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Reflections on return of Sri Lanka’s multifaceted Manike, Yohani

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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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Features

Rising farce of Family Power

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Former President Maithripala Sirisena has struck hard on warnings of being deprived of Civil Rights by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In his recent statement, President Gotabaya was clear on observing the policies laid down in his Saubhagya Dekma manifesto. He recalled how the Yahapalana government had given no importance to the war heroes, intelligence services, and national security, which led to the Easter Carnage.

He was very clear that having a two-thirds majority in Parliament, this government is ready to respond to the false propaganda of the Opposition, and provide a meal free of poison to the people.

He said the Presidential Commission appointed by Yahapalana has stated very clearly who was responsible for the Easter Carnage. This included the then President, Prime Minister and the entire Cabinet of that time.

“We leave all legal action on this to be taken by the judiciary. We have trust in the judiciary and will allow justice to take place, All the PCoI reports have been submitted to Parliament. We will not poke our fingers into the judicial system. While maintaining the freedom of the judiciary, it is not possible to ask that some persons be brought to justice, and others punished,

 “If they want this action to be taken very soon, we can bring a Bill to Parliament (as done before) and remove all the rights of those responsible, so that they will not do such faults again.  If they want this, we are ready for it, as we have a two-thirds majority power. When asking for various things, they should do it with care. We are ready for this too. The people should not be fooled.

“If I am not good, and we are not good, is the alternative to this the Opposition? We have seen how they ruled for five years. That is why I was elected, although it was told that I would not get the votes of the minorities. But we won. Will they be able to reduce the Cabinet to 25?”

Mr. Sirisena’s response in parliament was to this claim of two-thirds strength.  In the midst of a major clash with government ministers, he made it clear that the government’s two-thirds power was due to the presence of the SLFP in the ruling coalition.

It certainly was a shake up to the show of two-thirds strength and power by President Gotabaya.

While President Gotabaya was clear on his following the findings of the PCoI, and stressed the call for action against Mr. Sirisena, there was total silence on the other recommendations of the Commission. The supporters who cheered him, raised no question about what the PCoI had recommended on Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero and the Bodu Bala Sena led by him.

Was it in keeping with the PCoI that Gnanasara Thero has been appointed to head a Task Force on One Country, One Law?  Is this One Law part of the new Gotabaya thinking on Green Agriculture?

What has emerged with the Sirisena response to the Gotabhaya challenge is the emerging reality of the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP politics. The New Kelani Bridge, which was opened, when Gotabaya made his strong speech, had to be kept closed the very next day, showing the rising confusion in Podujana Governance,

The warning given by experts about the situation relating to the LP gas cylinders, is driving a huge new scare among the public. If there are a few more gas cylinder explosions, there could be mass gas protests, even angrier that the farmer protests on the fertilizer disaster.

The Podujana government is certainly in a crisis of governance.  There are turn-arounds on many of its policies from Neo-Nitrogen fertiliser –  from cost to its benefit for Sri Lankan cultivation, and the payment to contaminated Chinese fertiliser. The turn back on the use of chemical fertilisers will also bring a huge new price to the cultivators, leading to another round of protests?

The Gotabaya Keliya is fast doing turns and twists on policies of the government. The Rajapaksas are being surrounded by faults and failures. It will certainly not be easy him to

use two-thirds power, when the reality is the rising farce of family power.

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A tribute to vajira

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By Uditha Devapriya

The female dancer’s form figures prominently in Sinhalese art and sculpture. Among the ruins of the Lankatilake Viharaya in Polonnaruwa is a series of carvings of dwarves, beasts, and performers. They surround a decapitated image of a standing Buddha, secular figures dotting a sacred space. Similar figures of dancing women adorn the entrance at the Varaka Valandu Viharaya in Ridigama, adjoining the Ridi Vihare. Offering a contrast with carvings of men sporting swords and spears, they entrance the eye immediately.

A motif of medieval Sinhalese art, these were influenced by hordes of dancers that adorned the walls of South Indian temples. They attest to the role that Sinhala society gave women, a role that diminished with time, so much so that by the 20th century, Sinhalese women had been banned from wearing the ves thattuwa. Held back for long, many of these women now began to rebel. They would soon pave the way for the transformation of an art.

