Mistreated and Underappreciated

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When asked who the creator of our national anthem is, both kids and adults alike would be quick to mention the name Ananda Samarakoon. While it is true that Samarakoon was a gifted lyricist who penned not just the song which was selected to be our national anthem and also many other popular classics we enjoy to this day, it is a lesser known fact that Samarakoon was a jack of many artistic trades. On top of being a lyricist, Samarakoon was a talented poet, actor, musician, playwright, as well as painter.

Samarakoon was born as Egodahage George Wilfred Alwis Samarakoon on 13 January 1911 in Watareka, Padukka. He was the second child of Samuel Samarakoon who was the Chief Clerk of the British-owned Maturata Plantations and Dominga Peries.

Education

Young Samarakoon entered Wewala Government School in Piliyandala for his primary education. The school’s name was later changed to Ananda Samarakooon Vidyalaya as a tribute to Samarakoon. For secondary education he entered Christian College, Kotte which in now called, Sri Jayawardenapura Maha Vidyalaya. He entered Christian College, Kotte in 1919 and completed his school education there.  Samarakoon was a popular character at school, mainly for his aesthetic capabilities. Whenever the school had an art exhibition, a play or a musical programme, young Samarakoon was sure to be there.

Samarakoon loved to draw and paint. Rabindranath Tagore’s visit to Sri Lanka piqued Samarakoon’s interest in Tagore’s drama and music and in no time he fell in love with the Indian maestro’s work. This prompted him to visit India to study more. Two years after Tagore’s visit to Sri Lanka Samarakoon went to India to study art and music at Santiniketan. In India, Samarakoon studied arts under the renowned artist and critic Nandalal Bose. He also studied music under Shanti Devi.

After six months in India, Samarakoon returned to Sri Lanka in 1937. He was a Christian by birth but decided to follow Buddhism and even changed his name to Ananda Samarakoon. He further studied painting and arts at Horana Sripali College. He took a special liking to ‘spray painting’ and a painting technique called, ‘washing paint’.

Ananda Samarakoon; the painter

Samarakoon was inspired to draw on his own life experiences. He also painted to further express his own songs. Some parts of the songs; Endada Menike, Punchi Suda Sudu Ketiya, Vile Malak Pipila, and Besa Seethala Gangule – which Samarakoon himself wrote and composed – were expressively and beautifully painted by Samarakoon.

The golden era of Samarakoon’s painting career has to be the ‘40s. During this time his paintings were praised by critics both local and foreign. The renowned Indian art critic Jasmine Roy had once said this about Samarakoon’s paintings, “Samarakoon’s paintings resonate music. His colour combinations are soothing and depict the same rhythm found in Indian classical music. Just like many Indian works of art Samarakoon’s paintings too contain beauty, grace, and charm. Through the apt use of symbolism Samarakoon manages to add something extra to his paintings.”

Upon witnessing the painting Samarakoon did for his song Endada Menike, Sunil Shantha who was another great musician at the time had said, “Determining whether Ananda Samarakoon was born to be a musician or a painter is by no means an easy task.”

Realistic stories, symbolic expressions, tragedies, happy endings, comedy, mockery, human life, gods and devils, and visible and invisible forces often became themes for Samarakoon.

Samarakoon served as a music teacher in many schools across the country. At the age of 23 he got his first appointment as a music teacher at his own alma mater Christian College, Kotte.  He had also served as a music teacher in schools such as;  Mahinda College, Galle, Dharmashoka Vidyalaya, Ambalangoda, Ananda Balika Vidyalaya, Colombo, Sujatha Vidyalaya, Matara, and University of Ceylon.

Birth of national anthem

In 1946 when Samarakoon was serving as a music teacher at Mahinda College, Galle, he wrote the school anthem as well as the song which later on was selected as the national anthem. By then Samarakoon had penned a lot of patriotic songs and songs about Sri Lanka. In 1951 the Cabinet granted approval to use Samarakoon’s song, Namo Namo Matha as the national anthem. However, Samarakoon wasn’t informed of this decision and neither was he acknowledged properly as the creator of the national anthem. Later on he was given a cash prize of Rs 2,500 which even back then, wasn’t sufficient or justifiable. Moreover, the publisher of the magazine Kumuduni in which the song was first published also came forward demanding a portion of the prize money.

Not only was Samarakoon not given due recognition as the creator of the national anthem, the unprofessional manner in which the whole incident was conducted created some haters of Samarakoon as well. Some didn’t like the song and thought it wasn’t good enough to be selected as the national anthem. This dislike made many to point fingers at Samarakoon for being a political pawn.

