|Pic by Chandana Wijesinghe|
‘I am glad I became second’, Visharada Nanda Malini received a letter from the veteran musician Victor Ratnayake right after an interview of her was published on a newspaper. Recalling the story published a few years ago, she said that she is blessed to sing with maestro Ratnayaka in Ramya Theerthaya on January 25. “I was more than happy to accept Sirara FM’s offer to sing with Victor on stage. This is the first time we are singing on the same stage in Sri Lanka and after the legendary show at London in 2002,” she added beaming.
“When I was a little girl, I came first in a singing competition named Airship produced by Ariyasena Millawithanaachchi and presented by Prosper Fernando at Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). I won an air ticket to Bombay. My father was a tailor, how could he afford such luxury for me?”
And so she took the air ticket and went in search of the company near the clock tower at Fort, with her father. “I remember asking them money in exchange of the ticket.” They were kind enough to comply. When they got the money, the first thing the father and daughter did was to have glass of Saruwath. She suggested to her father that they should buy an electric iron. “I was young but I had noticed his struggle with the coconut shell iron.” But what she forgot was that they didn’t have electricity. “You silly girl,” her father chided her lovingly.
With the money they managed to purchase electricity for their small house at Hatewatta, Kotahena. “I also bought a hot water flask for Thaththa, his tea always went cold at night,” she continued. But this little girl did not foresee that the boy who came second in the competition will also become a maestro one day and the two families will become very close friends. “We didn’t know each other then, in fact I don’t remember who sent me to that competition,” she added. In fact until she revealed this story to a newspaper, both of them didn’t know that they had competed with each other that day.
Nanda Malini was born to a rural family of nine siblings in 1943. After their move to Kotahena, she was enrolled at Sri Gunananda Vidyalaya, where her talent was recognized. “We lived with minimal facilities. But our parents tried to teach us morals despite our situation. There were days that we had to skip meals. Sometimes I had to share my clothes with my sister. However that was not my father’s concern. He wanted us to get the best education possible. My school also had limited facilities,” she said. “Although my parents didn’t observe my talents, my school recognized it. The teachers were always honing our interest in the arts and literature. At school I participated in many dramas and singing competitions. We went to sing devotional songs for Vesak and people used to invite girls from our school to their weddings to sing Jayamangala gatha.”
Nanda Malini proudly acknowledges that she is a product of SLBC and soon made her imprint as an A grade singer. Margret Perera, a teacher of her school foresaw that she had a prosperous road ahead of her. She took her to SLBC and introduced her to the Lama Mandapaya which was presented by Karunarathne Abeysekara and Sarath Wimalaweera at the time. “Unlike today, there weren’t any interviews at SLBC. If the child was talented anyone could go and introduce them there. However I didn’t get a chance to sing a song for a year.” Her first song was written by Asoka Kolambage and music composed by DD Danny. The song has been a hit since she first sang it. After 55 years she first sang her debut song, Budu Saadu, Budu Saadu; it’s still popular as if it was sung yesterday.
According to her meeting Pundit WD Amaradeva was a turning point in her life. Observing her talent in Lama Mandapaya Pundit Amaradeva invited her to sing in a movie, Ranmuthu Duwa in 1962. Ranmuthu Duwa was the first color full-length Sinhalese language film to be produced in Sri Lanka. It was produced by Shesha Palihakkara and directed by Mike Wilson, who also made his debut as a feature director with Serendib Production Company. The movie was able to win the best music, singer (male and female) at the Sarasaviya Film Award Ceremony in 1963. Nanda Malini became the Best Playback Singer (Female) for the song Galanagangaki jeevithe.
Since then, Nanda Malini has sung for 116 films and won 12 Sarasavi Awards and 11 Presidential Awards. She was able to win the best female singer award at the SLIM Nielsen People’s Award continuously for the past six years.
Whilst many women in Sri Lanka demand their position and equal rights as men, Nanda Malini, citing her own life story said that a woman will receive her rightful place in society through will and commitment. Therefore there is no need for women to riot, demanding their position, she points out. “It comes naturally. If a woman knows how to be satisfied with what she has, if she knows how to plan her finances and more importantly if she could become independent,” she continued. “We didn’t have many dresses when we were young. Some days I had to wash my school uniform, iron it at night and wear it again the next day. Our father taught us how not to envy other people who had plenty of clothes.” This is why, she explains, that she still tries to live a simple life.
Nanda Malini admitted that there is a dearth of quality songs. She spoke how thoroughly SLBC screened the lyrics and graded the singers. “They standardized the song with the help of a panel of veterans. That’s how they maintained quality,” she reiterated. “There was a time when people knew me only by my voice; they didn’t know how I looked. There are people who still remember. I remember one person telling me that they used to listen to those programs with lights off. They’ve tried to imagine ‘Nanda Malini’ singing with the help of a picture they had seen in the newspaper,” she said. According to her, another major reason for this loss of quality is money. “For the first five or six years at Lama Mandapaya, the singers were provided only transport and a cup of tea. Today, the child knows how much he or she is going to earn when they receive the invitation,” she said woefully.
