Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Nightingale who sang

“It is the singer,” the late Professor A. J. Gunawardana once wrote, “that finally makes the song, not the lyric, however meaningful, not the melody, however sweet.” One can of course concede that Gunawardana was making wild extrapolations (is it just the singer’s voice we look out for in a song, after all?), but he can be forgiven, I think, for one good reason.

He wrote that in a tribute to a singer who had just died. This singer, known to and loved by millions, also acted. She acted in a great many films, not all of which were “memorable” in the conventional sense of that word, but which nevertheless acquired a new rhythm and vitality whenever she entered a scene. That vitality and rhythm, so unique to her, didn’t let go. Not once. Which is why, when critics talk about Rukmani Devi, they can’t ignore her voice. Gunawardana may have been wrong, but insofar as he was talking about Rukmani, he was not.

She hailed from the theatre and it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that even at her best, she was theatrical. She was larger than life, in other words. She could reduce life as we knew it, passing before her, to its barest, simplest essentials, and convince us all that while that she was only acting. Henry Jayasena, in his “Play is the Thing”, in my opinion the best memoir that an actor here has written, frequently observes how her acting troupe, the Minerva Players, would come to Gampaha and enchant audiences. For the kind of theatre that she went for, like her films, were groundbreaking in their day. Not many liked that, as Jayasena himself notes: he was pulled up by his family and more particularly his father for watching her plays, on more than one occasion.

As the years went by though, she became loved. Naturally. Regi Siriwardena, writing on A. J. Gunawardana’s tribute, noted that she was born to the “darkest era of Sinhala music.” That’s another extrapolation, though not without its merits. “Hang the music,” Gunawardana had written earlier, though, and we can say the same thing. Rukmani knew how to play to audiences. Whether it was in her acting or singing, that helped. And at a time when our playwrights and filmmakers pandered to popular audiences, when they invariably went for myths and “the stuff that dreams are made of”, Rukmani won us all the way. A biographical sketch would be quite meaningless.

Films and plays are clean different though, no matter who contends otherwise. I remember a preeminent director telling me of how the first film was made, not here but in India: “Those people thought they could make a film in three days, like a play. Of course they couldn’t, but this goes to show how naive our first filmmakers were.”

That naiveté and simplicity wasn’t the preserve of our first directors and actors, of course, but the point is that for the first 10 years of our cinema, the Minerva Players set the standard by which popular films would be made, judged, and sealed for posterity. People may look at Kele Handa and Kadawunu Poronduwa and get carried away by the obvious artificiality of the sets, the plot, and the acting, but even accounting for all these, there’s a charm in their stories which transcend the narrow confines within which they had to work. Without a doubt, the same could have been said of Rukmani Devi herself.

I wrote of music earlier, and it wouldn’t do to ignore Rukmani’s voice. For her voice, with its unyielding pitch, struck a chord with everyone who heard it. She sang her first song, “Siri Buddha Gaya Vihare”, when she was 13. I have heard of audiences who flocked to watch Kele Handa and Kapati Arakshakaya just to hear (and watch) her sing. “She had a very sensitive and distinct voice which could reveal the shifts of human emotions with ease,” Dhamma Jagoda would later say. With its penchant for deliberate exaggeration and its emotional resonance, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the first 10 years of our cinema owed as much to her voice as it did to her acting.

I know of people who chastise her, however. People who think that by turning the cinema into theatre, she and her troupe did a disservice to our films. Not entirely wrong, but not correct either. I think Sumitra Peries summed this up well: “We find fault with them, pointing at their films and saying that they were amateurish. But if you look more closely, you’ll realise how much they actually achieved, and how much that achievement translated to popular success in their time and ours.” They were driven by instinct, she could have added. The best artists don’t talk of “art”, after all. They don’t talk of “artiness.” In the simplest sense, they tapped into their audiences and then made their stories. Not the other way around. Those who write from ivory towers, not surprisingly, haven’t grasped this.

And to a very large extent, that was Rukmani Devi’s legacy. She was never really realistic or naturalistic. To the best of her abilities, she tried to be in Lester James Peries’ Ahasin Polawata (her last role), but as he recounted to me once, it wasn’t easy. In the end, that emotional resonance which she exuded wherever she was came out even there. For better or for worse, one might add. Didn’t matter. She spoke to our feelings in nearly every role she was in. Her greatest achievement, which anyone could observe, was in how she could transform kitsch into emotion. “Larger than life” is an understatement, but it sums her up well in this respect.

Rukmani Devi died in 1978. Killed, in an accident which could have been avoided. She was 55 at the time. When the news came out (and even before that), the whole country cried. Time and time again, I have heard from people who lived at the time, of how they refused to believe she had gone away. Small wonder.

For in a large way, she hasn’t, because icons don’t fade away that easily. Stars do, and thankfully she wasn’t one. That someone like Dhamma Jagoda, whose outlook on the theatre differed greatly from Rukmani’s, could write warmly of her abilities is testament to how she transcended her limits and acquired a rhythm and vitality she could call her own. “Hang the quality of the drama,” we can hence say, echoing Professor Gunawardana.

No, she didn’t go away. Not by a long shot. Never will either, I am sure.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, May 18 2016