Reviewed by Jagath C Savanadasa
By any account, Piyadasa Sirisena, who died 76 years ago, is a legend. He literally entered history of this country through his many faceted services to the nation.To recapture the life and times of such a personality is no easy task. But now, for the first time, a rich and illuminating biography of this great cultural figure has been published. The book is a veritable literary tome of 960 pages and exposes the reader to a vast range of information – so much so that it may overwhelm him. Our thanks should unreservedly go to Dr. B.D. Y. Vidyatilleke, a Medical Specialist, who out of sheer admiration of the services rendered by Piyadasa Sirisena, undertook this task.
Retrieval of old prints
Retrieval of old prints relating to publications issued by Sirisena or those connected to him is not easy. They are a century old archival prints long ‘buried’, that cannot be unearthed easily. It is commendable that this had been done. But it would have been arduous and time consuming.
A brief insight into the revivalist era
The biography delves deep into the beginnings of the Buddhist revival in the midst of Anti-Buddhist campaigns conducted since 1850s or around that time by the Catholic Church. It was part of an overall colonial strategy that was pursued with telling effect by the rulers – to divide the people in the colonies. The most glaring of it is the intractable division brought about in the Indian sub-continent in 1946/47.
The social climate as a consequence in Ceylon was depressing for the mass of the Buddhist population in the Maritime Provinces. The masses for centuries had laid absolute faith in Buddhism until foreign invasions, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British had attempted to destroy their faith.
But throughout the colonial history there had emerged resistance to such religious and cultural incursions. Invariably it was the Buddhist clergy who were at the helm of the struggle to restore the religion.
One of the frequent canards that the Catholic Church tried to spread at times through printed material was that Buddhism was apocryphal and mythical. The endeavour on the part of the Church which was an agent of the Colonial regime was to create doubt in the minds of the people about the religion.
Panadura Wadaya- 1873
Such campaigns were challenged by the Buddhist clergy at a historic debate in 1873. It was Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera and Hikkaduwe Sumangala Thera who brought to light the truth about Buddhism. The achievement of the two Priests, laid the foundation for the restoration of Buddhism. It was a moral uplift and enlivened the spirits of Buddhists in the South of the country.
The biography includes details of the history making debate and its far-reaching consequences. On learning about the debate and impressed by the portrayal of the facts pertaining to Buddhism, a U.S. based theosophist Henry Steel Olcott came over to Ceylon. It was he who in due course set about establishing Buddhist Schools. Following these developments, the book on Sirisena, records the role of Anagarika Dharmapala in the revivalist saga.
Dharmapala pioneered Buddhist resurgence. He campaigned island wide against foreign influences. The history of this island perhaps never had a greater crusader than Dharmapala in the resurgence of Buddhism and nationalism.
Advent of Piyadasa Sirisena
The biography provides extensive coverage into the above mentioned history. Getting on to Sirisena, this writer is of the view that the arrival of Sirisena at the heart of the national revival, (Maradana)should be considered a landmark.
Undoubtedly he was a reformist par excellence and his influence on the mass of the Buddhist people during the early to mid 1900 was profound. Of course as Prof. Wimal Dissanayake once commented one of Sririsena’s greatest contributions to this country was the creation of the habit of reading among the literate Sinhalese
Sirisena a towering litterateur
The biography explores Sirisena’s career as a novelist, newspaper publisher and editor. The first novel Sirisena serialized in Sarasavi Sandaresa in early 1900’s gave him precedence over other novelists of the time. Thus he was the pioneer in the sphere.
“Rossalyn and Jayatissa or the Happy Marriage” was according to quite a number of eminent critics on literature, a path finding novel. It brought about a paradigm shift in the thinking of the Sinhala masses. This novel was reprinted 25 times in a decade. 25,000 copies of it were sold during this period. This made Sirisena lead the way as a novelist in that early era.
He followed up this astounding initial success of his, with 20 other novels which too reached the heights of popularity among Sinhala readers. Sirisena a bold and enterprising individual also pioneered writing detective stories. He published six such books. Though the biography does not specifically say , this writer feels that Sirisena may have been influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s, world renowned detective Sherlock Holmes which captured the reader’s imagination.
Sirisena’s first detective story “Dingiri Menika a splendidly constructed romance between two socially unequal parties, was an outstanding success. It could also rightly be called a tear-jerker. In this book Sirisena had given the reader some of the most beautiful poetic creations of his illustrious career.