These accusations mounted immense pressure on Samarakoon which resulted in turmoil in his personal life. By then he was in his second marriage and to make matters worse, his second wife filed for divorce amidst all this political mud-slinging.

Despite these hardships Samarakoon continued to create music and art, and make a living out of music by holding private classes in Borella, Wellawatte, and Kotahena. Among Samarakoon’s students are; W.D. Amaradva, C de S Kulathilaka, Ananda de Tissa Alwis, and Sarath Fernando.

At the time Samarakoon was trying to form an organisation for artists of the radio. This paved the way for Samarakoon to record some of his songs on gramophone disks as well as to pen songs in Sinhala to Bollywood melodies.

According to Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne, Samarakoon is the only singer in Sri Lanka who had penned all the songs he had sung. He also states that Samarakoon is a pioneer who trailblazed new avenues in Sri Lankan music as well as literature.

 Although Samarakoon never sang songs written by others, he gladly penned songs for others to sing. Among them are; Amaradeva, Suryasankar Molligoda, Chithralekha Muttuchinnappa, and many other popular singers at the time.

Victim of jealousy

The baseless accusations and professional jealousy put immense pressure on Samarakoon and to make matters worse, his son Ranjith Arunadeepa from his second marriage passed away suddenly. The death hit Samarakoon hard and to cope he left Sri Lanka again and went to India. There for three years, he wandered, painted, and held art exhibitions to ease his sorrows.

After returning to Sri Lanka Samarakoon engaged in many mudra natyas. Chandalika is one of the most successful mudra natyas at the time which was produced by Samarakoon.

He also contributed to Sinhala cinema by writing songs for films. Sujatha, Seda Sulan, Surasena, Duppathage Duka, and Wedibima are some of the movies enriched by Samarakoon’s penmanship. Soon Samarakoon became a popular name in the industry and he was offered a script writer position in Cinemas, a company which was producing films at the time.

A milestone in Samarakoon’s cinema career was reached in 1956 when he won the award for the most popular song written for cinema. The competition was organised by Lakehouse and Samarakoon’s song Mana Ranjana Darshaniya Lanka for the movie Sujatha managed to become the most popular song by securing 81,900 reader votes. The second place only managed to get 12,988 votes.

Samarakoon was also a talented actor, although he preferred music. He once performed with Rukmani Devi in a show held at Gamini Cinema Hall. The duo acted and danced to the song Podi Mal Ethano where Rukmani Devi played Mal Ethana to Samarakoon’s Tikira.

In 1957, Samarakoon was appointed to Lanka Kala Mandalaya but his stint at the board was a short one since he was abruptly kicked out for no real reason. He was a victim of political and professional hatred but despite all the negativity he faced the passion he had for the industry and art drove him to continue contributing. However, he was not making money out of his work and there came a time when he found it hard to make basic ends meet. On 25 May 1959 he wrote to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs requesting a job or at least a benefit for the time being since he was finding it hard to fund his day-to-day needs, even after reducing his number of meals per day to one. Sadly, the letter bore no fruit.

Last years

This desperation and frustration gave him no other choice but to join politics. He engaged in party politics and used his ability to write poems and draw cartoons to put down other political parties. Samarakoon getting into politics predictably resulted in him losing his popularity. He was criticised even more and the mud-slinging intensified. It was around this time he first tried to end his life by consuming a large amount of sleeping pills but miraculously, he was saved.

What broke Samarakoon’s heart the most was the baseless accusations involving his song Namo Namo Matha. Many claimed that the beginning of the song was badly written in a way that brought misfortune to Sri Lanka. This prompted the Government to change the intro from Namo Namo Matha to Sri Lanka Matha. The change was done without consulting Samarakoon and without his permission.

On 3 April 1962 Samarakoon tried again to end his suffering by consuming a large dose of sleeping pills and unfortunately, this time around he succeeded. He was hospitalised for treatment but rendering doctors’ efforts in vain, Samarakoon breathed his last on 5 April 1962 as the clock marked 6:15 p.m.

His death was broadcast on radio like this;

“A string of a lute is broken, a lamp in a series of lamps is extinguished, a fountain of poetry is forever closed, the world of art lost a talented brush.  A strong link in the chain of the nation’s singer generation is broken. We are talking about the poet, Ananda Samarakoon who bade farewell to the world a while ago.  About the sea of artistic talents that was Ananda Samarakoon.”    

(Translated by Sanuj Hathurusinghe)

By Chandana Ranaweera