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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2583

Latha Walpola – Nightingale of Sri Lanka Becomes Octogenerian

By T.K.Premadasa

Latha Walpola, the greatest living legend of playback singing for Sinhala silver screen ever created golden voice celebrates her 80th Birthday on 11th November 2014. Greetings of Blessings for a healthy, long life from the fans around the world will enliven this indomitable songstress who has contributed an excellent performance of play back singing in Sinhala Cinema and music during the last seven decades.

Latha elevated to the loftiest heights of play back singing in Sinhala Cinema, blessed with innate talents and skills. The future legendary jewel of singing excelled in her carrier in reaching the zenith of glory in life.

Latha was born on 11th November 1934 in Colombo to a family of seven members. Her father was Joseph Leenus Fernando an employee of Cargills who not encouraged Latha to perform singing. Her mother was Elizabeth Muriel, a teacher who always encouraged Latha to singing.

Latha was born and bred in Galkissa and featured her inborn talents of singing. She began her schooling at St. Anthony College Mount Lavinia and displayed her competence in singing joining the Church Choir. She also led the Church Choir as a small girl. Latha has won accolades after improving her high scale singing voice that captured the hearts of Music fans of the world.

Known by her childhood name as Rita Jenevi Fernando she was introduced to then Radio Ceylon (Now-Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation) at the age of 12 years with her mother’s permission by her family friend C.A.Fonseka, a popular Radio dramatist at the time. At the beginning she sang songs C.A. Fomseka’s Sarala gee Program as a member of Choir ( Samuha Gayana) with his son C.D Fonseka.

In 1947 she made her debut in singing “Kandulu Denethe Vehena”, with lerics of Sarath Wimalaweera song composed by Vincent de Alwis, the versatile violinist at Radio Ceylon and sang duets with him in his Sarala Gee Programs conducted by Radio Ceylon. Observing her congenital talents and skills Vincent de Alwis introduced her to Susil Premaratne and C.T.Fernando. “Namo Mariyanee” recorded by her in 1948 with her melodious voice became a household favorite in Sri Lanka showered upon with outstanding success. “Seethala Duruthu Mahe”, “Mihiri Suwanda Vihiduwa” “Nunwa Jaya Handa Pem”, “Soka Nege Den”, “Oba Prema Raja Mage” and many other songs recorded in 1948, 1949 and 1950 became highly popular together with Carroll songs composed by Fr Mercelyn Jayakody.

She was fortunate to have recorded a few songs like “Sukomala Banda Lelawa”, “Dunhinda Helena” and “Diyaluma Helena” originally sung by Chitra Somapala. By 1950 she became a shining spectacle invading the living rooms of each and every household in Sri Lanka by her beaming golden voice. Mohamed Ghouse, P.L.A.Somapala and B.S.Perera the famous musicians at the time brilliantly utilized her harmonious voice of high-pitched tone into their musical creations.

It is hard to reminiscent the exact number of songs that she has recorded so far. The proximate number of songs she is credited with could be penned 6000 as known at the 50th Anniversary of Celebrations in 1997. Basically it is presumed that the total number of songs would be 6500 by now.

In recognition of her miraculous voice par with the award winning Latha Mangeshkar, Queen of Music in India, deep voice playback singer Susil Premaratne named this future Nightingale of Sri Lanka as one and only Latha of the island of Sri Lanka.

Latha made her debut in playback singing for film “Eda Rae” in 1952 albeit it was screened in 1953. This sparkling artist recorded songs for three films during the same year as an amateur. Latha and Dharmadasa Walpola began their career as the most successful playback singers by singing in “Prema Tharangaya” for the first time. It is historically significant that it was Music Director Muttusami’s first film too. The melodious songs such as “Honda hondama veya lowa kisima thenaka nehe”, “Pera kala pawa paladee pape gewawi” have remained etched in our memories for decades. Embraced with abundance of affection and attachment, this singing duo got married and Latha became known as Latha Walpol. In 1950s and 1960s and early part of 1970’s both Latha and Dharmadasa were the most popular singer and songstress. It is very rare to find such great golden voices as husband and wife in cinema industry.

An interesting story heard about their meeting first time at singing together for Honda Hondama Weya for Prema Thargaya film is worthy of mention here. Aruna Shanthi who played the main role in Prema Tharagaya was scheduled to sing this song.

