A blend of two art forms | Sunday Observer

A blend of two art forms

1 March, 2020

The morning sun picked up the long shadows through the trees and we decide to go down a road filled with milestones, achievements, and a life that breathes music and dance. And there is Upali with his beautiful wife Nandani, a descendant of a traditional dancing family, his constant companion in everything, as he looks back on his life that is by no means ordinary.

There are some events etched in one’s memory and are a perennial source of joy and fulfilment. The morning of January 25, is one such occasion. On this day, we met musician Upali Gunawardena and his dancer wife at their residence in Terrance Perera Mawatha, Hingurala, Puwakpitiya. The few hours spent with them were indeed precious.

Filled with laughter and often pensive moments, our conversation flowed like a gentle brook in his home at Hingurala where shelves were filled with the numerous awards they bagged and strewn with traditional music instruments. On the walls hung photographs of awards received from dignitaries.

Upali Gunawardene needs no introduction. Born on May 5, 1942 in Hingurala, Puwakpitiya, to academic parents, his father was a reputed school principal.

Upali is the eldest in the seven-member family. In 1964, when he was serving as an apprentice music teacher, he got the rare chance of participating in Maestro Khemadasa’s stage symphonies as an instrumentalist in Sinhala Avurudda and Maha Muhuda and in a few film music recordings, with his great friend the late Sarath Dassanayake.

While serving as a music teacher in a government school in 1970, Upali got the chance of appearing for auditions in the Drama and Music sections at the Radio Ceylon and was selected as an artist in Guwan Viduli Ranga Mandala and Nawaka Mandala programs.

The same year Upali tied the nuptial knot with Nandani Budawatte, in Mawanella. He was then music teacher at Udugampola Maha Vidyalaya while Nandani was a dance teacher at the Weligamuwa primary school in Rambukkana. Nandani Budawatte born on September 4, 1947, in Aranayake, Mawanella, is the only daughter of Punchiguru Budawatte of Gevilipitiya, Aranayake, a famous traditional dancer and recipient of Kalabooshana awarded by the Cultural Department. Her brothers were all dance teachers, the only survivor being Kulasiri Budawatte, a reputed artiste and dance teacher.

Upali and Nandani were selected to the first State Music and Dance Ensemble respectively, founded by W.B. Makulloluwa, then Director of the Aesthetic Unit of the Cultural Department. They had to participate in all performances held throughout the island.

Through these cultural shows they gained experience and knowledge in choreography, music composition and the use of various drums, which helped them to win awards in the All Island Dance and Music competitions on 12 occasions from 1975 to 1990.

In 1973, they started their private institution named Nandapalee Kalayathanaya (joining their names, Nandani and Upali) at Rambukkana where they served as music and dance teachers in government schools. At the beginning, there were around 28 pupils in the Academy which is now located in their residence in Puwakpitiya.

They also produced a music troupe which won first place in classical orchestral music and a folk dance (stick dance) in 1975, at the All Island Kalayathana competitions.

These achievements gave them the opportunity to appear on the silver screen several times, in popular films such as Kasthuri Suwada, Nilla Soya and Mage Amma, most of them directed by Sena Samarasinghe.

Eventually, Nandani was transfered to the Govt. Teachers’ College, Giragama in 1979.

During their sojourn in Kandy, Upali was promoted as a lecturer in music at the Uyanwatta Teachers’ College and as a lecturer in aesthetic education at the Pre-school education course at the Open University, Kandy Regional Centre.

Nandani who was transfered to St. Anthony’s Girls’ School, Kandy, transformed the whole system of dance education, giving priority to the practical side, which won them first place at Inter-school dance and ballet competitions. In all these items, music was composed and directed by Upali.

Thereafter they moved residence to Kandy in 1979, and started classes with students from Nandani’s school and Upali’s music students from several schools in Kandy, and eventually formed an orchestra, playing various instruments.

They gave background music to the ballet, Thuru Rekena Thuru which won first place in the island in 1986. In the final phase, all ballets selected from seven provinces were granted freedom to record music using any orchestra.

Accordingly, Upali used the Radio Ceylon Orchestra Kandy, with the participation of Ananda Perera, a leading musician in the country. By then, Upali was also a member of the Radio Ceylon Orchestra. In 1989, during the peak time of insurgency, Upali’s mother appealed to them to get a transfer to be with them.

Heeding the mother’s request, the couple moved to Avissawella in 1990. Nandani was transferred to President’s College, Avissawella and Upali to St. Mary’s College, Avissawella.

Besides their numerous performances, they were gifted with many disciples in the field of music and dance and won several titles and awards including Kalabooshana. The couple was blessed with a girl and a boy, who are now settled in foreign countries with their families. Their daughter works as a human resources manager in London, and the son is an IT Engineer in New Zealand.

After retirement, they helped many talented children in the village schools to discover the pleasure of music and dance.

“Music helps them understand team work, empathy, co-ordination, that can turn them into better individuals,” say Upali and Nandani.

The duo will celebrate their golden jubilee this year on March 5.