The biography has sumarized all the novels, which would have entailed hard work.
Quite contrary to the success that Sirisena achieved as a novelist, the picture as regards his life as a newspaper Editor and Publisher was different. Though Sirisena achieved national fame as a newspaper Editor publishing “Sinhala Jathiya” was different to writing novels.
Sirisena encountered financial difficulties and there were times when the publication of the newspaper was stopped. However throughout those years the newspaper was known for its forthright opinion. Sirisena was anti-imperialistic and did not mince his words in face of misdeeds, abusive power and exploitation of the Colonial government.
Sirisena was a great admirer of Indian leaders like Mahathma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and others who waged a relentless campaign against the British regime. “Sinhala Jathiya” quite often published details of India’s freedom struggle.
Ties with other national leaders
Since early times, Piyadasa Sirisena formed close friendships with other national leaders like D.SSenanayake, Sir D B Jayathilleke, the Hewavitharanas, Arthur V Dias and a host of other prominent personalities. Towards the 1920’s, the political leadership of the country made demands for self government and freedom from Colonial Rule. Sirisena was supportive of such developments. He utilized the newspaper to highlight them and this led to the British being alert and vary about “Sinhala Jathiya” .
D.S. Senanayake – Sirisena nexus
The biography which refers to the Senanayake-Sirisena ties at length has included a rare photograph of a young Sirisena seated along with the Senanayake family at the latter’s ancestral residence “Bothale Walawwa”. Also an autographed picture of D S Senanayake reproduced from “Senani”, Nawinna, Sirisena’s last residence together with an autographed picture of Colonel T D Jayawardene, President J R Jayawardene’s maternal uncle. When Jayawardena as Chief Guest unveiled the Sirisena statue in May 1979 at Maradana, before a huge crowd, he said that Piyadasa Sirisena was a close friend of his family and in fact it was he who induced him to take to politics.
The biography brings to readers view other features in Sirisena’s life which should rightly fall under the history of the country. Among them were the Temperance Movement of which Sirisena was a key participant, the Sinhala – Muslim riots which rocked the country. It led to British over-reaction through the imposition of Marshal Law and the arrest of Buddhist leaders like D S Senanayake, F R Senanayake, the Hewavitharana brothers, Sir D B Jayatilleke, Arthur V Dias and Sirisena himself. The charges against them were proved baseless and they were released within two weeks.
However Piyadasa Sirisena had to face a Trial-at-bar for sedition which under the Marshal Law was punishable with death. The bench of three judges who heard the case were Englishmen. It is important to remember this was in 1915 when the Colonial regime was all powerful. Human considerations justice and fair play were swept aside with impunity.
But this grim episode has another side. This is besides the excellent biography and related herein out of general interest.
Origin of Sedition
Sedition was first introduced and entered the Penal Code in England during Elizabethan times. And it was on the basis of a “notion of inciting by words or writing disaffection towards the state or constituted authority’.
It entered the Indian Penal Code, firstly as a crime just short of treason in order to ostensibly forestall an incipient Wahabi plot against the government. This was in 1870’s when India was deep under British Rule. This law harassed those who opposed the colonial government no end. It once led to the arrest and conviction of two of India’s greatest patriots Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadar Tilak.
Sirisena anti-colonial to the core had in an Editorial in “Sinhala Jathiya” (when the Sinhala Muslim riots were brewing) had urged the people to rise against the government if the sacred and old right of using the route traversed by the Dalada Perahera was changed on the orders of the government.
A Ceylonese parallel to India
However the trial at Bar failed to prove the sedition charge. Perhaps due to the great defence put up by Ceylonese lawyers and evidence of Mrs.Cecilia Sirisena his wife who had defended her husband stoutly for three days.
Sirisena never seemed affected the least by the seemingly imminent death penalty he faced. This story was revealed by Sirisena’s grandson Lakshman Sirisena a leading lawyer one time in the South. He was not even born when the events took place, but this sensational case was revealed to him by his father W A C Sirisena, Crown Proctor, Balapitiya between 1956 to 1961)and Acting District Judge (at times).
