Older readers may remember the raucous hustle and bustle of the old Pettah bus stand where squat and bulbous buses, carrying only seated passengers, were surrounded by ‘kadala’ and ‘vadai’ vendors and serenaded by ‘kavi-kola karayas’ singing of the most recent noteworthy event or the latest high society scandal. They sang a ‘trailer’ of a few spicy lines and flourished roughly printed ‘kavi kola’ for a few cents to passengers tempted by their blood-thirsty or salacious details, of murders and illicit romance, which never made the columns of the staid newspapers. I have a hazy recollection of the patriotic bus-stand poet who hailed the British Government’s return to Ceylon of Sri Vikrama’s throne in 1934.Only the first line yet resonates in my memory –
“Sinhalay may apa rajavansayay hee…”
(Of our great Sinhala royal race…)
I wonder whether there is any record extant of this fascinating folk ballad in Sinhala newspapers of the day. But I doubt whether the very proper Editors would deign to recognize the work of an unlettered balladeer.
Around the same period, a high society scandal fascinated both the drawing rooms of the elite as well as the tea shops of the hoi-polloi. It was a case of brazen adultery between a Kandyan aristocrat and a Colombo Chetty beauty, gleefully cuckolding their legal spouses. The betrayed husband seems to have filed for divorce – thus exposing the scandal While the staid newspapers tip-toed round the sexy details of illicit love-making – no such compunctions stifled the people’s poets who gave full vent to the sly double entendres that the Sinhala language revels in . Here again, all I remember is a couple of lines –
“Kaasi panam aethi ‘Loku Nilamay
Lassana Nonagay kaamaray…”
(Nilame rich with golden pounds
was in the beauty’s bedroom found)
The unabridged version, if ever unearthed, would rival Byron’s erotic verse.
Not long after, the British Empire [and its little colony Ceylon] were swept up by the scandal which surrounded the abdication of King Edward VIII so that he could marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Our balladeers had a wonderful love story –
“Simpson Nonata aadaray
Ingrisi rajaya haera giyay…
Deviyangay hithata boho dukaiy
Aalaya, leelaya ey thamaiy…
(For love of Lady Simpson’s beauty
He left the crown of England’s Royalty…
This moved to tears the gods above
But that‘s the eternal way of love…”
The very gods were sad, but that is the way of love sang our people’s poets. An interesting footnote to Ceylon’s colonial history
A decade or so after the scandal that had earlier titillated high society, the nouveau riche Sinhala ‘mudalali’ class produced its own scandal. A rich man’s nubile daughter was regularly chauffeured to school in the family limousine. One day she never returned home. The chauffeur disappeared. The car was found abandoned. The distraught parents ‘believed’ that their daughter had been kidnapped. Everybody else, naturally, was sure she had eloped with the chauffeur. Quite some time, and fruitless searches, later the couple were discovered and the girl was ‘rescued’ by her parents. Meanwhile, our balladeers had a grand old time singing spicy updates of the elopement to bus travelers. The driver was rumored to have even opened a ‘hotel’ naming it after the girl ‘Sooriya’wathie –
“Sooriya kiyala hotela aeriyaa
(Sooriya he named the hotel he made
To honor his sweet, and lovely maid…)
To the great disappointment of our people’s poets, this ‘princess and slave’ romance ended with the princess hastily [and very quietly] married off to a ‘suitable boy’.
I will now end this brief glimpse into a fascinating aspect of our urban history with a fervent plea to our sociologists and Sinhala scholars to make a serious study of these folk poets of the bus stands.