The current controversy surrounding the Sri Lankan national anthem is an unwanted and unnecessary issue at this juncture. In the aftermath of a long but successful war against separatism the immediate task facing the nation would be healing the wounds of war and strengthening a unified nation.
Military victory in war does not automatically result in genuine unity being established. There is an imperative need to address the underlying causes of the war by formulating an acceptable political package acceptable to an estranged people. Capturing the hearts and minds of the long suffering Tamil people of Sri Lanka is more important than re- capturing territory held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
Despite the sensational military triumph the Rajapaksa regime has displayed woeful lethargy in initiating meaningful political initiatives aimed at redressing valid grievances and accommodating legitimate aspirations. On the other hand issues like the National anthem controversy are creating new problems and embittering hurt emotions further.
At a time when the emphasis should be on ethnic reconciliation and amity moves are afoot to cause despair to Tamils by tampering with prevailing arrangements regarding the singing of the national anthem in Tamil. Sinhala hardliners are demanding that the Tamil version be done away with and that only Sinhala should be used. Some go to the extent of saying that singing the national anthem in Tamil is illegal.
The official version of the Sri Lankan national anthem is in Sinhala. That is the authentic anthem and there is no doubt about that but there has also been a Tamil version (a translation or transliteration of the Sinhala original)from the time Ananda Samarakoon’s “Namo Namo Matha” was duly recognized as national anthem.
While the Sinhala version was sung in most official functions in Colombo and Sinhala majority provinces the Tamil version was sung in Tamil majority areas and Tamil medium schools. This accommodative attitude was displayed at a time when Sinhala was the sole official language and Tamil had no official status at all.
Tamil received national language but not official language status in the 1978 Constitution. The National anthem in Sinhala was given Constitutional status through clause seven of the same Constitution. However the Tamil translation was also given Constitutional recognition by way of the third schedule to the seventh clause.
Tamil received elevation as an official language along with Sinhala by way of the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1987. Tamil as an official language received further enhancement in the administrative and legislative spheres through the 16th amendment to the Constitution in 1988.
It is therefore ironic to find that attempts are being made to do away with the national anthem in Tamil at a time when the language is an official language of the country whereas the anthem had been sung in Tamil during times when the language had no official status.
There is also another and more compelling reason for allowing the status quo to continue. The Tamils who want to sing the national anthem in Tamil are not separatists or extremists. A recent article in the state –controlled media stated that the pro-LTTE diaspora wanted the national anthem to be sung in Tamil. Nothing could be further away from the truth as this idiotic assertion
The silent majority of Tamils living in Sri Lanka want to sing the national anthem in Tamil because they belong to and want to identify with Sri Lanka. It is not a new right they demand but only the continuation of what has been and is available. While giving pride of place to the national anthem in Sinhala they only want to sing it in their mother tongue wherever and whenever possible or applicable.
Let it not be forgotten that the practice of singing the national anthem had gone out of vogue in the Tamil polity for more than three decades. Federal Party (FP) and later Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) politics saw to it that alternative “Tamil state” anthems were sung at political meetings. At least three different songs were used.
One was “Vaalha Eezhath Thamizhaham, Vaalha endrum Vaalhave” (Long live Eelam Tamil homeland, Long live forever) by Paramahamsathasan. The other is “Engal Eezhath Thamizh Thirunaadu,Kalai Vaazhum Ponnaadu” ( our great Eelam Tamil land, the golden land where arts flourish) by “Thirukkovil” Ariyanayagam. The third is “Vazhiyave, Vazhiyave,Vazhiyave,Engal Thanga Maamanith Thamizh Eezham”(long live,long live, long live, our golden gem Tamil Eelam) by Kasi. Anandan.
All these versions of a “Tamil Eelam national anthem” were sung during the past decades when Tamil ultra-nationalism and separatism rode high. These are different to the songs sung in “ praise of mother Tamil” or “Thamizh Thaai Vaazhthu”. This is a must in all Tamil cultural functions.