In free India, the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had said in 1950 “as far as I am concerned that particular section of the constitution 124A (PC) on sedition is highly objectionable and obnoxious. It should have no place for both practical and historical reasons if you like, in any body of laws we might pass. The sooner we get rid of it the better”.(But this law yet remains in the Indian Penal Code)
Sirisena – other notable features of life
•Piyadasa Sirisena’s role in changing history
This nugget of priceless value was highlighted by Chaminda Welegedera leading Sinhala novelist in a thesis for his Masters degree titled “The role of leading opinion builder in the Colonial era-Piyadasa Sirisena”. This relates to how D S Senanayake sought Sirisena’s help to obtain a single floating vote in the State Council so as to become the Chairman of the Agricultural Committee of the Colonial Government which was just a step before being the Minister of Agriculture. That induced Sirisena, to request C. Gordon , the English member of the Colonial Government for Haputale to cast that vital vote for Senanayake .
History records as to the way in which D S Senanayake transformed Rajarata through agricultural development .That takes your mind back to the era of King Parakrama Bahu the great. This development had prompted the British rulers to call Senanayake the reincarnation of King Parakrama Bahu. This whole episode is yet another valuable reference in the biography.
Sirisena’s work as a Poet
The biography also refers to Sirisena’s skill in poetry. Most of his novels have poetry and he has also included poetry in his newspapers. This shows yet another dimension of his talent and skill. But Sirisena was planning to publish a thousand verse poetic tribute on the construction of Ruwanweli Seya the monumental Buddhist Dagoba in Anuradhapura. However owing to persistent illness that plagued him during his last years, he was able to complete only 700 verses.
On the other hand, one of Sirisena’s noblest deeds was the funds he collected through an appeal launched in the 1930’s to help restore the Ruwanweli Seya which had been damaged by the vagaries of weather for centuries. Many an old Buddhist family helped him in the noble task.
In his newspaper, Sirisena had also featured both happy and sad events that occurred in his family. Among the happy events were the marriages of his children all conforming to the traditions of those distant times and to the tie-ups with either prominent or wealthy families. The reports on such marriages gave details of the eminent persons who attended these functions.
Finally, during the Second World War the Sirisena family was relocated in Nawinna to avoid the Japanese bombing of Colombo. He transferred the management of the Sinhala Jathiya Press Ltd. to a prominent group of people, since he was unable to work any longer due to his illness. However, at the helm of the ownership of his Company was his youngest son A.P. Sirisena.
Piyadasa Sirisena passes away
On 22nd May 1946 Piyadasa Sirisena died after surgery at the Central Hospital Colombo 07. He was 71 years at the time of his death. He had lived the last few years in peace in a spacious new house in verdant Nawinna in the midst of a half acre garden which was a veritable orchard.
The funeral was held two days later at Kanatte Borella amidst a large gathering of mourners, including the nation’s leaders. Future Prime Ministers D S Senanayake, S W R D Bandaranaike were the main pall bearers. The biography records that long after he passed away tributes continued to be published in the national press and has been reprinted in the biography. The main funeral oration delivered by D.S. Senanayake made extensive reference to Piyadasa Sirisena’s enduring contribution in diverse directions to this country. Senanayake added “Sirisena, a great patriot had died when the gates of freedom for which he fought valiantly, were close at hand.’
The writer is a Senior Chamber of Commerce official and a former Economic Advisor to a Federated body of Chambers. He is also Honorary Secretary of the Piyadasa Sirisena Commemoration Society.
(The book Piyadasa Sirisena Vimarshana is available at Sarasavi Printers and publishers ,Nugegoda and other branches island wide.)
A legend who rewrote Sri Lankan history: Eulogy for Dr. Deraniyagala
By Tharindu Muthukumarana
(Tharindu Muthukumarana Author of the award-winning book “The Life of Last Proboscideans: Elephants” email@example.com)
On Tuesday, 05 October, 2021, as the sun rose above the horizon it may have felt like a usual day in Sri Lanka. But the morning broke a tragic news as it gloomed the nation and it left a deep void in the field of archeology. It was for none other than to the demise of Dr. Siran Upendra Deraniyagala.Anyone who has an interest in the history of Sri Lanka doesn’t need an introduction to Deraniyagala and his service. I find him, that rather than investing his energy on archaeology he invested his soul. This set an example for every human to work hard with integrity on what you had embarked on.
Budding of an archaeologist along with his father
When thinking about Paleoanthropology in Africa the renowned Leakey family comes to our head where the parents and their children had done remarkable research in that criterion. If that so, in Asia it would be the Deraniyagala lineage that had the astounding research on Paleoanthropology.