She also recalled songwriters the likes of Dolton Alwis, Madawala S Ratnayake, Wimal Abeysundara; musicians like Pundit Amaradeva, Lional Algama, Somadasa Alwitigala and DR Peiries; orchestra members MW Peiris, Piyadasa Athukorala, Mervin Wijewardana and M Nadaraja. “They were the best and we weren’t even aware that we were going to be products of these great people. Program producers like Palitha Perera, Daya Alwis and Kusum Peiris were always ready to welcome us. That is how these old songs made their way into the hearts of the listeners.”
She believes that another reason the old songs maintained the popularity is that the songs were not distorted with visuals. “It went from the ear to the brain directly. No visuals to distract the listener.”
‘Ma hada uyane
ekama malai pipune,
E mala oba desa balaa hindiddi
sali sali ashawen…’
‘Only one flower blossomed in the garden that is my heart, and while it looked on you, dancing with desire…’ she sang in example, pointing out the word power of the lyricists who did not require visuals to get across their message to the listeners. She opined that this is an era where people believe that anyone with money could make a song or a visual. “Money is the controlling factor, it’s for this same reason the song is deteriorating.”
She pointed out that the lack of decent production companies to invest in song production is another reason for the downfall. She recalled how companies like Sing Lanka with people like Ananda Ganegoda and Kularatne Ariyawansa made attempts on song production. The ability to produce a music album existed at that time as well as the market for it, she explained. “Sing Lanka was a company which released the best of songs. These companies are bankrupt today because of the thieves ever ready to copy their decent products,” she lamented.
“Technology is all good. We need to move with the changing trends of the new world, but there is an ugly side to trend as well,” she added. She criticized the fact that the laws to protect the song artists are full of loopholes. “Once, I, Prof. Ariyarathna and Mahagama Sekara’s son filed a court case against a group who copied our music, which took three years to deliberate. We won the case, but can we file cases against all such incidents?” she asked.
She is optimistic of the new generation who enter the field of music. She mentioned that there is a group of people, new music enthusiasts wanting to take the Sri Lankan song to a new dimension. “They seek guidance and help. They are keen to talk to us, take our advices. We are also keen to help them and make a connection with them. We cannot be in this field forever,” she iterated.
She said that the Sinhala song needs the strength of the young, the advantages of technology and the inspiration of foreign music. “But it should be our songs, our culture and our music. We must know how to choose between what’s suitable and what is not.”
She explained how an artiste can take the responsibility of shaping society. During the war Nanda Malini produced a song album including Tamil folk songs named, Kunkuma Pottu. Some groups challenged her morality asking why Sinhalaye Yashoraawaya (the legendary voice of Sinhala) took the Tamils’ side. “The music album was a loss. But Mr. Ganegoda believed that it was an essential service at the time. I still believe that it was. This problem would have never occurred if we knew Tamil language,” she opined.
She believes that the Pavana, a revolutionary musical show in late 80s also rendered such a service to society. Prof Sunil Ariyaratne wrote the songs included in Pavana, in an era when the country’s situation was volatile. “The youth of the country was unemployed and suppressed and the society was unjust.” She said that this harsh reality was what turned into a series of songs. Perhaps the messages of these songs were considered a threat. Some of her songs including Pavana were banned at SLBC and SLRC. Pavana concert was also banned.
“I had to move out of the country for a while in 1989 because of this.” However she revealed that she was not afraid to continue singing even though she hit a rough patch now and then. “I believe that it happened because of the background I came from. I remembered the pain of being rejected when we went door to door selling what our father sewed. This was voiced through Pavana. Not persevering with Pavana would have been to neglect our responsibility,” she said that the wellbeing of society is the motive behind her singing. “Some Pavana songs are still relevant even in the contemporary context. We must work towards making those songs irrelevant,” she stressed.
Sangeetha Ashramaya, where Nanda Malini is conducting music classes for children is also as simple as her, painted white like the white saree she is always clad in. She is thankful for the children who come to her classes and their parents, as it is her sole livelihood. “I don’t conduct musical shows as a principle. In fact I couldn’t release an album for six years,” she revealed. She also pointed out the importance of music and aesthetic subjects in making a complete child. “It doesn’t matter how much you feed them, clothe or educate them, if you are not feeding the child with art and literature, he or she would never become a wholesome human being,” she said.
She mentioned that she should be grateful to Sirasa FM for inviting her to Ramya Theerthaya. Shwetha Rathriya; the musical show Sirasa organized few years ago was one of the most successful shows in the country. She returned to stage 22 years later after Pavana with Swetha Rathriya. “No one but Sirasa invited me for a show in those 22 years. And nobody did even after the success of Swetha Rathriya, therefore I must be thankful to them,” she reiterated. “There is a generation who has not seen me singing on stage, children who were born in the 1990s. I suppose this will be a great opportunity for them as well to see us on stage. My invitation is especially for them,” she made an open invitation. “I am still strong. I can still sing and will continue to do so,” she assured.