"One day in the month of May in 1966, I got permission from my mother (she gave me a little money as well) and set off to meet the lonely artiste. I was a great admirer of him. The bus conductor was kind enough to drop me at Dehiyagatha in Jaela. I had a faint idea of how I could get to his place. I went along a narrow road till I came near a school close to a church.
Having got instructions from a passer-by, I walked along a footpath and stopped near a dilapidated house. On one side of the garden was a well. A tall, fair person carrying two buckets of water came near me and kept the buckets down. He was bare-bodied and looked at the boy in shorts from head to toe. I told him I was looking for Sunil Santha.
"Wait a minute,” he said and carrying the two buckets he went inside the house over some broken steps. In later years I felt it was similar to the house in Satyajit Ray's 'Pather Panchali'. The walls had cracks and the kabok could be seen here and there. "I am the person, sit down,” he said and offered me the only chair in the verandah after wiping away the dirt. He sat on a wooden box nearby."
This was how a 16-year-old fan of the great musician met him for the first time. It was the beginning of a close relationship between the two. Vijith Kumar Senaratne recollects this meeting in a book he has written titled 'Sunil Santha'. He vividly remembers what Sunil Santha said that day: "I tried to give this country a music that suits us. I started doing it. Most people like it. But some are against. They are manoeuvring. I had enough of it and decided to give up and attend to house work."
Viijith pleaded with him to get back to music. Sunil Santha's reply was: "This has happened not only to me. What happened to that artist Soliyas Mendis? Someone who wants to do something has no place in this country. Look at the Sinhala Dictionary. Kumaratunga Mahattaya wanted it given to him – he promised to complete it in two years. Did they give him? How many years have gone? Still they haven't even completed the first letter 'a'. Look at Kularatne Tennakoon – what a plight he is in. I am not the only one."
The writer remembers how Sunil Santha's wife who was a teacher walked in wearing a light blue saree. She went in and came back with a few 'helapa' kept on a small plate and offered him. " I stitch and give him new clothes, he won't wear them. He won't take a proper meal. He is all the time thinking about the injustice meted to him," she complained. She went in and came back with a cup of tea, offered it to Vijith and served a little sugar to his palm after scraping the bottle. As she went back to school which was nearby, Sunil Santha told him: "Two pieces of clothes are ample for me. I can wash them and wear."
Vijith remembers how Sunil Santha pulled out a few of his song books from a box hidden under a 'booru anda' and gifted them to him. Vijith was overjoyed with the autographed books which became a prized possession of his.
As Vijith kept on pestering him to get back to music he told him that for years he hadn't hummed a song – not to be heard by himself even. "I tried to continue the good work done by musicians like Rupasinghe Master and Ananda Samarakoon. I laid the foundation. But I was not allowed to proceed. It is left for the new people to decide whether to move forward or not," were his parting words. "I have to prepare lunch now," he said as I bade him good-bye.”
This is just a glimpse of what the 76-page book offers the reader. We had heard and read so much about the harassment faced by Sunil Santha, particularly by the authorities in the broadcasting setup then. But Vijith offers much more in this most interesting biographical note on the accomplished singer.
Vijith has included a number of articles he had written to 'Ravaya' and 'Lankadeepa' on Sunil Santha.
There is more revealing information he has picked up during his lifelong friendship with Sunil Santha in the book. Though we knew he was Beddaliyanage Don Joseph John when he went to Shantiniketan in 1939, he later adopted the name 'Sunil Shanti' which later became 'Sunil Shantha' and finally Sunil Santha. Moving over to Bhatkhande music school, he obtained a first class in his final examination both in vocal and instrumental music. He was the first non-Indian Asian and the first Sri Lankan to accomplish this feat. That was in 1945.
Quoting from a book Sunil Santha wrote in 1953, Vijith relates how he was an out and out Indian in dress, language, habits and views. He had confessed that he felt proud to be called an Indian and how he even tried to speak Sinhala with a Hindustani accent. His attitude changed after he came across a few lines in a verse : 'Mage rata mage deya nisa – Yuda veda saturan nasa' was how it started. The lines made him think of his mother country. He read that verse plus others written by that person over and over again. He was a changed man. He first sang a song in public on the Kumaratunga commemoration day on March 2, 1946 at the Colombo Fort YMCA.
Vijith's is a fitting tribute to the great singer we adored. Such readable stuff will keep Sunil Santha's name alive for generations to come.