In January 2020 the government of India chose to award the Padma Shri to two Sri Lankan women. This was done in recognition not just of their contribution to their fields, but also their efforts at strengthening ties between the two countries. A few weeks ago, in the midst of a raging pandemic, these awards were finally conferred on their recipients.

One of them, Professor Indra Dissanayake, had passed away in 2019. Her daughter received the honour in her name in India. The other, Vajira Chitrasena, remains very much alive, and as active. She received her award at a ceremony at the Indian High Commission in Colombo. Modest as it may have been, the conferment seals her place in the country, situating her in its cultural landscape as one of our finest exponents of dance.

Vajira Chitrasena was far from the first woman to take up traditional dance in Sri Lanka. But she was the first to turn it into a full time, lifelong profession, absorbing the wellsprings of its past, transcending gender and class barriers, and taking it to the young. Dancing did not really come to her; it was the other way around. Immersing herself in the art, she entered it at a time when the medium had been, and was being, transformed the world over: by 1921, the year her husband was born, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis had pioneered and laid the foundation for the modernisation of the medium. Their project would be continued by Martha Graham, for whom Vajira would perform decades later.

In Sri Lanka traditional dance had long turned away from its ritualistic past, moving into the stage and later the school and the university. Standing in the midst of these developments, Vajira Chitrasena found herself questioning and reshaping tradition. It was a role for which history had ordained her, a role she threw herself into only too willingly.

In dance as in other art forms, the balance between tradition and modernity is hard, if not impossible, to maintain. Associated initially with an agrarian society, traditional dance in Sri Lanka evolved into an object of secular performance. Under colonial rule, the patronage of officials, indeed even of governors themselves, helped free it from the stranglehold of the past, giving it a new lease of life that would later enable what Susan Reed in her account of dance in Sri Lanka calls the bureaucratisation of the arts. This is a phenomenon that Sarath Amunugama explores in his work on the kohomba kankariya as well.

Yet this did not entail a complete break from the past: then as now, in Sri Lanka as in India, dancing calls for the revival of conventions: the namaskaraya, the adherence to Buddhist tenets, and the contemplation of mystical beauty. It was in such a twilight world that Vajira Chitrasena and her colleagues found themselves in. Faced with the task of salvaging a dying art, they breathed new life to it by learning it, preserving it, and reforming it.

Though neither Vajira nor her husband belonged to the colonial elite, it was the colonial elite who began approaching traditional art forms with a zest and vigour that determined their trajectory after independence. Bringing together patrons, teachers, students, and scholars of dance, the elite forged friendships with tutors and performers, often becoming their students and sometimes becoming teachers themselves.

Newton Gunasinghe has observed how British officials found it expedient to patronise feudal elites, after a series of rebellions that threatened to bring down the colonial order. Yet even before this, such officials had patronised cultural practices that had once been the preserve of those elites. It was through this tenuous relationship between colonialism and cultural revival that Westernised low country elites moved away from conventional careers, like law and medicine, into the arduous task of reviving the past.

At first running into opposition from their paterfamilias, the scions of the elite eventually found their calling. “[I]n spite of their disappointment at my smashing their hopes of a brilliant legal and political career,” Charles Jacob Peiris, later to be known as Devar Surya Sena, wrote in his recollection of his parents’ reaction to a concert he had organised at the Royal College Hall in 1929, “they were proud of me that night.”

If the sons had to incur the wrath of their fathers, the daughters had to pay the bigger price. Yet, as with the sons, the daughters too possessed an agency that emboldened them to not just dance, but participate in rituals that had been restricted to males.

Both Miriam Pieris and Chandralekha Perera displeased traditional society when they donned the ves thattuwa, the sacred headdress that had for centuries been reserved for men. But for every critic, there were those who welcomed such developments, considering them essential to the flowering of the arts; none less than Martin Wickramasinghe, to give one example, viewed Chandralekha’s act positively, and commended her.

