The Sinhala Radio Opera and the Indian Cultural Imagination


by Garett Field,

Weslyan University, USA

(Continued from Midweek Review last week)

The Radio Opera — "Manohari"

Narrator: Giving nature anthropomorphic forms, Sri Chandraratna Manawasinghe has composed a Gandharva deity story in song. To facilitate understanding we will first present to you a list explaining what the characters of this musical drama represent.

Soma Kumaru — The Moon

Manohari — Beauty of the Universe

The Dancing Garment — Flowing Mist

Jagatpati – The Universe

Divapati – The Sun

Vasanta Puraya – The Spring Season

Soldier Beams – The Rays of the Sun Dark

Clouds – Rain Clouds

Hemanta – The Winter Season

The City of Surada – The Autumn Season

Samirana – The Wind Messenger

The Prince of Heat – The Summer Season [0:00 - 1:55]

So, each character represents a natural force in the universe. In a discussion conducted with Manawasinghe’s son Udaya he kindly explained to me that the idea behind a "Gandharva deity story" is to convey the feeling of deva kata, the mythological stories about Hindu gods found in Sanskrit literature (Personal Interview with Udaya Manawasinghe: 2.5.2012). According to the characters symbolic representation. Manohari works on two levels at once. On the surface we have a simple love story about a princess who runs a away from the castle to marry the man she loves. "Underneath is a tale of the interplay of forces of nature told through poetic allusion, or what is called in Sinhala poetry as vyangaya.

For example, King Jagatpati symbolises the universe. His daughter Manohari is the beauty of her father’s universe. Although her father wants Manohari to marry the powerful Divapati or Sun, Manohari, the beauty of nature, prefers the soft and cool Soma Kumaru, the Moon. Here, Manawasinghe perhaps is alluding to the fact that the sun spoils the beauty of nature due to its uncomfortable rays, whereas the full moon on a Poya Day is a source of comfort and coolness.

P. Dunstin De Silva set the first song to the raga khammaj. Sung by a girl’s chorus, Manawasinghe’s lyric poetically introduces the main characters of the opera. Listen to the music and follow along with my English translation:

(Song — Khammaj Raga) (1:56 — 5-40) u to 4:27 is enough

Girl Chorus:

Alluring and famed daughter Of Old King Jagatpati,

The Gandharva deity


Was to marry the Majestic

Mighty one, Victorious

In all lands, known as


Disliking his rough and tough nature Soft hearted Manohari

Was fond of

Soma Kumaru [4:27 when going back to chorus] Distraught, she was consoled

By a maid servant

Holding a royal position, named


The form of this song evokes the stay anthara form of the bandhish found in North Indian classical music. P. Dunstin De Silva set the next song to Rageswari raga. In this scene, Hernanta, the castle maid who represents the Winter Season, exhorts Manohari and Soma Kumaru to hide in her salu natuma, literally "dancing cloth," and here, meaning "mist of the mountains." Follow the English

translation as you listen to the music.

(Alap — Rageswari — Sarode) [5:41 — 10:335]

Narrator: Manohari and Soma Kumaru’s passionate rendezvous on the castle verandah. (Song in Rageswari — Flute — Introduction)

Soma: My Manohari Renowned daughter Of Jagatpati,

In my eyes

You shine

O Gandharva deity! (Interlude)

Manohari: Dear Soma

The birds silent

In the night

Now rise

Singing song

In the morning light (Interlude)

Soma: Just a glimpse

Of your tender face

And flowers smile in bloom

Who could alight From a padda boat

Wade alone in the floret lagoon? (Interlude)

Manohari: I will leave

With you

castle lands.

Depart from castle

How can I possibly bear To be alone when

My heart is in your hands? (Interlude)

Soma: Then let us not delay!

As Divapati’s Soldier Beams Take post on then castle floor Once the conch

Reaches our ears

We will not get out the door (Interlude)

‘Nlanohari: Througb the help

Of Hemant

avoid the hot sun rays

Take the aid of her Dancing Garments Which conceal

Even hermits in caves

Soma: Yes we’ll hide in the

Dancing Garments

That flow

Like the Milky Ocean

My dear

Let us now go!


(Forest Noises)

(Introduction - Background - Drums-Cymbals etc.)


Now let’s turn to Wimal Abhayasundara Nishadi. In 1959, five years after the broadcast of Manohari, Wirral Abhayasundara wrote: "A new Sinhala song genre is being composed these days, although unbeknownst to many people still. The delay in appreciation by our literary connoisseurs must be due to the fact that this literary genre has sprung up very recently. Like a plant can become malnourished if it does not obtain the necessary amount of fertiliser, water, sunlight, and protection, Sinhala song has reached such a critical juncture" (1959: 9).

