Jothi: Making waves then and now

Kala Korner by Dee Cee

Watching a programme titled ‘Aalakamandawa' over national TV featuring the popular singer H. R. Jothipala the other night in connection with his 23rd death anniversary, memories flashed back to the 1970s when Jothi was a regular participant at musical shows all over the country.

These shows, popularly referred to as 'SEAC shows' (SEAC Entertainments organised the shows on behalf of the sponsor CTC) were held wherever the National Lotteries Board had the lottery draws.

Jothi, as he was fondly called by everyone and Milton Mallawaarachchi were among the most popular artistes who could not leave the stage after the usual two songs, with the crowds shouting for more.

Having been closely involved in the shows (I was with CTC then) I remember how Jothi would always oblige and continue to sing. In those days when TV was not even heard of in our country, a musical show was the only form of entertainment for the masses.

And they turned up in their numbers from far-away places. A common sight in the rural areas was the two wheel tractor winding its way to the venue with the trailer overloaded with young and old. It was one of the most popular forms of transport in areas where public transport was lacking.

The people simply relished Jothi.

Jothi, acknowledged as the most popular playback singer, has sung in over a thousand films. Breaking into playback singing with Cyril P. Abeyratne's 'Surathalie' in 1956, ('Siriyame sara' the song he sang in the film is still a hit), he was in great demand right up to the end. According to Nuwan Nayanajith Kumar's Sri Lankan Film Chronicle, films where Jothi had sung were released even in 2003 - 16 years after his death. 'Proothugeesikaraya' he sang in Lester James Peris' 'Sandesaya'(1960) was an instant hit.

He lent his voice to almost all the leading male actors of the day and he helped the most sought-after actors of the day - Gamini Fonseka and Vijaya Kumaratunga - to enhance their image through his voice. Those were the days when the hero and heroine would sing-along in romantic scenes and it was Jothi and Angeline Gunatilleka who did the playback singing.

Jothi had the distinction of singing in 328 Sinhala films during his playback career. This is the highest number by any singer. The range is so varied it's difficult to pick and choose as to which were the better ones.

Maestro Premasiri Khemadasa hailed Jothi as "the singer with a screen voice". Jothi's voice suited the screen perfectly, he said. In fact, realising the quality of Jothi's voice, the Master picked him to sing in several films where he provided the music to get him to move away from the stereotyped Hindi type songs he sang. Khemadasa never failed to feature one or two of the songs in his annual musical presentations. And he always made it a point to pay tribute to Jothi and his contribution to Sinhala film music.

India's celebrated playback singer Mohamad Raafi once said that Sri Lanka was too small a country for Jothi. "He should have been born in India,” he said. In addition to his deep voice, Jothi had the looks - and of course, the talent - to be chosen to act in films. Robin Tampoe was the first director to pick Jothi for a role in a film. That was in 'Sudu sande kalu valaa'. Most of his roles were as a happy-go-lucky youngster.

Jothi was universally accepted as a fine human being. He rarely said 'no' to anyone. I remember after the musical shows were over and we would retire to a quiet place for dinner, requests would come for "just one song". And he would gladly oblige and sing late into the night.

I can’t think of any other singer for whom statues have been erected as a mark of remembrance. Jothi's is at the Maligawatta flats where he last resided.

Jothi left at the height of his career. He was just 51. His voice continues to be heard on broadcast channels. Requests still pour in for his songs. Internet sites publicise MP3s containing his songs. One will never get tired of listening to his voice.

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