On 1st March,1942, Siran Deraniyagala was born in Ratnapura as the third son of parents, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala and Prini Molamure. His grandfather was Sir Paul Edward Pieris Deraniyagala alias, Sir Paul E. Pieris who served as a District Judge in Matara, Kegalle, Kandy and Kalutara. Though Sir Pieris was professionally linked to the legal field, he had a passion on doing research on 16th -19th century history in Sri Lanka and made notable publications related to those. His work was well reputed that he received various awards and honours from western countries including the Knight Bachelor on Queen’s Birthday Honours 1952.
Siran’s father, Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala was a zoologist who also specialied in paleontology. After the brief discoveries in 19th -20th century on paleolithic remains by Paul Sarasin, Fritz Sarasin, Charles Hartley and Edward James Wayland, it was Dr. P.E.P Deraniyagala that did intense research on the paleontology of Sri Lanka. It was his research that opened the door to the prehistoric chapter in Sri Lanka. Young Siran used to accommodate on his father’s research expeditions which inspired the youngster to follow his father’s footsteps.
As a passionate youth after completing his education at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, he was admitted to the University of Cambridge, where he obtained a BA and MA in Architecture and Sanskrit. He completed a postgraduate diploma at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London. He passed with distinction and was awarded the Gordon Childe Prize.
Sri Lankan statesman the late. Lakshman Kadirgamar once said in his speech at the Oxford Union, describing himself, that “Oxford was the icing on the cake… but the cake was backed at home”- referring to Sri Lanka. I think this quote also applies to Deraniyagala as well, since his first experience with archeology is linked with his father’s expeditions prior to university education.
Embarking on great expeditions
Deraniyagala joined the Archaeological Department in 1968 as Assistant Commissioner in charge of excavations. His functioning in the latter capacity was primarily research-oriented with emphasis on Sri Lanka’s prehistoric period (beyond 1000 BC) while pioneering in its protohistoric (1000-500 BC) and early historic (500 BC-300 AD) archaeology as well. The substance of his contribution to knowledge is set out in the abstract to his PhD at Harvard University in 1988. Doctoral dissertation was based on his research excavation in ancient shore dunes at Iranamadu Formation which trace back to more than 130,000 years ago. The thesis has been hailed as a landmark in the archeology of South Asia, and it has transformed Sri Lankan prehistoric studies. In later time he was awarded with honoris causa doctorates from Sabaragamuwa and Peradeniya Universities.
He was well known for research on Anuradhapura citadel and at Fa Hien cave. Deraniyagala’s work continued as Adviser in Research Excavtions (1983-92) and as Deputy Director-General and the Director-General (1992-2001) to Archaeological Department. Deraniyagala’s position as the Director General marked a milestone in the Archeology Department, which it was the only time where father and son had served that position. Even after retirement Deraniyagala never gave up his work-related to archeology; instead, he did continue and at most time he had a busy schedule.
Over his lifetime, he had been awarded with many local and international awards. On 7th September 2020 the Department of Archaeology opened its research and teaching museum named after Siran Deraniyagala.
Transparency on research
Research involves molding facts out of observations. It is a common thing that some facts that are composed get subjected to criticism. This could be due to various reasons. In 1988 Deraniyagala found potsherds belonging to 600-500 BC with Brahmi inscriptions. Many foreign experts did not believe it because it was known at that time Brahmi inscriptions were absent before the Asokan period (268-232 BC). Deraniyagala invited experts from Cambridge University to come and study the excavation site to check whether he was wrong. As those foreign experts came and researched on that site, even they later agreed on Deraniyagala’s theory. Similar incident happened at Kuruwita Batatotalena Cave excavation by Deraniyagala.
These events signify Lord Buddha’s quote: “Be your own lamp, seek no other refuge but yourself, let truth be your light”.
Farewell of the legend
It is eye-opening to notice that just one day after the 49th death anniversary (October 4th) of Prof. Senarath Paranavithana, Dr. Siran Deraniyagala passed away. He was 79 years old at the time. His funeral was held at his residence “Ekneligoda Walauwwa” on 10/6/2021. The President’s condolence message was read by the Governor of Sabaragamuwa Province Tikiri Kobbekaduwa.
