Latha Walpola - Nightingale of Sri Lanka 70 years of entertainment

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By 2017-11-14

By 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. He can be reached at [email protected])

Latha Walpola, the greatest living legend of playback singing behind the Sinhala Silver Screen and whose golden voice received the 'Deshamanya' Title (the second highest National Award), completes 70 years this year in her career. This is a remarkable milestone. Therefore, the most appropriate time to write this article would have been on her 83rd birthday, which was last Saturday (11 November).

Beginnings

Latha was born on 11 November, 1934 in Colombo to a family of seven. Her father was Joseph Leenus Fernando, an employee of Cargills Ltd and her mother was Elizabeth Muriel, a teacher who always encouraged Latha to sing. She began her schooling at St. Anthony College, Mount Lavinia and became a member of the church choir as a child by displaying her vocal skills.

Latha has won accolade after accolade for her high scale singing voice that captured the hearts of music fans of the world.

Latha was born and bred in Mount Lavinia where she was fortunate to have associated with leading local artists at the time, who willingly helped her showcase her talents through Radio Ceylon. Among them were C.A. Fonseka, Susil Premaratna, Vincent de Alwis, Kalidasa Kurukulasuriya and C.T. Fernando.

C.A. Fonseka, the popular Radio dramatist who introduced many an artists like Rukmani Devi, Susil and Freddie Silva to the artistic word was a very close family friend. Latha lived at Peiris Road, Mount Lavinia and Fonseka lived on Siripala Road, between Odeon Cinema and the Mount Lavinia Cemetery and was walking distance from her residence.

Radio Ceylon

Known by childhood name Rita Jenevi Fernando, she was first introduced to Radio Ceylon (now Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation) at the age of 12, by Fonseka. Initially, she took part in chorus singing in Fonseka's Sarala Gee Programmes along with his sons Ervin and C.D. Fonseka.

1947 was an unforgettable year in Latha's singing career when this future Nightingale of Sri Lanka, sang her first song at the age of twelve. Exactly 70 years ago, Vincent de Alwis, the versatile violinist at Radio Ceylon who was a close family friend of Latha's, extended a golden opportunity to sing a duet with him on his Sarala Gee Programme.

The song was Kandulu Denethe Vehena Kima Mata Pitu Pala Vedana Hada Vedana written by Sarath Wimalaweera and music composed by Vincent de Alwis himself.

In recognition of her wonderful talents and skills, de Alwis introduced her to Susil Premaratne who lived on St. Rita's Road, Mount Lavinia and C.T. Fernando residing on Priyadharshanarama Road, Dehiwala. Latha then sang duets with Susil and C.T. She has spoken in high esteem of Susil whom she considered her Guru. Lo Ada Ninde, Selalihini Kowul, Mal Bara Himidiriye, Jesu Rajanani and Nisala Rae sung with C.T. and Mihiri Suwada, Nangwanu Sri Lanka, Ran Wan Karalin, Kalu Kelani Nadee, Ru Raese Adina Lese and many other songs sung with Susil in the latter part of 1940s and early 1950s are a few of her highly popular songs even today.

Gamini meets Latha

Legendary actor Sakvithi Gamini Fonseka recalled some memories of Latha at her 50th anniversary of becoming the leading female voice, celebrated in 1997. Gamini was an Art student of Susil Premaratna in the 1950's. While he was doing some practical work at Susil's home, Latha was rehearsing a song in the next room. Gamini was curious to know where that melodious lovely voice was coming from and peeped into the room quietly as directed by Susil.

There, he saw a lovely teenage girl singing. This was how Gamini and Latha first met.

In recognition of her beautiful voice on par with Latha Mangeshkar, Queen of Music in India, deep voice playback singer Susil Premaratne named this future Nightingale of Sri Lanka as the one and only Latha, of the Island of Sri Lanka in 1949 or 1950: Not Jenevi, it was Susil and Latha as published in all posters of musical shows in 1950-52.