Sri Lanka had achieved political independence in 1948, and the Sinhala Language Only Act followed in 1956. Despite the subsequent disastrous effects the language act would have on Sinhalese Tamil relations. in 1959 Abhavasundara described the period as" era of new national, religious, cultural. and artistic awakening." He stated that it was QUOTE "every artist’s magnanimous duty to cultivate the tastes of our audience" (ibid: 10). For a poet, the song-lyric was a means to such an end. As he wrote in Nishadi:

Song should not be merely a means of the foolish to tickle our lowest tendencies. Providing us a taste of an entire tradition of cultured thought, song has the power to put our minds into contact with something transcendent. Yet, our country has only used song for an easy pleasure.

When we examine the hundreds of new song books being published that contain thousands of new songs we see that our readership is growing quickly. This shows that people derive great pleasure not only from listening to songs but also from reading lyrics. If we do not give them lyrics of substance we cannot prevent them from turning to lower forms. This will result in a cultural decline. (ibid: 9-10)

Abhayasundara cited two reasons for composing Nishadi, 6 QUOTE "First, I wanted to provide a correct and sufficient understanding about what song is. Second, I wanted to free our rasikas from the fetters of artless song" (Abhayasundara 1959 [2007]: 9). His thematic inspiration for "Nishadi" came from the biographies of Indian classical musicians, who were willing to sacrifice everything to obtain training in classical music. As Abhayasundara wrote:

I composed —Nishadi" with a strong love of Indian classical music. The libretto is an original work of fiction. I read the ancient biographies of great Indian classical musicians like Narada, Hanuman, Bharata, Kohala, Dattila, and Matanga, as well as the biographies of later musicians like Jayadeva, Swami Haridas, Tansen, Amir Khusrou, Gopala Nayaka, Baiju Bawra, Vilas Khan, and Mira Bhai. The foundation for composing "Nishadi" is based on the influences I obtained from these biographies.

Composer Lionel Edirisinghe composed the Indian raga based music for "Nishadi." As the first musician from Sri Lanka to obtain a Visharada degree from North India, Edirisinghe spent nearly thirteen years in India and studied Hindustani classical music under the guidance of sitarist Ravi Shankar’s well known guru, Allaudin Khan. (See Colombage 1980: 63, and Abhayasundara 1963) [2002]: 1095-1098).

Concerning the classical musical setting for "Nishadi," Abhayasundara said this:

Ek-cause Alishadi is based on a subject pertaining to classical music. I felt that the songs should reflect the topic and be of the highest quality lionel Edirisinghe set the libretto to music. I have named the main character Nishadi after the seventh note of the Indian musical scale: sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, da, ni. Therefore, those who know music well can hear how Edirisinghe chose raga melodies that emphasise this note. He has composed songs based on the ragas from all eight melas, i.e. Yaman, Bilawal, Khamaj, Bhairava, Purvi, Marwa, Kafi, and Asavari. (Abhayasundara 1959 [2006]: 180)

Abhayasundara forwarded the libretto with an overview of the plot written in prose. Read this power point slide, and we will listen to some excerpts:

There once lived an artistic young man named Manjula who desired to obtain training in classical music. Although he went to various teachers, he felt unsatisfied. He decided to travel to Brindavan to try to study music with the sage Tumbaru.

Tumbaru of Vrindavana was one who reached the brink of musical knowledge. He could even successfully perform miracles using music. Manjula is now travelling to Vrindavana to study with this sage. If he gets the opportunity to study with Tumbaru, he knows that he too will become a Master of music.While journeying in the jungle, he comes to the bank of the river. and sees seven note princesses.

Mesmerised by their tonal beauty, he falls in love with the youngest, Nishadi.

Madly in love with Nishadi. he starts to sing a song. However, [lacking in serious musical training, his singing has a negative effect on the sensitive note princess and] Nishadi immediately singing dead to the ground. Manjula and the other six princesses, gather around Nishadi and start crying. Tumbaru who hears the crying comes to the river bank and starts singing. Immediately, Nishadi wakes up from her slumber. At her request Tumbaru accepts Manjula as a disciple. Finally, Nishadi and Manjula depart for Tumbaru’s hermitage in Vrindavana. (1959: 191)

After the introduction, we hear a scale ascending and stopping on the seventh note, "ni," to

signify the character of Nishadi. Then the narrator sings poetic verses to introduce the story. The

opera begins with the narrator singing these lines: [1:38 — start around 1:17]

Narrator: Deeply seeking the answer to

Where the mystery of song can be found

Prince Manjula made an offering of flowers [??I


And went in search of Sage Tambaru of Brindavan

Edirisinghe set the first song, to a raga from the Yaman meta. Please see the translation on the power point and listen to the next song. It is sung by Marijula, 4o has departed on a journey to find his music teacher.


