Wednesday, November 9, 2016

For those who sing and move us

When Rukmani Devi died, there was an outpouring of grief. People took to the streets, cried, sobbed, and lamented. Some didn’t even believe she had gone. Icons are like that I suppose, though that doesn’t mean those who sob and those who lament necessarily cut out those who left for posterity. There must be tributes, of some sort, to ensure that their legacy remains. Words and speeches are good, but without the necessary drive to turn them into reality it’s pointless to celebrate a life lived through. The same, I must say, goes out to all those who helped nurture the arts, not necessarily artistes themselves.

I believe there still are people in this country who are yet to come to terms with the passing away of Amaradeva. That’s natural. Stars are loved, icons are cherished. On the other hand I refuse to believe that his music is the only reason his passing away is lamented. He was much more than a musician, composer, and lyricist: the truth is that he stood for a country in peril, which underwent its most difficult years when he rose up. His work cut across to every community, caste, and creed. This is not a tribute to Amaradeva, though.

My friend Dhanuka Bandara (who writes with such vigour that it’s a pity he doesn’t write anymore) once observed that the disparities between Low Art and High Art could be explained by the lives of individual artistes. He had visited Kala Bavana and then visited the street painters outside who made it their mission to display what they drew to the general public. It was probably an irony that they’d chosen to display them in a road named after Ananda Coomaraswamy, who wrote on the dichotomy between High and Low Art many, many decades ago, but for the time being let’s forget that.

Here’s what Dhanuka said, quoting one such painter he had interviewed:

Art Street also brings to crisis arbitrary division between “High Art” and “Low Art”. Arya Kumarasinghe, another artist that I spoke with, described himself as a “peechan” artist. He drew an interesting analogy between the work of H. R. Jothipala and the work at the Art Street. Jothipala's music is hardly appreciated in the way the music of Khemadasa or Amaradeva is appreciated. However, the popularity of Jothipala's songs seems to endure. One could hardly find a Sri Lankan who has not heard a Jothipala song. I suppose “Peechan Art” is the best Sinhala term one could think of for "Kitsch Art" – art that is necessarily a rejection of high art.

Dhanuka was (consciously or otherwise) saying of Art what Pauline Kael, some decades earlier, had said of the cinema: that the gulf between artiness and kitsch in films was so pretentious, so ridiculous, that we were picking on kitsch for unfathomable reasons. Well, I am no fan of kitsch, but fact is that in our rush to praise artiness we’ve let go of the foremost purpose of a work of art: to reach out to as many people and audiences as possible without insulting their intelligence. Going by that, I suspect it would not be wrong to class H. R. Jothipala, whom Dhanuka aptly quoted, among those who were exponents of music for the multitude.

Jothipala had a voice. I don’t think everyone will agree that it was a musical voice, but the truth of the matter is that it entranced us nevertheless. He could sing of love and of other emotions so well that no two songs were the same, even if both were on the same theme. The secret to his popularity, as those who know music and those who don’t will tell you, was that he sang of our baser instincts, the instincts that made us the frail beings we were and are. He was probably not as much a national icon as others were, but that wouldn’t have bothered him. Not in the least.

Hettiarachchige Reginald Jothipala was born on February 12, 1936 to a fairly middle-class family in Matara. He was the first child in a family of four girls and one other boy. His parents were not musically inclined: his father was a tailor, his mother a nurse. They eventually moved to Colombo, where young Jothipala was sent to St Lawrence’s College in Maradana and later to St John’s College in Dematagoda. He never studied music. Perhaps he didn’t take to it academically.

Or perhaps he took to music in other ways. He loved to visit tea kiosks and listen to the radio (his family, it must be said, never owned one). At a time when the Rafis and Haroon Lanthras of this country were making their voices heard, Jothipala would have loved to get into the industry and carve a career for himself. And as with all such budding vocalists, he began that career at the place which baptised most of his contemporaries for years to come: Radio Ceylon, where he was taken in to sing duets with two of the most demanded playback singers at the time, Wasantha Sandanayake and G. S. B. Rani Perera.

