When we critique the musical masterpieces created, whether they are film music, songs, musical pieces western or eastern, English or Sinhala, the name Nimal Mendis leads the list with lilting evergreens such as ‘Master Sir’ ‘Rantikiri Sina’ or ‘Nimhim Sevva’.
After a long intermission this doyen of music has returned to his motherland to gift to us music lovers many more musical experiences. After more than 20 years, he has returned to direction of film music with Rohan Weliwita’s maiden film ‘Suseema’.
Be it films like ‘Kalu Diya Dahara’, ‘Rampage’, ‘God King’, ‘Ganga Addara’, ‘Yahalu Yeheli’, ‘Ahasin Polowata’,‘Gehenu Lamai’ or ‘Beddegama’ which gave us ever-popular songs like ‘Nimhim Sewwa’ by Pandith W. D. Amaradeva, ‘Rantikiri Sina’ ‘Neela Wickremasinghe’, ‘Upul Nuwan Vidaha’ Milton Mallawarachchi or ‘Master Sir’ originally sung by Neville Fernando and synonymous with Nimal Mendis.
The song “Master Sir” which remained a hit in Sri Lanka for over thirty years is not merely a song but a powerful message that talks about the dignity of labour and social justice.
“Following an unfortunate incident I encountered in England in which I was assaulted by a group of Englishmen merely for being a black I returned to Sri Lanka. Dispirited and disheartened I gave up music and bought a 10-acre piece of land in Norton Bridge and started on a cultivation,” Nimal narrated the back ground for ‘Master Sir’.
‘I worked with ordinary labourers to their amazement as the land owners working with the labourers was not the accepted culture. It was during this period that I realized the racism that existed in this country. Assaulted for being a black in England, I experienced the suffering undergone by the poor and the labour class of this country in Norton Brigde’ Nimal said reminiscing his experience.
“While Sinhalese called their bosses in the plantation sector ‘Sir’ the Tamil estate workers had to use the term ‘Master’,” he said. In the upcountry, Nimal Mendis was advised by many how he should keep his dignity as the ‘Master’ to all of which he protested.
‘It was with these experiences I wrote and composed Master Sir” Nimal, the great humanist declared. “Now I can’t see caste, colour, nationality or religion. I feel we are all one’.
Ten cents more which you have promised to pay me
Will buy my child an extra bowl of rice,
But Master Sir I have my dignity
Master Sir treats me kind and nice
There is a long long way for us to go
before this tug-o-war can ever ends
When that day will be I don’t know-
Master Sir when can I called you friend…..
The Sinhala version written by Karunaratne Abeysekara and sung by Neville Fernando was used for the film ‘Kalu Diya Dahara’ by Manik Sandrasagara.
Songs and musical creations of Nimal Mendis were not only limited to this little island. He is one of the Sri Lankan musicians ever to make it to the BBC television program Top of the Pops in the 1960s. Mendis is also well-known for his musical masterpieces. “Kandyan Dance”, an instrumental, a piece created in the West was recorded by Friedel Berlipp, his Orchestra in Germany and it went on to be number two on Radio Luxemburg.
Mendis appeared on the popular BBC television music programme ‘Top of the Pops’ with his singing partner Sandra Edema in 1968 as guest artistes with his song “Feel like a Clown”.
“Kiss Kiss Kiss” was Nimal’s first song that was recorded in Britain and sung by Mary Marshall on the Columbia label. “Kandyan Express”, “Cherry Blossom Tree”, “Oh My Lover”, “Butterfly in the Rain”, “Champagne Blues”, and “Goodnight Kisses” were number-one hits in Sri Lanka in the late fifties and requests came from all of the South Asian countries to the SLBC, the first radio in the region.
Mendis also fondly remembered his journeys with his buddy and friend Manik Sandrasagara, well-known film director and producer in the West. “We drove right across the States in the seventies and what an experience that was. From Toronto to New York, Washington to Nevada, through thick ice and snow arriving in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. We ended up in California with ten dollars in our pockets. It was during this trip that Manik taught me that although money was needed to enjoy the good things in life, it was only a necessary evil,”
Asked about the latest trends in music and the future with the younger generation, Nimal said “the younger generation must come up. They are creative and the future is theirs. Bathiya and Santhush got my song ‘Master Sir’ to recreate it and tears came to my eyes when I first heard their reproduction,”.
Taking legal action against the artiste using the original talents of the veteran musicians, “I don’t believing in suing people. That is not the job of an artiste. It is the job of businessmen,” he said.
The music maker also recorded his name in the Hansard of the British Parliament by all parties commending his heartfelt composition, Tsunami the song which he made in aid of the victims.
“At that time there were some songs going around Britain making a mockery of this massive devastation. But I was so moved at what happened,” Nimal said in a sad note.
After a long silence Nimal Mendis together with his wife Ranjani and son Paulmarie has returned to his motherland and will be starting to write musical scores for Rohan Weliwita’s ‘Suseema’.
The family has formed ‘Mediaeye’, the publishing arm of Mendis’.