But a difficult situation arose since Aruna Shanthi failed to satisfy the required quality of singing. At this decisive moment, M.Ariyadasa of the orchestra voluntarily rushed to Dharmadasa’s home, brought him in the midnight and recorded the song successfully. It was the birth of a meeting of two lovely legends of music in Sri Lanka

Amazingly Latha had contributed to a record number of 22 films after five years of her debut in film industry that is by 1958 while versatile actress-singer Rukmani Devi had made it for only 10 films. During the last 64 years Latha has made a reputation of recording for nearly 600 films some of which are yet to be screened.

It was a great honor to those Radio artists Susil Premaratne, C.T.Fernando, C.D.Fonseka, Edward Perera, B.P.Wickremasinghe, Vincent Paul Peiris, Clarence Wijewardana, Haroon Lanthra, Dharmadasa Walpola, Mohideen Baig, W.D.Amaradeva, Milton Perera, H.R.Jothipala, Victor Ratnayake, T.M.Jayaratne, Milton Mallawarachchi, Sanath Nandasiri, M.S.Fernando, Rukhantha Gunatilleke, Bandu Samarasinghe, Rajeeva Nanayakkara , Suneth Walpola, Priyankara Perera,Jagath Wickramasinghe, Sunil Edirisinghe, Nuwan Gunawardena Gratien Ananda, Samantha Perera, G.S.B.Rani Perera, Indrani Wijebandara,Anjaleen Gunathilka, Chndara de Silva and Sujatha Attanayake to have absorbed into singing with this acclaimed artist during the last six decades.

Music Directors Mohamed Ghouse, R.Mutthusami, B.S.Perera, Sunil Shantha, R.A.Chandrasena, W.D.Amaradeva, P.L.A.Somapala, P.L.A Somapala P.S. Divakara D.R. Peiris, Roksami, Somapala Elvitigal , Premala Danwatta, Premadasa Mudunkotuwa. Premasiri Khemadasa, Sarath Dassanayake, Stanley Pieris, Sisira Senaratna, Rohana Weerasinghe and Samantha Perera thrilled with admiration of her musical brilliancy have stimulated her contribution of professional singing to their innovative creation of music.

The island recognized lyric writers Ananda Samarakoon (Composer of the National Anthem), Arisen Ahubudu, Karunaratne Abeysekera, Chitrananda Abeysekera, Gunarathna Abeysekara, Hubet De Mel , Vinth Jayasurioya, J.P. Rajapaksa, A.J. De Zoyza, W. Wilfrad Silva, Aewswn Ahubudu, Upali Attanayake, Ciril A. Silawimala,Thilak Karunathilaka, Dharmasiri Gamage, George Leslie Ranasinghe, Hugo Fernando, D.T.Fernando, Ananda Sarath Wimalaweera, Fr. Mercelyn Jayakody, Herbert M. Seneviratne, Madawala S.Ratnayake, Chandraratne Manawasinghe, Chandradasa Fernando,D.T. Fernando, Benedict Fernando , Henry Dharmasena, Augustus Vinayagaratnaml, Nihal A. Jayasinghe, K.D.K. Dharmawardena ,, Lionel Jayawickrama, Upali Dhanawlawithana , Sunil Ariyaratne, Luxman Mallawaarchci ,Sunil Sarath Perera, Mahagama Sekera, Ajantha Ranasinghe and Premakeerthi de Alwis shared their intellectual compositions soaked with scintillating lyrics of touching moments in life to this great unassuming singing persona who has conquered the seven seas with an immense reservoir of singing aptitude

She holds the record for being the only artist to have sung with South Indian musicians like Dakshinamurthi in film ‘Duppathage Duka” and “Suraya”, Sathyamurthi, T.R.Papa, Jamuna Rani, K.Rani, Saraswathi and Sri Lankan film stars Herby Seneviratne, Dommie Jayawardana, Fredi Silva , Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ravindra Randeniya.

Latha the only Sri Lankan artist who was fortune to playback singing under the direction of famous Indian Musicians such as Darshana Murthi, S.S.Weda,T.R.Papa, R. Sundaranam , Raja Thangendra, Gowradanam,Anil Biswas,Subaiya Nidu, Kirhsna Murthi Chithra Guptha , C. Ramachandran , Jayadev.