Initially Sri Lankans were mostly proud of their 2,500 years old history but thanks to Siran Deraniyagala and his father a 38,000 years old history got unveiled.
Dr. Siran Deraniyagala, Sir may you attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!
Cops, criminals, and cultural contours
By Uditha Devapriya
In Michael Mann’s Heat, one of the best heist thrillers ever made, the protagonist is a cop called Hanna, played by Al Pacino. The other character, a thief called McCauley, is played by Robert de Niro. Hanna and McCauley meet for the first time at the end of the first half of the movie. Hanna, who works for the LAPD, has been investigating a series of high-profile crimes for days. He guesses McCauley is the culprit, but has no real proof.
Convinced that he is the man they are looking for, Hanna tails him one night and gets him to pull over. Instead of arresting him, though, he offers to buy McCauley coffee. They then go over to a diner, where the two of them sit in front of each other.
What unfolds thereafter is not a conversation, but a charade. The detective and the thief start talking at cross-purposes. Weary, numbed, and tempered by the weight of their work, they engage in casual banter. Like countless conversations from a Jean-Luc Godard film, this doesn’t make sense; they ramble on and on, and then suddenly stop.
It is when we step back and reflect on these two that we realise what the scene is trying to tell us: the detective has come to a point in his career where he depends on the thieves he tails. It’s the same story with the other guy: he’s been involved in so many crimes that he’s almost relieved to talk to a man of the law. Their meeting is thus marked out less by hostility than by empathy. It’s a meeting of the minds.
The face-off is intriguing to me because it reminds me of a similar conversation from a film made 25 years earlier, in Sri Lanka. D. B. Nihalsinghe’s Welikathara also pits a police-officer against a criminal, this time a drug kingpin. In the scene I am talking about, that officer, like Al Pacino’s detective, encounters the kingpin in full form at his office. By this point each of them has realised what the other wants: like the lawyer and his ex-client in Cape Fear, each knows only too well that the other is seeking the upper hand.
The sequence at the police station establishes this relationship. As one salty witticism gives way to another, we sense the revulsion underlying the conversation; the two are talking at cross-purposes, only barely concealing their contempt for each other.
Yet while the scene serves a different function from the diner episode in Heat – whereas the latter sequence shows how dependent the cop has become on the thief, here it reveals the hostility between the two men – it stands out almost like the other does. That has much to do, I think, with the acting: neither Al Pacino nor Robert de Niro had made much of a name for themselves when Welikathara came out, but seeing Gamini Fonseka play the cop and Joe Abeywickrama the criminal, you do tend to compare. To make such a comparison is to acknowledge that Welikathara represented a high point for our cinema.
may well be the most Americanised Sinhala film ever made. Whereas most Sinhala films had been distinctly continental until then, hardly any director had ventured into Hollywood territory. What makes Nihalsinghe’s film fascinating, in that sense, is how far he conceived its story along the lines of a typical American thriller.
My interest in the movie as a critic, however, has less to do with its cinematic merit than the spotlight it throws on an era when such cosmopolitan objets d’art were more the norm than the exception. Since this year marks the 50th anniversary of Nihalsinghe’s film, I felt it apt to ponder why, from achieving such heights then, we have slid down so badly now.
Perhaps it’s best that we restate the problem: how could the kind of acting exemplified in a movie like Heat become the norm there today, whereas the sort exemplified in Welikathara has turned out to be the dismal exception here? I am not just suggesting that our art forms have deteriorated in quality – though this is exactly what has happened – but that there are many reasons that can explain such a decline. Where have our arts gone? Why hasn’t it still realised its potential? What can revive it? Who can revive it?
The importance of these questions cannot be emphasised enough. A society’s popular culture is a fairly accurate gauge of its intellectual achievements. It is true that this remains a function of economic position; hence rich countries have more potential for high cultural achievements, whereas poorer countries do not. Yet that is not necessarily the case all the time: the Indian film industry, to give one example, is considerably more diverse, and much richer, than its counterparts in countries like Singapore.
India is a case in point for the view that the greater the size of the population, the more sophisticated a country’s popular culture will be. But that also is not always the case: as the recent resurgence in African cinema shows, a big population does not in itself contribute to the upliftment of a culture to the exclusion of more pertinent factors.