Hit parade

Namo Mariyanee recorded in 1948 became a household favourite in Sri Lanka, showered her with outstanding success. Talented with a high scale voice, she was in high demand for church carols and hyms. Seethala Duruthu Mahe, Nangwa Jaya Handa Pem, Soka Nege Mae Den, Oba Prema Raja Mage and many other songs recorded in 1948, 1949 and 1950s became highly popular together with carols composed by Fr. Marcelline 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, her golden voice was known by every household in the country. Mohamed Ghouse, P.L.A. Somapala and B.S. Perera the famous musicians at the time brilliantly utilized her harmonious high-pitched tone into their musical creations. All these musicians invited her to perform at all the musical shows organized throughout the island in the early 50's.

In 1953 Latha made her debut in playback singing, behind the screen in Eda Rae. The three duets that were recorded were Hari Hari, Hebeta Mage Luck Kal and Prithi Prithi Darling with famous actor Herbie Seneviratne and music composed by legendary director Mohamed Ghouse. All these songs were comedy songs.

'Prema Tharangaya'

But her second film Prema Tharagaya screened in 1953 became a milestone in Latha's life. It was the starting point of her career as a playback singer for leading characters of movies. The duet Honda Hondama Weya Lowa Kisima Thenaka Nehe in Prema Tharangaya was recorded by Latha and Dharmadasa Walpola who later became the Voice behind Sinhala Silver Screen. This collaboration paved the way not only for the duo to become the most wanted playback singers for main roles at the time, but also to get married after five years on 12 April 1958.

From Eda Rae screened in 1953 to Lantin Singho in 2016, Latha rose to the apex of recording over 600 films including movies like Jeevithaya and Puran Appu which was never screened.

A special feature is that she has recorded play back singing for almost every actress in Sinhala cinema except Rukmani Devi. During her musical career, she not only sang for actresses Rohini Jayakody, Thalatha Gunasekara and Girly Gunawardana in the 1950s and 60s but also fortunately got the rare opportunity of singing behind the screen for their three daughters Veena Jayakody, Nadeeka Gunasekara and Sabita Perera who later became popular on the silver screen.

Illustrious career

As far back as 1960s it became largely a profitable business to dub Sinhala dialogue into Hindi and Tamil movies which were popular in Sri Lanka. Latha Walpola was adjudged the best for her outstanding performance in singing before original playback singers in India. She did playback singing for popular Indian actresses like Vyjayanthimala, Nimmi, Nadira et al.

It is hard to recall the exact number of songs that she has recorded in the last 70 years. Basically it is presumed that the total number of songs would be over 6750, from her first song - Kandulu Denethe Wehena, a duet with Vincent de Alwis in 1947 to Sansara Mawathe, a duet with Dr. Nimal Senanayake in 2017.

She is not only the leading playback singer, but also indisputably a successful artist. She sang for famous Gee Malu such as Barisil, Kele Mal and Navarella of Premasiri Kemadasa, Daskon, a drama by Herbert M. Senaviratna, Kumara Kassapa, an opera of Dayarathna Ranthunaga. In addition, she has played a few mini roles in three Sinhala films. Latha dubbed her pristine voice for Nimmi in Angulimala and Anjali Devi in Pathiwatha. Pushpa Sungara, an opera (Geetha Natakaya) was produced by Sesha Palihakkara for presentation in front of Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Sri Lanka in 1952, was dominated by Latha with W.D. Amaradeva, the main playback singer. She won various awards including Presidential Awards.

Latha is a gifted artist by birth with no educational background in music who surprised the entire country. She is one of the rare singers who could sing three octaves in high scale voice maintaining the voice unchanged. Most singers sing in two octaves. She has been at the top with her great skills during the last 70 years. As a tribute to her outstanding musical brilliance, the Government of Sri Lanka has quite appropriately honoured her with the 'Kala Suri' Award in 1991 and 'Deshamanya' Title, the second highest National Award in 2016, distinctively awarded her invaluable contributions to Arts and Culture. May she be well and happy and in good health. Lata Walpola, the indisputable Nightingale of Sri Lanka is a National Treasure worthy of emulation.

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