Latha Walpola has made an exemplary contribution to enrich Sinhala music with her unique style of singing in a lilting and mellifluous voice that has captivated the hearts of young and old equally at home and abroad with lasting memories. “Mathalang” and“Ahankara Sthree” were two films of gorgeous music orchestrated by Music Maestro R.Muttusami featuring the superior skills of Dharmadasa and Latha. “Jevithe vikareki”, “Lankaren malak pipee” with Dharmadasa Walpola (Ahankara Sthree)”, “Pem mala gotha gele” with Dharmadasa, “Ranvan dul karalin pesila” (Mathalang)” and “Loke jeevath vannata dedeneku one wei” with Clarence Wijewardane (Janaka saha Manju) and hundreds of unforgettable lovely songs remain delineated on the lips of music fans living around the globe.

A special feature is that Latha has recorded play back singing for every actress in Sinhala cinema except Rukmani Devi, the Queen of Sinhala filmdom. She started playback singing for Sita Jayawardana in film “Eda Rae” to present day Chaturika Pieris and Anarkalee. In coincidence with her insurmountable musical career, she not only sang playback for actresses Rohini Jayakody , Thaltha Gunasekara and Girley Gunawardana in 50s and 60s but also enjoyed the rare opportunity of singing behind their two actress daughters Veena Jayakody, Nadekka Gunasekara and Sabita Perera in later years.

Since the inception of film industry in Sri Lanka it was she who recorded playback singing for every main actress in Sinhala films. Rukmani Devi sang only for her role by herself. Latha who is recognized to be with a screen voice was aptly offered playback singing for other actresses matching her voice with theirs.

As far back as 1960s it became largely a profitable business to dub Sinhala dialogue into Hindi and Tamil movies running popular in Sri Lanka. In most films the main actresses were Vyjanthimala, Nimmi, Shawithri, Nanda Chitra Krishna Kumari, Achala and Nadira. Latha Walpola was adjudged the best for her pre-eminent singing over original playback singers in India. Playback singing in films ‘Pathiwatha’, Ahinsaka Prayogya,Mage Putha , Angulimala, Sudu Nangi, Shimbo,Veera Putha , Veera Vicrama and ‘Anjalee’ is a clear testament to her masterly performance of fascinated singing.

In the initial stages of the emergence of film industry in Sri Lanka, filming was done mostly in South India since advance technology was not available in Sri Lanka. Propensity of the producers to hire popular South Indian playback singers was challenged by Latha Walpola singing 90% of songs with high degree of unparalleled passion of melody. Indians sang one or two songs for a lesser rate compared to Latha’s nearly 8 songs in each film.”Veera Vijaya”, “Suraya”.and Mathalan are the few example. The most significant contribution she made to the Sri Lanka film industry is that the way she challenged to Indian artists and broken down their monopoly.

Latha is recognized as the only female singer who has a combination of singing caliber of Classical songs, Chorus songs, Baila songs, Vannam and Western songs.

In 1957, certain popular songs were bannded from broadcasting, indicating that lyrics did not match with Sri Lankan culture. Among them were two songs “ Dakina Dakina Wele “ and Maneke Manike Mage Rankande” sung by Latha and Dharmadasa Walpola . After a short lapse of time this ban was removed

It is said that Latha with Fanto Fernando sang a Western song in the monthly musical program known by “Masika Renguma” music orchestrated by B.S.Perera and conducted by the then Radio Ceylon was vehemently criticized by the listeners for the mere reason it was of westernized culture.

She is not only the leading playback singer but also invariably the successful singer in Kalasuri Khemadasa’s famous gee nalu ‘Bari Sil’, ‘Kela Mal’ and ‘Nawarella’. Kalasuri Latha Walpola sang major songs in “Daskon” drama produced by Herberat M. Senaviratne and in “Kumara Kassapa” opera telecast by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. It has been noted that currently she has been singing the theme song in most of the television dramas. Pushpa Surngara an opera (Geetha Natakaya) produced by Sesha Palihakkara was produced to perform in front of Queen during her visit to Sri Lanka in 1952 . Latha dominated the event as the main playback singer joining Amaradeva with a beautiful duet composed by Amaradeva himself.

In addition to her singing she has played a few mini roles in “Eda Rae”, “Prema Tharagaya” and “Radala Piliruwa” and shared her acting capability while singing ‘Ale Nam Kale Nambuwa Soya’ in film “Radala Piliruwa”.

The Buddhist jathaka story of ‘Angulimala’ filmed in Hindi and later dubbed into Sinhala became a box office movie in Sri Lanka in which Latha dubbed her pristine voice for world popular Indian film star Nimmi.

She missed the golden opportunity of recordings with many high profile singers and frequent travel to India for recordings due her demand of highly expensive charges.

