What connects music composer M.S. Viswanathan to a group of Sinhalese people shaking a leg at a weekend party? An all-time hit Sinhala song that was inspired by his rustic 1970s composition ‘Ennadi rakkamma pallakku nelippu’.
No celebration or gathering is complete without the Sinhala super-hit ‘Mama gannami karakara bandala’, set to the same tune. Similarly, Ilaiyaraaja’s ‘Machanai paartheengala’ has a popular Sinhala counterpart ‘Sudu asu pita nagala’, widely performed in stage shows and heard in parties.
A forgotten connection
“While there is more awareness about the influence of Hindi film music on Sinhala music, the linkages between south India and our art forms is less known,” said Vishnu Vasu, a senior radio producer and presenter. He is currently curating a show called ‘Naada Sittam’ for the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcast Corporation that was once Radio Ceylon.
“Our aim in this show is to talk about the artistic links shared between south India and southern Sri Lanka — a connection that was somewhat lost through the years of war,” said Mr. Vasu. Sinhala film music of the 1950s and 1960s drew upon Tamil film music from across the Palk Strait, with its classical flavour intact, he noted. In a recent episode, Mr. Vasu pointed to how M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavadhar’s hit ‘Deena karunakarane Nataraja’, tuned by Papanasam Sivam in 1939, influenced ‘Raja sangabo hisa dee’ a much-loved Sinhala song, composed and sung respectively by Sri Lankan artistes U.D. Perera and A.R.M. Ibrahim.
“We speak of reconciliation in the political sphere or in constitutional terms. But there is a lot that connects our people culturally, both within the country and in the region. Exploring these links in the show is an attempt to speak to the hearts and minds of our people,” said Sudarshana Gunawardhana, Director General of the Government Information Department.
The programme highlights exchanges from the past, such as celebrated Carnatic Musician Maharajapuram Santhanam’s stint at the Ramanathan College in Jaffna. “How could you speak of Sri Lankan art forms without talking about giants like the Thavil maestro Yazhpanam Dakshinamurthy Pillai, who also made a mark in India?” Mr. Vasu asked.
“What about the parai melam tradition from the island’s north and east? It is unfortunate that the decades of war created a distance and a bias,” he added.
To him, it is important for Sri Lankans to shed the “insular, island mentality” and acknowledge the sources of inspiration. “Nothing in art is original anyway. This reluctance to talk about where our ideas came from must go.”
The environment for such a shift seems conducive now, for even the historic language-linked barriers are becoming less stifling with some help from technology, according to film buffs. Increasingly, Sinhalese youth are drawn to films made in south India.
Though Hindi stars such as Shahrukh Khan have a huge following here, some Sri Lankans find south Indian films – especially those made in Tamil and Malayalam – culturally closer. After years of watching Tamil films, journalist and writer Pathum Punchihewa can now manage without subtitles. “I have slowly picked up enough vocabulary to follow, and all this was mainly by watching Tamil films.” An ardent fan of actor Vikram, he is eagerly awaiting Saamy 2. “It was after watching Anniyan and Pithamagan that I became such a fan.” He also follows the work of Mani Ratnam and A.R. Rahman closely. “I make it a point to watch every film that has their names.”
Love for Malalayalm films
The last few years have also seen a growing fan club for Malayalam cinema. A Facebook group connects over 4,000 fans of Malayalam movies in Sri Lanka. It was on that page that Haresh Eranga found out about Dileesh Pothan’s Maheshinte Prathikaaram and Thondimuthalum Dhriksakshiyum.
“I love how Malayalam cinema is challenging mainstream Indian cinema and its formula of a few songs and a couple of action sequences. Also, the Malayalis and Sinhalese have a lot in common — how we look, speak, eat. There’s a connection,” said Mr. Eranga, a public sector employee in Colombo. Dharmayuddhaya, the Sinhala remake blockbuster Drishyam, drew fairly good crowds at the cinemas.
The Facebook group doesn’t stop with just Malayalam cinema. “It gives me glimpses into their culture and life. Discussions in that group have also led me to new Tamil actors. I have now become a fan of Vijay Sethupathi and Guru Somasundaram. They are fantastic!” said Mr. Eranga.