His first shot at a solo was not successful. He tried to get into Sirisena Wimalaweera’s film Podi Putha as a playback vocalist, but for some reason the composer who scored the film didn’t think very highly of his voice. This was in 1956. That same year, Cyril B. Abeyratne’s Surathalee was being made and hence, they needed a voice. The producer of that film, Jabir A. Cader, wanted to assess Jothipala. Eventually, he made it.

His next big break came with Lester James Peries’ Sandeshaya, where he sang that most beloved of tributes to the conqueror, “Pruthugeesi Karaya.” I remember Lester once telling me that that particular song was so popular that copies were made (of it as well as the film) and eventually exhausted. From then on, Jothi became a household name, more often than not the darling of directors who wanted him to perform for all the leading actors and actresses that danced, crooned, ran around bushes, fell in love, and fought. It would of course be futile to try and list all his credits here, so I will desist from such an enterprise.

I will, however, comment. Some of those songs he performed were derided as imitative. They were pale replicas of Indian songs (among them, “Chandra Me Ra Paya Awa” and “Adare Hithanawa Dakkama”). Bandula Nanayakkarawasam once told me that the opening lines to that evergreen classic, “Jeevithe Kanthare” (jeevithaye kanthare / thurunu wiyali walle / uthura gala yayi adare), puzzled composers and writers in his day so much that diatribes aimed at their syntactic and grammatical flaws were published by the day. I have no doubt that some of these diatribes would have been aimed at Jothipala as well, for he was what he sang (it was probably for that reason that, as the years went by, he was called a “pavement singer”).

There are several Jothipala stories one comes across. Here’s one. Amaradeva is said to have asked the man to sing a song for a film he was scoring. Jothi hadn’t been approached by him before. Not knowing his methods and his way with other musicians perhaps, Jothi had simply replied: “Give me a day, I’ll come over, I’ll record once, and I’ll go.”

Amaradeva had got angry, apparently. I don’t know exactly what transpired between the two of them there, but from what I’ve heard he never spoke to nor came across Jothi until about 10 years later. Again, there was a film he was scoring, and someone had suggested his name. Giving him one more chance (we can assume), he had made his request again. The eager young man, predictably, gave the same reply. Amaradeva didn’t get angry this time.

He instead decided to try out this man’s claim (for in his experience, I am willing to bet, he hadn’t come across a vocalist who could record a song perfectly in one go). So he gave him a date and time for the recording.

What happened next surprised Amaradeva. True to his word, Jothi came over, recorded once, and left. The recording was perfect and, moreover, in tune with the sequence of the film. I don’t know what Amaradeva would have thought then, but I am sure he reflected on his previous encounter with the man with some humility. After all, he couldn’t have come across a vocalist like this before. In the meantime the song, “Kanden Kandata”, became popular, as did the film, Tharanga.

That was Jothipala. Didn’t pretend. Didn’t need to. He came and did what was asked. Just like that.

He sang for other composers too, among them Khemadasa (who purposely, in song after song, toned down his voice, the same thing he did with that other sought after vocalist, M. S. Fernando). He sang for other lyricists as well, prime among them Ajantha Ranasinghe and Karunaratne Abeysekara. He had his encounters and he faced them with an undying sense of humility. Time and time again, I have come across stories of how he would give away those gifts he was bestowed with by the public, how he wouldn’t refrain from helping a friend. Yes, that was a time when such things happened. That time, we will probably never see again.

In the meantime, he went on. His work proved so popular that he organised his own concert, "Jothi Rathriya", in the eighties. He was so much in demand that he’d sing far in excess of what he was paid for, in concert after concert. Naturally, people drew to him.

He received the Sarasavi Award for Best Playback Singer in 1982 and in 1985 and when Ranasinghe Premadasa launched his flagship project, “Gam Udawa”, he sang for that as well. It was at one "Gam Udawa" concert that he collapsed. On the 8th of July, 1987, at the rather premature age of 51, he left us.

His funeral, needless to say, was huge. People came and wept. Some proclaimed, “You are immortal!” They were correct. They still are. For the thing with Jothipala was that he blended in with whatever actor and whatever lyricist he sang for. In the end, those songs became his.

And when that happened, they became ours as well.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, November 9 2016