The story of a song, an uncle, and a niece

Published : 9:00 am  March 29, 2018 | No comments so far |  |  (225) reads | 

Ganga Addara, as those who’ve seen the film and the later, rather crassly made television remake would know, popularised Vijaya Kumaratunga through the titular song (performed, though never with the same intensity and sense of conviction, by other young vocalists). But there’s another tune, slotted in at the beginning of the film while the opening credits are rolling on. Sumitra Peries and the film’s producers, the Sumathipala family (Milina Sumathipala), had taken in Maurice Dahanayake’s son, Channa, and one of the Sumathipala daughters, Shalini, to act as the juvenile versions of the two protagonists and lovers in the story, played as adults by Vasanthi Chathurani and Sanath Gunathilake. The opening credits sequence really has no bearing on the larger narrative, but was used as a means of portraying the young innocence of the love that turns our heroine, Nirmala (Vasanthi) insane and in the end forces her to commit suicide.  

This opening tune was, as with Nimal Mendis’ other works, written in English, and while it didn’t make sense, it was not intended to be an overtly serious song either. The chorus, Victor and Nirasha remember for me, ran on like this:  

Tralalalala you…  
Tralalalala me….  
Tralalalala sing together…  
Tralalalala we…  
As for the second verse:  
Swim like a fish…  
Fly like a bird…  
Be happy, little boy, little girl…  
No time to feel sad…  
My lass, my lad…  
Love is a wonderful thing….  

(Victor and Nirasha argue over the last line: the latter informs me that it was actually “Love is a magical word…” In any case, it doesn’t really matter.)  

Nimal Mendis, as I mentioned before, wrote in English. To translate it into Sinhala, he got a Tamil gentleman from Panadura: Augustus Vinayagaratnam, who had already worked with Nimal for “Ganga Addara” (the titular song) and, earlier, “Upul Nuwan” (featured in Lester James Peries’ Ahasin Polawata, which also featured Vijaya and Vasanthi and which also was produced by the Sumathipalas). In the end, Augustus, rising up to the occasion, met the primary challenge this entailed: keep to the spirit of the original while communicating it to the vernacular audience. If “Tralalalala You” was meant to be so innocent, so jovial, that it was born (in one sense) to be sung as a carefree interlude, then Augustus delivered on the brief he was given. Nimal, obviously, was happy.  

On March 31, 1978, Nirasha and Victor went off to a studio near the Archbishop’s House in Borella. They had met about twice or thrice, before, at Mendis’ residence, an annex off Jawatta Road. At the time Nirasha would have been 12, Victor about 30. “Mind you, we hadn’t recorded a song like this before. Not even Uncle Victor!” Nirasha remembers, with a gleam in her eye.  

And to top it all, the song they were recording had to be recorded with some schoolchildren from Sangamitta Balika Vidyalaya in Borella. “They would have all been primary schoolgirls, from Grade Four or Six. I was taken to one studio with Uncle Victor, and I put on an earphone. The other girls didn’t. What they sang, they had to sing with all the gusto they could bring out. It was really and truly a raw, unfiltered, unprofessional, and yes, innocent song. ‘Cherubic’ in the best sense of that word. In fact I don’t think it was meant to be recorded as a serious tune. None of us had voices which had been polished or refined. Nimal wanted that kind of tune, that kind of recording. But there was a problem. No matter how hard we tried, the girls couldn’t muster up the gusto he needed.”  

At the studio there had been Mendis as the composer, Augustus as the lyricist, and Sarath Fernando as the orchestrator. All three of them tried to uplift the girls’ spirits, to no avail. “I remember Uncle Sarath making faces at them, trying to keep them amused. We obviously needed to make them feel the song they sang. So Nimal hit on a solution. He asked me to sing the first line of the first verse, and when it was sung again by the girls, to take a step back from the microphone and sing it with the rest of the girls. That way my voice would blend in with theirs and at the same time I wouldn’t stand out from them. I remember him telling Uncle Victor also to step away from the mike. It was a risk we all had to take. And at the end of the day, it was a risk that paid off. Handsomely.”  

If took all of five or six takes for Nimal Mendis to get what he wanted, and the end result was to his liking. It was, as Nirasha so aptly puts it to me, a very unprofessional song, one that ran along and flowed along succinctly to the tenor of a group of children who probably weren’t aware of what they were doing. Incidentally Augustus’s lyrics reflected this, so well that they retain the rawness of Nimal’s composition. As for the song, well, here are some of the lyrics:  

The name of the tune? “Ran Tikiri Sina.”  

The story of “Ran Tikiri Sina” doesn’t end here though. The afterword it compels can be, in Nirasha’s and Victor’s own words, be summed up as follows: despite the producers and the composer, it was sadly and ultimately hijacked and, if I may use that term, appropriated by more established players who, ironically, missed out on one quality of the tune that the two original vocalists had not: the sense of innocence that no polished voice could convey or do justice to. “In hindsight I think it was erroneous on the part of these vocalists to choose ‘Ran Tikiri Sina.’ Not because we sang it originally, but because it wasn’t meant to be sung in a professional, suave way. It needed to retain a welter of joviality. That’s what Nimal Mendis got with the original recording, that’s what was never replicated elsewhere. Moreover, we had a saving grace in the form of the children who performed it with us. We had one reply to give audiences: ‘If the recording you hear doesn’t have a children’s ensemble, then it isn’t ours!’”  

There was another saving grace. Hudson Samarasinghe, then at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), got hold of the story behind “Ran Tikiri Sina”

There was another saving grace. Hudson Samarasinghe, then at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), got hold of the story behind “Ran Tikiri Sina”. He thought for some days, paid a visit to the Sumathipalas, procured an original spool of the tune, returned to the SLBC, and got it recorded there. “As long as I’m in this division, I won’t let another version of this song be broadcast,” he is reported to have told Victor, who recounts this to me this rather happily. “Hudson saved us. We would have wasted away, particularly since we gave up our musical careers afterwards, if not for him.” More was to come, happily.  

20 years after Ganga Addara was released, that is in 1999, the Sumathipalas held a felicitation ceremony involving everyone who had been a part of the film, from Sumitra Peries to Tissa Abeysekara (the scriptwriter) to Donald Karunaratne (the cameraman) to of course Nirasha and Victor. When the awards were duly handed over, to the two of them, and the acknowledgement read out in public, the journalists and media men and women present at the occasion were rather astonished. “For over a decade they had associated ‘Ran Tikiri Sina’ with another set of vocalists. They were astounded to realise that we were the original performers. Not long afterwards, we got requests for interviews, and we were thenceforth featured in several newspapers which carried such telling headlines as ‘Ran Tikiri Sina smiles again.” To top it all, Chandimal Fernando, who too had performed the tune, though not for commercial purposes, called the two of them to sing it with him onstage: “The first time we sang it onstage, to be honest.”  

I met Victor Silva and Nirasha Perera at their residence in Rosmead Place the other day and I was happy, relieved almost, that 40 years have passed. 40 years, that is, since the recording of the song this article is about, specifically 40 years to March 31. A lot has happened. Some of it needn’t be recounted, others have been recounted. By me and by everyone else. In the meantime, all we can say, looking at these two gentle people and perusing the lyrics of the tune they hummed, is what someone once said of music in general: “It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”  

I first heard “Ran Tikiri Sina” on air from the lips of other established singers. Watching Ganga Addara made me realise that such songs are appropriated by those who piggy bank on the successes they encounter, whether at the hands of critics or of popular audiences. Victor and Nirasha have much to be happy about in that respect, I think. For now and forever. So thank you. For now and forever.