This is not to say that issues of economic development or population are secondary to those other factors. Affluent countries can afford superior works of art, while poorer countries (of which India is a prime example) are able to do so with a public that patronises commercial works of art, which helps subsidise more serious ventures. In that sense, the US enjoys the twin advantage of a powerful economy and a large audience.
But to acknowledge these points is not to deny the relevance of other reasons for the growth or decline of artistic standards. In Sri Lanka’s case, any attempt at diagnosing the problems of its culture must hence start from an appraisal of the post-1980 decline in the arts: a phenomenon reducible to neither economics nor demographics.
Three schools of thought have attempted to explain this decline. The first school views 1956 as the reason: by empowering everyone to enter our schools and universities, so their logic goes, cultural and artistic standards were compromised. That is another way of saying that if schools and universities remained shut to poorer classes, those standards would have been protected and fostered by an elite minority.
The second school argues that with the advent of economic liberalisation in 1978, the government’s hold over artistic quality was loosened, thereby debasing cultural yardsticks, transforming lowbrow into middlebrow art, and raising the latter to the status of highbrow art. To invert Marx’s dictum, what was once profane now became sacred.
I personally think this argument holds more water than the first – not least because the first school tries to frame 1956 as avoidable, which it was not, and fails to distinguish between its progressive and regressive aspects, which should not be done – but it does not explain a point the third school dwells on: the debasement of our education system because of, and paradoxically in spite of, various reforms enacted after 1956.
This is where the line between the progressive and regressive aspects of what transpired that year must be drawn: though there was a need to democratise schools and universities and they were democratised, barring crucial reforms in the second Sirimavo Bandaranaike government (pioneered by a set of brilliant educationists and scholars like Neil Kuruppu and Douglas Walatara) no attempts were made to maintain quality in them.
The results are there for all to see today: while certain schools and universities produce better thinkers than others, one does not come across such thinkers as often as one would want. That these trends have spilled over to the performing arts is a no-brainer: we don’t produce original artists too often either. “Manike Mage Hithe” offers the promise of what Sri Lanka’s popular culture should be, but such ventures are rare.
The third school consolidates the arguments of the first and the second: it acknowledges concerns over the negative aftershocks of 1956, as the first school does, while tracing the trajectory of cultural decline to the period after 1980, when the abandonment of the United Front education reforms multiplied those aftershocks, as the second school does.
Any critique of the country’s less than brilliant cultural scene today should take into account these factors when proposing viable solutions. In particular, it should identify exactly quality has come down and how best we can go about improving it.
It is fashionable to say that Sri Lanka’s cultural standards remained high until 1956. To me though, this is a deeply fallacious argument: a comprador society, which is what prevailed before 1956, does not produce a genuine culture. A culture must dig deep in search of roots. The problem is not that such a search stunted artistic development in the country, as those who idealise the pre-1956 status quo think, but rather that it did not go deep enough. That paved way for a massive flaw in our education system: the delinking of the performing arts from their literary roots, slowly since 1956 and more rapidly since 1980.
What I am arguing here is that as actors, directors, and even scriptwriters, we don’t read as much as we used to. In saying that, I am not denying there are other problems we have to look into with respect to Sri Lanka’s popular culture. But as the central issue, this problem requires immediate resolution. The sooner we realise our priorities there, the sooner we will be able to address a deplorable, though no less reversible, decline in artistic standards. All it takes to confirm the reality of such a decline, of course, is to see Welikathara, see Heat, and then ask why we used to have it so good, and how far back we have fallen today.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reflections on return of Sri Lanka’s multifaceted Manike, Yohani
By Rohana R. Wasala
Sri Lankan singer and rapper Yohani Diloka de Silva returned to the island on October 13, 2021, after a two-week visit to India. The presence of police outriders to escort her as she left the airport showed that she was being provided special security. Yohani had been given a rousing welcome in that India. Apart from the public shows and the various interviews in which she appeared, hosted by a number of national TV and social media channels, a highlight of her tour was her participation in the Bigg Boss reality television show conducted by one of the mega stars of Indian cinema Salman Khan. The veteran actor repeated after Yohani a few lines from her Manike Mage song. This was no doubt a novel experience for him. As Yohani remarked on her arrival at Katunayake airport, while Sri Lanka was known to the Indians, the Sinhala language was not. She had sung a number of Sinhala songs and she got a very positive reaction from the audiences. This incidental introduction of Sinhala to the youthful world beyond Sri Lanka is a significant event of national importance that has accrued from Yohani’s overnight stardom.
