Ceylon Manohar died, but did we know ?

Published : 9:00 am  February 10, 2018 | No comments so far |  |  (46) reads | 

 

Singer and actor A. E. Manoharan passed away in India last month and his funeral was held in Chennai on January 24. 


His death was little noticed in Sri Lanka. He wasn’t a fan of attention-grabbing through social media. The latent racism ever present in our arts and politics meant that even people who knew him personally chose to ignore the end of a remarkable bi-cultural product of a more culturally eclectic era and remained silent about his demise rather than write a few words about this remarkably talented artiste.


I didn’t know him personally, though I’ve been an admirer of him ever since Mal Muruga Yezhil (The Tamil version of Kanda Surinduni by the Super Golden Chimes) came out.


Clarence Wijewardena’s song came out in the mid-1970s as an EP vinyl record on the Sooriya label, with that famous black and white photograph of the Super Golden Chimes posing for the camera near the Kataragama Devalaya (Shrine).


Manoharan isn’t in this picture, since he wasn’t part of the group.

 

The latent racism ever present in our arts and politics meant that even people who knew him personally chose to ignore the end of a remarkable bi-cultural product of a more culturally eclectic era and remained silent about his demise rather than write a few words…

 


I don’t remember exactly when the Tamil version followed. But I remember that the bi-lingual version sung by Clarence and Manoharan became a hit over SLBC radio waves soon after. Vernon Corea was a big fan of Clarence and he aired the Sinhala version on the SLBC English Commercial Service, and in 1976 on his BBC radio programme London Sounds Eastern.


He may have aired the bi-lingual version, too, though I can’t vouch for that.

 


Soothing voice
This bi-lingual version occupies a unique place in our music. It’s not known whose idea it was. Whether Clarence thought about it and spoke to Manoharan, and vice versa, or if it was the latter’s idea, or if Gerald Wickremasooriya, innovative businessman and owner of Sooriya Records, saw the potential and got them to it.


No matter whose idea it was, the result is one of the most innovative and moving pop songs ever produced here. Manoharan’s mellifluous, soothing voice is a perfect match for Clarence’s more sonorous and strident baritone.


When I tried to contact him in the 1990s, Manoharan was working for the BBC’s Tamil service in London. I continuously tried during the past decade, but he was always away in India. It’s from secondary sources that I learned that he was a prolific actor in South Indian films.


He started his acting career in Sri Lanka, having been spotted by Joe Dev Anand, but achieved much greater success in India. He is said to have acted in over 200 films, and his co-stars have included Kamal Haasan, Rajnikanth and N.T. Rama Rao.


He has reportedly said that his success as a 70s pop singer in Sri Lanka is derived at least partly from his fluency in Sinhala.


Born in Bogawantalawa, he was taught Sinhala and Pali by his father, a school Principal. The family was musical. While Manoharan sang as a child in a church choir led by his mother, his father played the organ.


Gerald Wickremasooriya spotted the ebullient young singer’s talent and invited him to sing a new version of Wally Bastian’s baila hit ‘Surangani,’ to which he owned the copyright.


This was followed by Tamil versions of other baila hits such as ‘Hai Hooi Babi Aachchige.”
Manoharan with his excellent command of Sinhala may have translated the songs himself, though much research needs to be done to unearth this fascinating musical history.

 

He was born in 1945, three years before the Independence. His formative years were in a cultural setting still steeped in the colonial legacy. 

 

 


Tolerant individual
In the 1970s, he was employed as a radio drama producer for the SLBC and lived in Colombo.
Though the embers of ethnic strife which openly erupted into civil war and race riots in the early 80s were simmering underneath, the career of Manoharan in the 1970s offers us a fascinating example of culturally more tolerant, hence more productive, socio-political milieu able to bridge the racial divide.
Rukmani Devi has been cited as another example, but let’s not forget that the masses thought of her as Sinhalese.


She underwent a cultural and racial metamorphosis as an iconic heartthrob of the Sinhala cinema, and as a singer. While everyone knows her ‘Mevila Penevi Rupe’ or ‘Malbara Himidiriye,’ it is hard to think of a Tamil song sung by Rukmani.


Even her name, Daisy Daniels, doesn’t sound half as bad as say, Thangamma or Saundarie.


But Anthonypillai Emmanuel Manoharan was always Manoharan. He became a pop icon in the 70s for both Sinhala and Tamil pop fans, but he didn’t become a Sinhalese by cultural osmosis.


In South India, he was known as Ceylon Manohar. He sang his successful version of Surangani in Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and Malayalam. 


Its impact in India can be gauged by this – when Sri Lankan-born Indian violin prodigy L. Subramaniam performed at the BMICH recently, the Sinhala song sung by his daughter and granddaughter was Surangani.

 


Best of both worlds
Manoharan’s repertoire included more than 500 pop songs.


Manoharan was finally able to have the best of both worlds, as a pop star and broadcaster in Sri Lanka, and as an actor in India. But the credit for that goes to a unique time frame in our history.
He was born in 1945, three years before the Independence. His formative years were in a cultural setting still steeped in the colonial legacy. Despite all that one may say about British colonialism, its imperial and racial arrogance as well as exploitation (and one can say quite a bit), one cannot deny the element of cultural tolerance and moderation it left behind.


It is this sense of moderation which led to the bi-lingual version Kanda Surinduni. It is hard to imagine a song of this sort becoming popular today, and being promoted by our dime-a-dozen FM radio stations.


Let alone a new venture in racial harmony, I have not heard the old song aired by a single station, Sinhala or Tamil, in many years. Is this collective cultural amnesia?


Whenever I listen to Mal Muruga Yezhil now, I am terribly saddened by a sense of something precious lost forever.


But one can’t help reflecting that Manoharan’s success here in the 70s owes much to the absence of television. Relatively few Sinhalese fans saw him at concerts.


It is his voice that they knew. If the image too, comes up every time one hears the song, the subconscious feeling that it is being sung by a Tamil works like poison into the mind.


Today, with the ubiquitous television, social media images and videos, artistes are seen by many as Sinhalese and Tamils first, and as singers and artistes second.


This is the reason why we have never been able to have a truly national cinema. We have a Sinhala cinema and its poor cousin, a Tamil cinema. No Tamil actor has ever become an icon of the Sinhala cinema. Even an intellectual film like Welikathara, mostly happening in the north, has Tamil actors only for the minor parts.


In Hollywood, despite a deep racial divide in the US, both black and white actors are successful. One can’t argue it is because they both speak the same language.


African-American English is distinct and you don’t find white actors strutting across the screen in balaclavas, shouting ‘yo man.’


Manoharan acted in South Indian cinema rather than in Sinhala films because of that racial divide. If anyone says that isn’t true, the answer to that is ‘yo.’