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Ananda Samarakoon - The composer of our national anthem

Who composed our national anthem? I am sure all you readers know the answer - Ananda Samarakoon. What do you know about him? We seldom hear or read about him now. He died 44 years ago, on April 5, 1962.

'Sri Lanka Maatha' was not composed as the national anthem. Samarakoon has put it on record that he composed it in 1940, when he was a teacher at Mahinda College, Galle, to instil patriotism - a love for one's country - in his students.

We had no national anthem to sing, on February 4, 1948, the day we got independence from British rule. The need for a national anthem was keenly felt; so, a competition was held to select one. Many choirs trained by reputed musicians competed. Ananda Samarakoon's song was selected. The Cabinet accepted 'Namo Namo Maatha' as our national anthem on November 22, 1951.

The opening words of the original song were 'Namo Namo Maatha'. Samarakoon knew nothing as he was away in India, holding art exhibitions, when all this took place.

Samarakoon was not only a master musician, singer and lyric writer (verses written to be sung are called lyrics), he was also an artist. His paintings, which were exhibited in North India and in Singapore and Malaysia during 1948-1951 had very favourable reviews in the leading papers of those towns like Straits Times and Deccan Herald.

He showed his inborn talents in the field of music when he was still a schoolboy. The story goes that he hated arithmetic. One day, the master caught him writing some lines of verse instead of doing his sums.

"What is this?" asked the angry master. "A song", replied the boy. "Then sing it for the class to hear", ordered the master, as a punishment. The boy sang the words to a tune he made up on the spot. The class was thrilled. The master's anger gave way to surprise and delight, but he didn't show it. The song was about the beautiful river-side he passed daily as he walked to and from school.

Ananda Samarakoon was born on January 13, 1911 in a small village, Liyanwela, near Watareka in the Padukka area. His parents, Samuel Samarakoon and Dominga Pieris were Christians. The son was christened George Wilfred. His full name was Egodahage George Wilfred Alwis Samarakoon.

He started schooling at the Wewala Government Sinhala school and his daily walk from Liyanwela to Wewala and back, was past the Weraha Ganga, which as it goes downstream, becomes the Bolgoda Oya.

Later, George Wilfred was admitted to Christian College, Kotte. His mother was then a teacher in a school at Nawala. Kotte and Nawala are on either side of the Diyawannawa. While at Christian College, he composed a song for the students of his mother's school, to sing at an inter-school competition organised by the Education Department.

The competition was held at Christian College and young Samarakoon must have been on top of the world, when it was announced that the students of the Nawala school won the first place. It was a patriotic song.

In 1929 he passed the ESLC examination, the equivalent of today's O-Level in the First Division, and in 1934, joined the staff of Christian College, as a teacher of art and music.

It was about this time that Rabindranath Tagore came to Sri Lanka with his troupe of dancers and musicians and staged ballets based on episodes in the Ramayana. This visit marked a turning point in our cultural scene. Many young men and a few women too, were so taken up with the singing and dancing, that they decided to join Shantinekathan, Tagore's School of Fine Arts in Bengal, some 100 odd miles from Calcutta (now Kolkott). Among them was George Wilfred.

He joined Shantinekathan in 1936 and studied art under the famous Bengali artist Nanda Lal Bose, and music and singing under Shanti Devi Gosh. He came back in 1937 before finishing his course, perhaps due to financial reasons, and started teaching again. It is not on record, but perhaps it was on his return, that George Wilfred became Ananda Samarakoon. In 1940, he was on the staff of Mahinda College.

The 1940s were the best years of Samarakoon's career, but he had already made his mark as singer, musician and lyric writer. He recorded his first song for the HMV company in 1939. Soon after, more songs were recorded. They were sung as duets with a young girl, Leelawathy. Samarakoon introduced a new type of song, with simple words, in keeping with the rural scenes painted in the lyrics, and they were set to charming tunes that appealed to the listeners. It was the Gramophone Era and these records sold fast and became very popular.

Leelawathy had an untimely death. His next partner was Swarna de Silva, a sister of the flautist Dunstan de Silva. It was with Swarna de Silva that Samarakoon first recorded 'Namo Namo Maatha' and other hits like 'Siri Saru Saara Kethey' and 'Poson Poho dina'.

When his son and only child, aged 5, died, Samarakoon was heart-broken, and became depressed. He left everything and went to India in 1948 and took to painting, to drown his sorrow.

Returning to his homeland in 1951, he started writing lyrics and singing. He was given a programme on the radio's school service. He produced a pageant of song and dance - Amaraneeya Lanka in 1957. But none of the songs of the 1950s could match the hits of the 40s. Because of his unsettled life and financial difficulties, he didn't have the peace of mind to compose songs like those of his heyday.

Then, in the 60s, he was hit so hard that he never recovered from the blow. Poets, pundits and Buddhist monks began blaming the misfortunes in the country on the national anthem, which they said was unlucky. Two Prime Ministers had untimely deaths; no Prime Minister had been able to complete his term of office.

This, the critics said, was the ill-effect of the unlucky 'gana' at the beginning of the national anthem. A 'gana' is the placing of the first three syllables - how the long and short syllables occur. The opening words of the anthem 'na-mo-na' short-long-short constituted an unlucky gana. With mounting criticism, the Government of the day was compelled to take action. Instead of changing the national anthem, the opening words were changed to 'Sri Lanka Maatha'.

Samarakoon was angry and frustrated. The change had been done without consulting him. A few days before his death, he wrote a letter to 'Timesman', a columnist on the Times newspaper.

He wrote, "The anthem has been beheaded. It has not only destroyed the song, but also destroyed the life of the composer. I am frustrated and broken-hearted. It is a misfortune to live in a country where such things happen to a humble composer. Death would be preferable".

On the morning of April 5, 1962, he was found dead on his bed. The coroner's verdict, "Death due to an overdose of sleeping pills".

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