Among the oriental musical instruments, the tabla occupies a prominent place in a Hindustani troupe as it provides the beat or the rhythm demanded by the song.
However, apart from playing the role of an accompanying instrument which helps the other instruments in a Hindustani (Indian or oriental) keep a continuous tempo, the other properties of the tabla have been little known and explored into, until maestro Wijeratne Ranatunga extensively researched into the unknown facets of the tabla.
Perhaps, it was Wijeratne Ranatunga who is the most accomplished tablaist in the country and whose career spans over four decades, who discovered through his researches that the tabla can be tuned in such a way as to produce copious sounds including those produced by Uddakiya (A traditional drum used in Up Country dancing) and Tammatama (a pair of traditional drums often played at Buddhist Viharayas associating with religious activities).
In addition, Wijeratne Ranatunga has produced several symphonies using the tabla. For instance, the symphony of rain is, indeed, a marvelous work as the maestro captures even tiny drops of water and the rising tempo of the rain. He also produces a symphony encapsulating a complex life-style and its characteristic pace in a modern fast moving society.
Maestro Wijeratne Ranatunga is internationally acclaimed for his mastery in tabla by many countries including Italy which conferred him a special award in recognition of his talents on April 9, 2000 after several successful tours in Italy. He had performed in Italy, Germany and France in addition to his recent tours of New York where he performed with Pradeep Ratnayake at the Disney Land Theatre and at the Sidney Opera House with Rohana Weerasinghe.
Wijeratne Ranatunga studied at Maharagama Central College. In 1976, he completed a one -year course at the Lalitha Kalayathanaya as a tablaist and vocalist. His first teacher of music was Dr. Premasiri Khemadasa. Among his teachers were Sangeeth Nipun P. V Nandasiri, D. R Peris and A. D Kodituwakku. He has written a book titled "Using Tabla in Sri Lanka" in 1999.
The "Rhythma Tharanga" includes popular songs of Galana Galana Dolapare, Hopaluwanapeta, Marambari, Chandramadala, sina mal godak, Ipadunu da ma, kothena sita enawada, Mitin muda hera beluwemi, and Gee gayena. The salient characteristics of all of these songs is that the Tabla plays an important role in the troupe. One of the special features that has been incorporated into the performance is the performance of the tabla with a violin tuned in Western style and a rhythm Guitar which explores human feelings and emotions.
The last piece of the performance is "Eda saha Ada" (Yesteryears and today). This is also performed with an orchestra and symbolises the changing pace and tempo of life from quite a flowing unsophisticated life-style to a highly urban fast moving society. The songs written by Ratmale Bandula Gunawardena (sina Mal mitak, nethin muda Hera baluwemi), Yamuna Malini Perera (Galana Galana Dolapare), Dr. Praneeth Abeysundara and a duet by Bandula Nanayakkarawasam are played in the concert. This concert, unlike any other musical performance is crowded with songs which are the results of painstaking researches done in the areas of sound and music. Wijeratne Ranatunga enjoys a contended and rather tranquil life with his wife Nirmala Ranatunga, daughter Sewwandi and son Nuwan Chamara. Visharada Nirmala Ranatunga though rendered her voice to few songs remains in the heart and mind of thousands of the audience as almost every song she sang are still very popular.
It seems that her voice is young and has never grown old with the passage of time. The Ranathunge couple firmly believe that the newcomers who aspire to enter the field of Fine Arts should possess a comprehensive knowledge of the field which, in turn, nourishes and enriches their practice and helps them to make a name in the field. Otherwise, their artistic life if based on cheap popularity would wither into oblivion within a short period of time.
Visharada Nirmala Ranatunge, though not spoken of or written about widely, made a remarkable and lasting contribution to the performing art. Oba mata tharuwaki gananduru reyakadi, Sandada wasa, Me uyan there, Ma Wenuwen, Maha merak lesa, Me preme seema malake thani weee were among the most popular songs that won the admiration of thousands of fans in the country.
This concert is a commendable effort, especially at a time art and culture in Sri Lanka is facing an identity crisis against the invasive culture and music and degradation of fine arts which is being abused, for instance, commercial successes and the cheap exercise of image building by a section of the so called artists with a poor understanding of the media, especially value-based works of art.
Wijeratne Ranatunga is currently a Senior lecturer of the University of Visual and Performing Art.