These developments sparked off a pivotal cultural renaissance across the country. Although up country women remain debarred from those developments, there is no doubt that the shattering of taboos in the low country helped keep the art of the dance alive, for tutors, students, and scholars. As Mirak Raheem has written in a piece to Groundviews, we are yet to appreciate the role female dancers of the early 20th century played in all this.

Vajira Chitrasena’s contribution went beyond that of the daughters of the colonial elite who dared to dance. While it would be wrong to consider their interest as a passing fad, a quirk, these women did not turn dance into a lifelong profession. Vajira did not just commit herself to the medium in a way they had not, she made it her goal to teach and reinterpret it, in line with methods and practices she developed for the Chitrasena Kala Ayathanaya.

As Mirak Raheem has pointed out in his tribute to her, she drew from her limited exposure to dance forms like classical ballet to design a curriculum that broke down the medium to “a series of exercises… that could be used to train dancers.” In doing so, she conceived some highly original works, including a set of children’s ballets, or lama mudra natya, a genre she pioneered in 1952 with Kumudini. Along the way she crisscrossed several roles, from dancer to choreographer to tutor, becoming more than just a performer.

As the head of the Chitrasena Dance Company, Vajira enjoys a reputation that history has not accorded to most other women of her standing. Perhaps her greatest contribution in this regard has been her ability to adapt masculine forms of dance to feminine sequences. She has been able to do this without radically altering their essence; that has arguably been felt the most in the realm of Kandyan dance, which caters to masculine (“tandava“) rather than feminine (“lasya“) moods. The lasya has been described by Marianne Nürnberger as a feminine form of up country dance. It was in productions like Nala Damayanthi that Vajira mastered this form; it epitomised a radical transformation of the art.

Sudesh Mantillake in an essay on the subject (“Masculinity in Kandyan Dance”) suggests that by treating them as impure, traditional artistes kept women away from udarata natum. That is why Algama Kiriganitha, who taught Chandralekha, taught her very little, since she was a woman. This is not to say that the gurunannses kept their knowledge back from those who came to learn from them, only that they taught them under strictures and conditions which revealed their reluctance to impart their knowledge to females.

That Vajira Chitrasena made her mark in these fields despite all obstructions is a tribute to her mettle and perseverance. Yet would we, as Mirak Raheem suggests in his very excellent essay, be doing her a disservice by just valorising her? Shouldn’t the object of a tribute be, not merely to praise her for transcending gender barriers, but more importantly to examine how she transcended them, and how difficult she found it to transcend them? We eulogise our women for breaking through the glass ceiling, without questioning how high that ceiling was in the first place. A more sober evaluation of Vajira Chitrasena would ask that question. But such an evaluation is yet to come out. One can only hope that it will, soon.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Features

It’s all about France in Kandy !

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Sarah Toucas, Director Alliance Francaise de Kandy

This month’s edition of Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar, on Tuesday 30 November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, makes a journey to the hill capital Kandy to the Alliance Française de Kandy.

A venue of historical significance in central Sri Lanka which celebrates its 55th anniversary next year, the AF Kandy was once even located on the upper storey of the ancient Queen’s bath or the Ulpangé, just outside the Dalada Maligawa.

All about France and the French in Kandy, on the show will be the newly appointed director of the AF Kandy, Sara Toucas, who will talk about plans to further popularise the French language in Kandy.

Joining the show is also Dr. Kush Herat, former Director AF Kandy and visiting Senior Lecturer in French at University of Peradeniya, who talks about motivating undergraduates and inducting them to the French language and culture.

Frenchman Dr Jacques Soulié, a former Director of the AF Kandy who has contributed immensely to the propagation of the French language and culture in Kandy then takes viewers on a tour of his brainchild and a major cultural venue – The Suriyakantha Centre for Art and Culture – which has been visited by hundreds of Sri Lankans and foreign visitors.

To close the show is Ravana Wijeyeratne, the Honorary Consul for France in Kandy whose links with France go back to his childhood when his father Tissa Wijeyeratne was Ambassador for Sri Lanka in France in the early 1970s.

Rendez-Vous with Yasmin and Kumar

comes to you on Tuesday 30th November at 7.00 pm on the YouTube channel of the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka and the Maldives

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