Latha disported her talent of a consummate songstress by composing a beautiful melody by her own, Lowa Niwa in early 2000 , the only innovative effort in her carrier.

Latha was the only songstress fortune to sing for both Colombia and HMV recordings.

She missed the golden opportunity of recordings with many high profile singers and frequent travel to India for recordings due her demand of highly expensive charges.

In 1978, she joined Jothipala for the first time to sing duet for song “ Sihina Wile Nilupule” of “Anupama” film. Since then it created another era of Sinhala music high hailed by the fans.

Latha ‘s popularity was so expansive that her fascinating voice was used by the business community for their promotional advertisements of their products. Promotion of Transistor Radio and Delta confectionary of Upali Group is a case in point. Appearing her pictures in Calendars was a special feature. Her song for the promotion of Vogue Jewellers still remains extend in lasting memories of Sri Lanka fans.

All involved in the film industry had high regard to Latha. Providing of all comfortable facilities to Latha to travel India for recoding songs by Robin Thampo , a leading film Director who selected Latha as the play back singer for majority of his films was a testament. This was revealed in the book “ Robin Thampo- the Last of Big one “ written by Dr. Vilasini Thampo , the daughter of Robin Thampo.

She got married to famous playback singer Dharamadasa in 1959. A ceremonial wedding was held at Siri Kotha, Kollupitiya with a huge gathering of guests and artists. Past memories reveal that Police had to deploy a special group of policemen to control the massive crowd gathered outside Siri Kotha. They have three sons and a daughter.

On account of her outstanding contribution to Sinhala music during the last sixty years, Latha’s name will glow writ large in letters of gold in the history of Sri Lankan music. It was just after six years from her entrance to Kala Lokaya that a certain popular newspaper conducted a gallop poll in 1953 to determine the Best Female Singer in Popularity at the time. Vasantha Sandanayake, Vivienne de Silva Boralessa and Latha Jenevi Fernando became the first, second and third respectively.

In 1964, a polling contest was organized by the ‘Visithura’ cinema newspaper to determine the Best Popular singer of the era. Latha polling a record highest number of votes (13,067) became the Best Popular Singer while Bohideen Beg (9,850), W.D.Amaradeva ( 5,429), Dharmadasa Walpola ( 4,722) and H.R.Jothipala ( 3,925) respectively won the second, third, fourth and fifth positions. The clear picture of this completion was highlighted in the 60 year Sinhala Cinema Publication ( Heta Wasarka Sinhala Cinema Prakashana) written by Arthur .U. Amarasena

Latha the oleaginous four-time Sarasavi Award winner has won the Golden Conch Award in 1995, Golden Jubilee Presidential Award for Pioneers of Film Industry in 1997 and Appreciation Award of OCIC among a number of other accolades presented to her in recognition of her grandiose performance of indomitable competence in singing.

In her accomplishment as the greatest artist of all times, she won the Life Time Awards known as the Golden Swan Award presented by the Lake House of the Associated Newspapers in 1992, OCIC Golden award in 2006, U.W.Sumathipala Memorial Award by the Sumathipala Group and Swarnabhimani Golden Award by Swarnavahini.

In 1974 Deepasika Award was presented to her in appreciation of her achievement as the only female singer who remarkably contributed a maximum number of songs to the film industry in Sri Lanka.

As a tribute to her outstanding presentation of musical brilliancy, the Government of Sri Lanka has quite appropriately honored her with Kala Suri Award distinctively awarded to the rare and precious greatness of inestimable contribution made to Arts & Culture.

Latha, gifted with artistic aptitude albeit no education background in music, has surprised the versatile musicians with her adaptable high scale singing. She has developed her innate talents during the last 67 years of singing with primordial function of voice rising to the loftiest heights of her musical career. Sri Lanka lends a degree of credence to her glistening glory in music and owes a debt of gratitude for her admirable dedication to music in entertaining the people home and the Sri Lankan expatriates abroad. She is a National Treasure worthy of emulation. Long Live Latha Walpola , the indisputable Nightingale of Sri Lanka.

T.K. Premadasa - The writer is the retired former Head of Corporate Affairs and Communications- Sri Lanka Export Development Board and Ex-Director of Sri Lanka Trade Centre in Maldives .

- Asian Tribune -

Latha Walpola, the greatest living legend of playback singing for Sinhala silver screen
Latha Walpola – Nightingale of Sri Lanka Becomes Octogenerian
Latha Walpola – Nightingale of Sri Lanka Becomes Octogenerian
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