Manjula: Queen of Song alight upon the Hamsa swan!

I search and search for thee abode where sound reverberates

Is it in the clouds that drift in the blue sky,

The pollen offered by the flowers,

Or in the new sumptuous rain,

That I can find you, Oh Goddess of Speech?

Queen of Song alight upon the Hamsa swan!

I search and search for thee abode where sound reverberates

The wind of the hill country blows into

The caste in the stars,

Where the seven celestial maidens of the musical note reside And a love song is written

Queen of Song alight upon the Hamsa swan!

I search and search for thee abode where sound reverberates

Like Narada, Swain] Haridas

Tansen, and Gopala Nayaka

Oh Song Queen! I too come for you

Through sounds of seven notes the flower lamps are raised

Similar to Manasinghe’s "Saraswati Gitaya," in this song, Abhayasundara praises the attributes of Sarawasti, through a fusion of Sanskrit literary motifs and Sinhala poetry. For instance, the Sinhala lyric found in the chorus is:


Hansa vahini gitadhari vandana swara gum gumavi

Gita manasa raja hansi oba soya mama ami ami

Rhythmically, the line is set to a propulsive seven-beat syllabic meter [demonstrate]. Here, Manjula, the aspiring musician proclaims he is going in search of the goddess of music, Saraswati. He praises her attributes as she is classically portrayed in Sanskrit literature. Abhayasundara’s use of the word "manasa" in the phrase "Gita manasa raja hansi" can be interpreted in two ways. "Manas" can mean "mind." Here Abhayasundara may be saying that Saraswati possesses the very mind of song. However, I think he used the word in its other meaning, referring to the "manas sarovar." It is a Sanskrit literary term connoting a mythical lake created by Brahma which is the summer abode of Saraswati’s vehicle, the swan. In that sense, Manjula would-be saying that he is searching for Saraswati’s abode. That is how I translated the

poetic line. So you see, with this phrase, the kind of depth of expression in Sanskrit literary themes, which Abhayasundara brought to the radio opera librettos.

In conclusion, on the ideological plane, if we begin to think of the radio opera as an expression of cultural nationalism, we are reminded of the ethos of the Arya-Sinhala movement of the late 19"’ and early 20th century. Just like John De Silva, Abhayasundara felt that Sinhalese music-culture was part of a larger North Indian culture music. Abhayasundara began the last chapter of his Sangita Sanhita, in this way:

Culturally, one cannot separate Sri Lanka from India. Studies have proven that our cultures have been connected for more than 2500 years. It is not incorrect to say that musically too, the same

applies. Sinhala sources like the Mahavansha and Culavamsha, as well as classical Sinhala literature clearly illustrate ancient links between Indian classical and Sinhala music. (Abhayasundara 1963 [2010]: 1089)

The radio operas of Chandraratna Manawasinghe and Wimal Abhayasundara, like "Manohari" and "Nishadi," are important landmarks in the history of Sinhala song, adding a chapter to the long involvement with North Indian classical music stretching back to the arrival of the Parsi Theatre Operas to Sri Lanka in 1887. Though radio operas like Manohari and Nishadi are somewhat obscure at this point, in the 19550s, we should recall that the radio was the only electronically broadcast form of entertainment on the island and thus these kinds of projects were extremely popular, and far-reaching forms of entertainment.

Thank you

Works Cited

Abayasndara, Pulasti and Ahungalle Wimalajiwa Tissa Nahimi. 2007. ??seniya Kusum: Wimal

Abhayasundara Abhinandana Granthaya. Colombo: S. Godage and Brothers.

Abhayasundara, Wimal. 1959 [2010]. Nishadi. Colombo: S. Godage and Brothers. 1963. Sungila Sanhita. Gunasena and Company.

Amaradeva. 1989. Nadu Sittam. Colombo: Lakehouse Investments Samagama.15

Ariyaratna, Sunil. 1986. Gramophone Gi Yugaya. Colombo: S. Godage and Brothers. 1991. Manawasinhe Gila Nibandhu. Colombo: S. Godage and Brothers. Manawasinghe, Chandraratna. 1969. Sahitya Rasaya. Dasa Desa Mudranalaya: Boralesgamuwa.


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