Reflecting on Nanda Malini | Sunday Observer

Reflecting on Nanda Malini

10 September, 2023

In more senses than one, I grew up with Nanda Malini. Taking the bus from Kadawatha to Moratuwa the other day, I realised how much her work shaped my perceptions of art. Near the exit at Kahatuduwa, the radio played Araliya Landata. Near Kesbewa it played Mage Deshaya. In Piliyandala, where I got down, it played Yadamin Benda Wilangula. If it’s hard to think of another Sri Lankan vocalist, even less a songstress, whose body of work can be so diverse, it may be because she remains almost peerless.

The truth of the matter is that Nanda Malini represents many things to many people. And to me, at one level, she epitomises the essential character of Sinhala music, a field and genre which witnessed an efflorescence at the time of her arrival.

But then that begs a question. What exactly constitutes Sinhala music? Musicologists and anthropologists have no doubt pondered over this issue, and different scholars have come up with their own interpretations. The safest thing that can be said about Sinhala music is that, as with every other culture in which song and dance form an integral part, it has been shaped by the social conditions of its time.

In the early 20th century, following the Buddhist revival and with the ascent of a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, singers, composers, and patrons pandered to a highly vocal and articulate linguistic community. Yet while being receptive to cultural factors, these objets d’art remained dominated by a capitalist logic. The same can be said of the folk and classical musical revival after independence.

Artistic developments

It would be crudely economistic to attribute artistic developments to the profit motive and the marketplace alone, of course. But that ethic had a profound say on the type of music people played and people heard. To locate Nanda Malini in the social and cultural landscape of the country, it is thus necessary to locate her predecessors and her descendants.

Nanda found her place in the sun during that intermezzo in the 1960s when, after Amaradeva had secured for himself a preeminent position in the world of Sinhala music, several vocalists –products of the 1956 revolution – arrived and, in a manner of speaking, made it to the top rapidly. Nanda’s achievement, which should be shared with the likes of Sujatha Attanayake, is in how, at this juncture, she redefined the role of the songstress in Sri Lanka.

Writing of George Keyt, L. C. van Geyzel once commented that he had no precursors, “only ancestors from antiquity.” Nanda, of course, had her precursors, but they had all racked up an unfortunate reputation as playback singers, whose task in life seemed to be to put verses into the mouths of actresses who couldn’t sing.

This stratum of Sinhala songstresses hailed from a certain milieu: they were mostly Catholic, and they had been raised on church music. Growing up in a lower middle-class, Buddhist, and leftwing family – initially as supporters of the Communist Party – Malini could not be more different to them. “We were very poor, and had nothing by way of assets,” she once told Malinda Seneviratne.

Nanda’s voice, which is the criterion by which we can assess her career, remains earthy, grounded, rousing. It is not musical in the sense that Anjaline’s or even Sujatha’s is. Yet it is musical, and it speaks in more than one sense to the people of this country. That, tempered with the leftwing outlook of her family, endeared her to a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie which held within its bosom a highly radical potential.

Petty bourgeoisie

From her debut, Galana Gangathi Jeevithe, up to Me Sinhala Apage Ratayi, she appealed to this crowd. Although she disowned many of these works later on, they remain evocative of the period she hailed from. It is after this phase that she came up with her political work, which some date from Sathyaye Geethaya, but traces of which I find in as innocuous a song as Sakura Mal Pipila.

A product of 1956, Nanda remained attached to everything that year represented. Yet the Sinhala middle-classes who had made up her audience were quickly being diverted to other political streams. In the early 1960s, the Old Left entered a period of reckoning, particularly with the splits of 1964. By the end of that decade, the Old Left was giving way to the New, primarily to the JVP.

From the Communist Party, the LSSP, and their offshoots, a new Sinhala lower middle-class hence gravitated to these new formations. Nanda’s music at this point – Thun Hele Kala and Me Jeewana Ganga Dharaye – reflected these developments. When the next generation, far removed from what Regi Siriwardena once described as the “liberal democratic norms” of their ancestors, followed the JVP towards a cruder form of radical and revolutionary politics, her music followed suit. This led to the Pavana phase.

Critics often charge Pavana as lacking any artistic merit. Yet there is something unsettling about the Pavana songs. Granted, they do not possess the rich and evocative radicalism of Sathyaye Geethaya. But one must accept that the audiences she addressed at this point did not entertain such a politics. To affirm that point, though, is to raise a question. Should the artiste bend with his or her times, or should he or she force the times to bend to him or her?

Two-way street

My answer to that question is that it is not just possible, but also imperative, to appeal to one’s audiences while guiding them towards a more coherent conception of politics and art. Art, in that sense, is a two-way street, and the artiste who puts himself or herself fully in the service of his or her audience runs the risk of capitulating to them.

Judging by such criteria, one can commend the Pavana songs as having served a certain purpose, a specific function, while also recognising in them certain crippling limitations.

A friend critiqued my earlier article on Victor Ratnayake, claiming I had focused too much on the vocalist and composer, not so much on the lyricist. In Nanda’s case, or rather in the case of her evolution as Sri Lanka’s foremost songstress, we must doubtless acknowledge the role Sunil Ariyaratne played, and continues to play. This is especially so because, more than with any other lyricist-vocalist combination in modern Sri Lankan music, Ariyaratne has been with Nanda Malini at every step of the way, from the rich, playful cadences of Sakura Mal Pipila to the bewildering banality of Nona Naana Nam Naanna Nona.

Through their collaboration we also can discern the essence of contemporary Sinhala music: its contradictory character. No other artist or lyricist has essayed so hard, and proved so successfully, to reveal the many different cultural and political strands underlying Sinhala music today. This has, then as now, been Nanda’s greatest achievement, and her biggest limitation. In the contradictions belying her career, then, we can see the contradictions belying her country.

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at [email protected].