peerless consideration of the aesthetics of sound in poetic language, and is a musical monument of the East. Compared with prose, poetry was well known amongst the Indo Aryans because unlike prose, one could sing verses of poetry sweetly. That is why Indo Aryans wrote through the medium of poetic verse when writing about the arts, sciences, crafts, or philosophy. They sang these verses to songs replete with talcs, tempos, and gaits. Not only in India, but in adjacent countries like our little Sri Lanka we are not excluded from these practices. (1959: 17)

While working on the Sinhala-medium encyclopedia, Abhayasundara’s wife Kalyani began studying North Indian classical music. He also began reading as much as possible on the art form and after one year of study, intended to publish a small book on Indian classical music. However, when his wife departed in 1956 for North India to study at the Bhatkhande Music College in Lucknow, he followed and pursued his studies further. The fruit of Abhayasundara research into Indian classical music was Sangita Sanhita (Music Compilations), a comprehensive five-volume tome (pronunciation?) on Indian classical music and dance from Vedic times to the twentieth century. There were prior publications in Sinhala on Indian classical music such as M.G. Perera’s 1933 Gita Shikshaka. However, nothing was comparable in scope or breadth to this. In his bibliography organized according to language, he cited forty-four Sanskrit primary sources, and a plethora of sources in Hindi, Pali, Sinhala, and English.


Now let’s turn towards the radio opera. In 1955, Radio Ceylon producer Tewis Guruge conceived of a musical form that would tell a story through the medium of an opera-like libretto, set to North Indian classical music. We know Guruge was under pressure to introduce a new form of high-quality Sinhala music because in January of 1955, a group of influential intellectuals like author Martin Wikremasinghe, Kandyan lawyer N.E. Weerasuriya, and artist J.D.A Perera, under the name of the "Guwanviduli Komisama" (or Radio Commission) collectively authored an article to the Dinamina newspaper demanding Radio Ceylon improve the quality of Sinhala songs and bring an end to broadcasting songs with Sinhala lyrics set to already-composed Hindi and Tamil tunes (Ariyaratne 2008: 98-99).

Guruge presented his idea for the radio opera to the chairman of Radio Ceylon, H. M. Perera, and to the director of the Sinhala music department, P. Dunstin De Silva. They invited Chandraratna Manawasinghe to pen a 45-minutes libretto that would be the first Sinhala radio opera (Abhayasundara 1959 [2006]: 387). P. Dunstin De Silva set Manawasinghe’s poetry to Indian classical ragas and Radio Ceylon broadcast "Manoharl" on December 8, 1955.

Commenting on the central role the radio opera played in raising the quality of Sinhala song, Wimal Abhayasundara wrote this in the final chapter of his Sangita Sanhita:

Until very recently our singers were accustomed to singing lyrics composed according to already composed melodies found in Hindi films. Composing original lyrics, or original music was a rare phenomenon. Sunil Santha and Ananda Sarnarakone were our first two enthusiastic composers of original Sinhala music ... Most of the singers were singing imitations of Hindi film songs. Having their primary objective to create a song form with national features, Radio Ceylon suspended the following of Hindi film songs, and inaugurated a new form of Sinhala music. The pioneering result was the Sinhala radio opera. (Abhayasundara 1963 [2002]: 1099)

One unique aspect of the radio opera is the high art combination of Sinhala poetry with Indian classical raga. Based on a radio lecture Manawasinghe gave in the 1960s, we know the poet was well acquainted with the emotional powers of Indian music ragas and with medieval Sanskrit literature’s anttwopomorphic portrayals of these Indian musical modes. As Manawasinghe asinghe said in one lecture:

Singing only notes of ragas can awaken, surprise, sadden, delight, and arouse lust. As sexual activity arouses sensuous feelings for a newly married couple, ragas and raginis have the power to stir up our feelings. When we sense such a rasa, our eyelids close, or perhaps our eyes open wide. Not only our mind, the raga’s rasa physically influences us. Our bodies are enlivened. Our chests perk up. Not everyone, however, has the sensitivity to be affected. Our simplicity has deteriorated to some extent by our various life objectives. The less sensitive we become, the less we can imbibe the power of music.

Singing of notes is categorized according to the raga type. The doyens of the distant past embedded anthropomorphic features into their creations of raga forms. For example, shankarabharana is a beautiful, illustrious woman who dances in a lotus flower, dressed in golden cloth. Hindola raga is one who rocks back and forth like a palanquin bouncing to and fro on top of the shoulders of one ornately decorated with white lotus flowers. Bhopal ragini is an immaculate woman whose gait is like the rocking to and fro of a palanquin on a jungle journey. She is a mix of gold and saffron, and adorned with golden bracelets. (Manawasinghe 1969: 4748)

Such description evince an intimate and personal connection to these colorful forms. Perhaps inspired by the affective power of such symbolism, each character in Manawasinghe’s radio opera Manohari, symbolized natural forces in the universe. I’ll show you the introduction in translation, and play the introduction of the radio opera.

(Continued next Wednesday)
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