The near complete anonymity (outside of Sri Lanka) of the Sinhala language and the ethnic community known as the Sinhalese who have spoken it as their native tongue over the millennia has already produced very negative results for the whole country internationally, as Sinhala speakers form the majority (Those who bristle at the mention of this fact, please think and be fair minded). Both the language and the community have been eclipsed by Sri Lanka’s huge northern neighbour India with its teeming millions speaking diverse languages, with none of which Sinhala has any dialectal relation (i.e., Sinhala had its own distinct historical origins and evolved in an entirely different geographical location, the small island of Sinhale or Ceylon, today called Sri Lanka). A natural by-product of Yohani’s sudden rise to international celebrity status is that, for most people in the world, it opened a window on the Sinhala language and the Sinhalese who are the majority in Sri Lanka. Yohani is an ethnic Sinhalese. She is proud of her mother tongue Sinhala and her motherland Sri Lanka. (Aside: Of course, I think, she comes from a normally English using background, as is the case with anybody who is somebody in the emerging Sri Lanka, where English will continue to prevail as the working language for most people, and hence that of education. This is not incompatible with her concern, as a socially aware young woman, for her own language and country. Sri Lanka’s future belongs to young people of Yohani’s type.)
To a journalist’s not very intelligent question whether she would think of taking to politics given her immense popularity (as if a political career could possibly be her next ideal goal!), her amused reply was a clear negative: “No, no. I am an artiste, and I am satisfied with that. I want to pursue my musical career.”
Due to Yohani’s gradual emergence over the past two or three years, first as a bilingual (Sinhala and English), then as a multilingual, singer and rapper, Sri Lanka is sliding into international fame, perhaps for the first time since the Cricket World Cup win in 1996, but on a much larger scale. Her dazzling shoot to global stardom seems to have given a boost to the country’s difficult process of coming in from the cold of virtual international isolation imposed on it by the powers that be due to geopolitics-driven false propaganda. The young singer and rapper Yohani’s video of her cover song ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ (Lady in My Heart), featuring fellow artiste Satheeshan Ratnayake, went viral overnight, and has got 151.7M views by now. This is an astronomically high number of views for a YouTube video of a Sri Lankan artiste singing in Sinhala, the native tongue of over 75% (actually over 80%) of Sri Lankans, though hardly known outside Sri Lanka as stated above.
The video triggered the unexpected Yohani phenomenon that is currently sweeping the cross-border popular music scene, particularly in subcontinental India, Europe and America. (May it not be a short lived Yohani craze!) It is bound to have an immense revitalising effect on the young Sri Lankan music entrepreneurs’ foray into the regional and global music market. The whole affair will provide an unprecedentedly powerful impetus for defining and projecting the musical, linguistic and literary aspects of our cultural identity and heritage to the outside world. Most Sri Lankans across the world, gazing up for a new star of hope to delight their sight and refresh their morale, warmly welcomed her sudden rise to starry heights.
Incidentally, ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ has by now (October 13) got over 152 million You Tube views. Over the past weeks she was interviewed by a number national TV channels in India. She’s also been contracted by the mega Indian entertainment company (started 1983) T-Series, whose You Tube channel currently has 195M subscribers (and this number is bound to rise further due to the co-option of Yohani).
“SHIDDAT – JOURNEY BEYOND LOVE” is a Hindi language film made under the banners of T-Series and Maddock Films Pvt Ltd in India. The film was released on October 1, 2021. The official female version of the title song of this film was sung by Yohani de Silva of Sri Lanka. For me personally, Yohani’s perfect rendering of the Shiddat song is even more enthralling than her original cover song in Sinhala ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ that made her world famous.
