Victor Ratnayake, the much loved reigning King in the Kingdom of Sinhala music, is the creator of the all time musical extravaganza called Sa. By a very wide margin Sa has proved to be the greatest solo song show in Sri Lanka’s recorded history. Those who listen to Sinhala music and have come to love Sa and its creator welcomed the show on July 20, 1973. I remember the day as though it was yesterday. I enjoyed the maiden performance of Sa from a front row seat at the Lumbini theatre. In fact, I was present even at its dress rehearsal. To celebrate its 50th performance, I wrote a eulogistic appreciation of the show.
I attended its grand 1000th performance at the BMICH on September 22, 1984 which was graced by the presence of the Head of State at that time. Thereafter I stopped counting.
Its appeal seemed to be everlasting. But even the longest journey must perforce end. Sa will end with its 1450th show at the Lumbini theatre on July 20, 2012, nearly 40 years after it was born. But Sa will not pass away because modern electronic technology has made it immortal. The show consists of about 30 of the best songs that Victor Ratnayake ever sang, and he has sung many of the best songs in the short history of Sinhala Music. (There is a special reason why I feel particularly indebted to Victor Ratnayake. In an act of supreme musical generosity, he allowed me the privilege of piggybacking on him to my brief moments of musical glory. Every now and then, in his Sa he sang a sentimental song, the lyrics and melody of which I had composed. Thereby he conferred on my musical lament on disappointed love, a degree of unmerited popularity). Such personal reasons apart, it is meet and right, that before the curtain finally falls on Sa, those who listen to Sinhala music should ask themselves why they so love Sa and its creator.
Perhaps, it is appropriate to begin by declaring that my professional training has been in the field of medicine which is applied biology. Therefore it is essentially a biological perspective that will inform this assessment of Maestro Victor Ratnayake. When a biologist attempts to understand the enduring appeal of Victor Ratnayake the musician, it is inevitable that he should inquire into the biological function of music and the role that Victor Ratnayake played in performing that function by creating Sa. Let us see.
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 musician Jimi Hendrix 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 a less musical tribe.
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 in a class by himself. 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 possessed was a diploma from the Government College of Music obtained in 1965. Given such modest attributes, what made Victor tick? What comes to my mind at this point is something St Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal”. Victor did not become the equivalent of “sounding brass or clanging cymbal” because whatever else he lacked, he had the one thing that mattered: the magic of his velvety voice. His pitch-perfect exquisitely phrased singing enchanted all who listened to Sinhala music then, and continue to do so now wherever in the world they live.
I believe that had the late not his beautiful, fertile, devoted, life’s companion Chitra Rathnalatha and Victor become inseparably bonded from early childhood and hurriedly legalized the bond on November 1, 1966, Victor might well have spread the treasure of his sperm bank among hundreds of nubile female fans who worshipped him. For good or ill, at that time Victor was hard pressed for time: between 1968 and 1972 he and Chitra were busy building a nest with four offspring. So there was a mismatch between demand and supply. 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! Such was the attraction of Victor’s singing for human females. I doubt whether even the most gorgeous tail of any peacock, 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 ‘api okkoma rajawaru’. Its lyrics was written by Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne. He composed it to celebrate Sri Lanka’s historic transition from an unbroken monarchical rule from the earliest times to May 22, 1972 when the country became a Republic. The song declares that we are all kings now. In other words, we the people are sovereign. Every time I hear Victor’s magisterial rendition of this song, I for one, become more bonded to my people.
Politically we are republican. In the world of music, however, we continue to be a monarchy. 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 see the Kingdom of Sinhala Music where the undisputed king is Amaradeva. The pretender to the throne is Victor Ratnayake. I perceive various attributes the pretender must acquire to qualify to be king. Today in the fullness of his years and honours, it is possible to declare definitively that Victor Ratnayake is no longer the pretender. He is the reigning monarch in the Kingdom of Sinhala music. Last year the University of the Visual and Performing Arts honoured the musical genius of Victor Ratnayake by conferring on him, deservedly, its highest academic honour, namely, Doctorate in Literature. In the meantime adorable King Amaradeva has gracefully faded from the scene. Victor Ratnayake is now King. We love our King because we love our music. Long live King Victor!