by Prof Carlo Fonseka
As someone with a long and close association with the University of Colombo, I am delighted to join Vice Chancellor Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama, Prof. Samantha Herath and others to celebrate Victor Ratnayake, the greatly loved musician in the world of Sinhala music. My association with the University of Colombo has been principally through its Faculty of Medicine and such training as I have had was in the filed of medicine. Medicine is really applied biology
So, even when I wish to celebrate a musician a biological perspective naturally emerges and trumps art. Accordingly, the biological function of music and the role that Victor plays in performing that function in our world of music will be the theme of this essay. Readers are bound to hear echoes of thoughts and feelings I have previously expressed on this theme. Repetition is unavoidable. So If you feel bored you have a simple remedy. Just read something else.
Victor Ratnayake is inextricably linked with the all time musical extravaganza called ‘Sa’ which has been performed umpteen times. I was present at the dress rehearsal of ‘Sa’. On 20 July 1973 I enjoyed its maiden performance at the Lumbini Theatre from a front row seat. To celebrate its fiftieth performance, I wrote a eulogistic appreciation of the show. I attended its grand 1000th performance at the BMICH on the 22nd of September 1984, which was graced by the presence of the Head of State at that time. Thereafter I stopped counting. Heaven knows the numerical order of the show that Victor recently staged in Australia.
Its appeal seems to be everlasting. And so it should be. In truth, ‘Sa’ has proved to be the greatest single song-show in Sri Lanka’s recorded history. Those who listen to Sinhala music have loved ‘Sa’ and its creator. The question is why they have done so. For my part, I have special reason to love him. He happens to be the first professional musician of the first rank who graciously solicited, sang and recorded a composition of mine (words and melody) on the 4th of April 1972. The song which has been broadcast by our National Radio any number of times, laments my first unrequited adolescent love, exemplifying yet again the association between love and music.
Everybody knows that the theory of biological evolution is associated with the name of Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) His famous book popularly called The Origin of Species was published in 1859. It is part of the theory of evolution that there are 193 living species of monkeys and apes and one of them is Homo sapiens to which all of us – me, you and Victor himself – belong. Long before Charles Darwin scientifically demonstrated our animal origin William Shakespeare’s Hamlet characterized "the piece of work" called Man as the "paragon of animals". And Shakespeare expounded his theory in Twelfth Night that music is the "food of love". In 1871 Charles Darwin published a book titled The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. In this book he suggested that some of the features of any given animal have evolved to make it sexually attractive to members of the opposite sex of its species. The best known example of this biological phenomenon is, of course, the peacock’s tail.
According to Darwin, what its tail is to the peacock, the ability to sing is to humans. No one should doubt that good singing is sexy. The appeal of Elvis Presley was legendary during his lifetime. Young women wanted to be with him; young men wished to look like him. That Jimi Hendrix, the rock guitarist, had sex with hundreds of young female musical fans has been documented. The lead pop singer Robert Plant once said, "I was always on my way to love. Always". There is evidence of the sexual appeal of singing from other species too. Zoologists say that male birds and whales and gibbons also indulge in singing as part of their courtship, to which the female members of these species are responsive. Let me not belabor the point. One biological function of music definitely has to do with sex and reproduction. Another is concerned with binding groups of people together. Other things being equal it is reasonable to suppose that a tribe strongly bonded together by music will have the edge in the struggle for existence over less musical tribes.
Victor Ratnayake Phenomenon
Let us now see how these Darwinian biological insights apply to the prodigious musical phenomenon called Victor Ratnayake. Judged by the breadth, depth and sheer volume of creative musical output as a superlative singer, melody maker, composer and director of music, he is unsurpassed. Good-looking and well-spoken apart from being enormously gifted musically, Victor Ratnayake took the world of Sinhala music by storm when he appeared on the scene in 1966. ‘Pa way wala’ is the song that hooked me.
The third child of a little-known lower middle class family of 11 children from the sleepy town of Kadugannawa, the highest musical qualification Victor acquired is a diploma from the Government College of Music obtained in 1965. Given such a modest background and attributes, what made Victor tick? The answer is that he had the one thing that matters: the magic of his velvety voice. His pitch-perfect exquisitely phrased singing enchanted all who listened to Sinhala music then, and continues to do so now wherever in the world they live. I believe that had not his beautiful, fertile, devoted, life’s companion (the much lamented) Chitra Rathnalatha and Victor become inseparably bonded from early childhood and – in order to counter bridal parental objection to their union – hurriedly legalized the bond on the 1st of November 1966, Victor might well have spread the treasure of his sperm bank among hundreds of nubile female fans who treasured his singing.
Between 1968 and 1972 he and Chitra were busy building a nest of their own and nurturing four offspring, but considering the huge demand for his genes from nubile females, there was a gross mismatch between supply and demand. In the event, countless females who were seduced by the magic of his voice had to be satisfied with only a hair they stole from his luxuriant head! I have personally witnessed the attraction of Victor’s singing for human females. I doubt whether even the most gorgeous tail of any peacock, has ever had an appeal of comparable intensity for peahens!
As already noted, the other biological role of music is that of forging solidarity among members of a tribe. In regard to this role too, wittingly or unwittingly, Victor has made a significant contribution. As all those who have watched and enjoyed his ‘Sa’ know the show begins and ends with the favorite number ‘api okkoma rajawaru’. Its lyric was written by Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne. He composed it to mark Sri Lanka’s historic transition from an unbroken monarchical rule from the earliest times to the 22nd May 1972 when the country became a Republic. The song declares that we are all kings now. In other words, in Sri Lanka, we the people are sovereign. Speaking for myself, every time I hear Victor’s magisterial rendition of this song, I feel more bonded to the people of my motherland.
It is true that politically we are now republican. But it seems to me that in the world of music we continue to be monarchical. (There appears to be among our people a natural tendency to regress to monarchy as evidenced by the unbelievable popularity of the recent song "Maharajaneni".) In 1993, I was invited to contribute an article to a volume produced to mark the first 30 years of Victor Ratnayake’s musical life. In the course of writing it, I consciously posed a provocative question: After Amaradeva, who? I answered it in no uncertain terms through the strategic device of citing a dream. In the dream, I saw the Kingdom of Sinhala Music where the undisputed monarch was King Amaradeva. The pretender to the throne was Victor Ratnayake.
I perceived various attributes the pretender had to acquire to qualify to be king. One by one he has acquired them all. In 2010, the University of the Visual and Performing Arts honoured his musical genius by conferring on him its highest academic accolade: a Doctorate of Literature. Now, 18 years after I saw the dream we can all see that Victor Ratnayake is no longer the pretender. Adorable King Amaradeva is gracefully fading away from the Kingdom. Victor Ratnayake undertakes his visit to the University of Colombo on the 24th of February 2011, as the Reigning Sovereign in the Kingdom of Sinhala Music. We love our King because we love his music. Long live the King Victor!
(Prof.Carlo Fonseka is Chairman, Arts Council of Sri Lanka)