Yohani generously shares the credit for the success of her cover song ‘Manike Mage Hithe’ with the members of her young team: the gifted musician Chamath Sangeeth whom she implicitly recognises as the principal contributor to the magic of ‘Manike Mage Hithe’, her competent co-artiste, singer and rapper Satheeshan Rathnayake, who, in fact, sang the song first, creative rapper and lyricist Dulanja Alwis, skilled guitarist Shane Vas, and versatile video director, editor and colourist Pasindu Kaushalya. As one interested in the study of verbal arts,
I have followed these professionals being hosted in some TV and social media videos. Something that I have realised about these young geniuses (I honestly think that they deserve that description.) is that all of them take their chosen fields seriously and work hard to achieve excellence; they have a highly cultured, non-mercenary, professional attitude towards their art. They are keenly aware of the inspirational legacy that the greats of the past in Sinhala music have left and acknowledge the debt they owe them. Equally heartening is the fact that these young artistes display an unselfconscious love of their motherland and take pride in a genuine sense of inclusive national cultural identity as Sri Lankans. They do not come exclusively from one social background; it is a mixture of urban, suburban, and rural; Satheeshan is from a village in Kegalle, Chamath is from Moratuwa and only Yohani is from Colombo.
Yohani Diloka de Silva was born and lives in Colombo. She attended the leading girls’ school Visakha Vidyalaya up to her OLs. During her schooling in Sri Lanka, she took part in sports (swimming and water polo) and group events. Then she proceeded to London in 2012, where she studied at the Hatch End High School and completed her ALs. Having returned to Sri Lanka she got admission to the Kotalawala Defence University, Kandawala, Ratmalana, and obtained her first degree in Logistics. Then she went to Australia for her Master’s. Having obtained a Master’s degree in Accounting with distinction, she returned home to Sri Lanka. While studying abroad, she pursued her musical training. Later she dabbled in photography, even covering weddings. Yohani drifted into music somewhat accidentally, it appears. She did some club singing to earn some extra income, as she wanted to be financially independent (of her parents).
She has engaged in her musical career in a more professional way since 2019. Bhatiya Jayakody, a senior musical artiste and entrepreneur who has for years adopted a mentoring attitude towards her, says that Yohani is a ‘very intelligent and smart’ artiste. He is one who got her to perform in his shows before, and foresaw a great career in music for her. Asked by Iraj about her main target (Iraj is another very successful Sri Lankan musician with international appeal and lucrative business engagements abroad), on a Yfm Channel interview in January 2020, Yohani replied that she wanted to work with international artistes. To reach her target she’s worked with a vengeance. It is basically thanks to her own initiative and hard training that she is where she is today.
Yohani is the elder of the two daughters of Major General Prasanna de Silva who commanded the 55th Division of the Sri Lanka Army in the final anti-terrorist war that ended in victory in 2009. She sings about her soldier father in one of her brilliant songs (her own lyrics and melody): “raevvath daesin” “though you looked at me with angry eyes”. Prasanna de Silva played a very prominent role in that war, making many personal sacrifices. ‘Road to Nandikadal: True Story of Defeating Tamil Tigers’ (2016) written by his comrade-in-arms Major General Kamal Gunaratne (present secretary to the defence ministry) features a photograph of Major General Prasanna de Silva under the general caption ‘Immortal leaders of the final war’. Her mother Dinithi de Silva worked as an air hostess at Sri Lankan Airlines. Yohani’s sister who is younger is studying medicine in Russia to become a doctor. During her childhood, she and her family suffered many hardships (some of these are mentioned in the song “raevvath daesin”) due to the circumstance that her father was serving in the army in the embattled North to save the country from terrorism.
Yohani seems to have inherited her father’s soldierly qualities of personal courage, doggedness, and sangfroid in her personal and professional life. She is multi-talented. Apart from being a singer and rapper, she is a songwriter, model, and photographer. She’s had to endure baseless attacks on her personal reputation in the social media, provoked as usual by the green-eyed monster. Though she was thoroughly upset by this at the beginning, her parents advised her to ignore such cowardly harassment and get on with her life. That’s what she has done. She emerged unscathed from the abuse of her celebrity status by social media purveyors of pornography, something that can be safely ignored. With her new star status, she’s started receiving keen attention from our big neighbour India.
India recognized Yohani’s achievement even before her own country Sri Lanka did so, about which I had some misgivings at first. But now I have realised that it is just as well, because, considering the larger size and wider global reach of the Indian music market, the Indian recognition of Yohani is bound to be much more productive than tiny Sri Lanka’s, as it is being demonstrated currently. Her two-week long Indian visit is proving to be an ideal springboard to wider international conquest for Yohani.
However, no outside power, whether friend or foe, should be allowed to expropriate this Sri Lanka’s multifaceted diamond of inestimable value. Yohani is a trailblazer for all Sri Lankan youth who must take over the country in due course and forge a resplendent future for it.
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