Personifying the mother tongue as mother Tamil and singing praises is something difficult for non – Tamils to understand. Usually Subramania Bharathy’s “Vaalha Nirantharam , Vaalha Thamizhmozhi, Vaaliya Vaaliyave” (Long live in perpetuity, long live the Tamil language,long live,long live) or Bharathidasan’s “Thamizhukkum Amuthendru Per , Anthath Thamizh Inbath Thamizh Engal Uyirulkku Ner” (Tamil is a name for Ambrosia. That Tamil,sweet Tamil is equal to our life)are sung in honour of the “Tamil mother”. 0
After the ascendancy of Tamil militancy in general and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) in particular the practice of singing the national anthem in Tamil in the North and East began declining. Very often the music alone would be played on official occasions.After the LTTE established territorial control over certain regions in the North and East the Sri Lankan national anthem was virtually discontinued.
The LTTE did not have a substitute Tamil Eelam anthem. Instead they extolled the virtues of the “Pulikkodi” or Tiger flag. The Tiger flag was portrayed as the Tamil Eelam or Tamil national flag. The LTTE’s poet laureate Puthuvai.Rathinathurai wrote the song “Eruthu Paar, Kodi Eruthu Paar” (See it being hoisted,See the flag is being hoisted). This was sung during the mandatory hoisting of the Tiger flag at most ceremonies.
After the Sri Lankan armed forces began re-capturing territory from the LTTE the writ of Colombo regained its dominance and authority. A corollary to this situation was an inevitable yet pervasive military presence. Consequentially the national flag fluttered proudly in the North and East and the national anthem too began resonating.
Initially the national anthem was sung or played only in Sinhala in the North but due to the persistent efforts of the solitary Sri Lankan Tamil Cabinet minister Douglas Devananda , the use of Tamil in singing the national anthem also commenced.
Slowly and steadily the national anthem was being sung in Tamil also. What prevails now is a “mixed” state of affairs where Sinhala and Tamil are being used to sing the national anthem in Jaffna on different occasions.
It is against this backdrop that the current crisis has to be viewed. After decades of alienation the Tamils of Sri Lanka are getting drawn into the mainstream again. Once again they are emphasizing their overarching Sri Lankan identity. What better way to illustrate this than by singing the national anthem?
At the same time Tamils also want to retain their ethnic identity by singing in their mother tongue if possible. The finest example of being Sri Lankan and being Tamil would be to sing the national anthem in Tamil.
Sadly this basic home truth is not being realised in certain quarters. As a result an unwanted and unnecessary controversy is brewing over the issue of singing the national anthem in Tamil.
A campaign is being conducted by majoritarian hawks to do away with the practice of singing the national anthem in Tamil. There are however indications that saner counsel is prevailing and that the current National anthem controversy may turn out to be a tempest in a tea cup.
Controversy however is nothing new as far as the national anthem of Sri Lanka is concerned. A retrospective gaze into the evolution and growth of our national anthem shows that the song has been mired in controversy right from the beginning.
The concept of a national anthem was introduced by the British to what was then Ceylon. The modern Ceylon nation itself was a colonial construct. It was the British who integrated different territories under their control into a single entity and set up a unified administration for the Country.
“God save the King/Queen” had become the British national anthem by 1745. This was through usage and custom and not by Parliamentary decree. With the British empire expanding gradually “God save the King/Queen” was sung as the national anthem in all countries and territories ruled by the British.
Ceylon was no exception and under Queen Victoria’s rule “God save the Queen” became in practice the national anthem for Ceylon too. This continued throughout the twentieth century also.
The Ceylon National Congress (CNC) set up in 1919 on the lines of the Indian national congress received new impetus in the second quarter of the 20th century when Dudley Shelton Senanayake and Junius Richard Jayewardene became its joint secretaries. The CNC resolved to adopt a national song for Ceylon. Accordingly a lyric was composed by DS Moonesinghe and set to music by the legendary Devar Suryasena son of Sir James Pieris. This was sung in 1943 at the CNC sessions. But “God save the King” continued to reign supreme under the rule of King George the sixth.
Thus when Ceylon gained dominion and later full independence status there was no approved indigenous national anthem .The Lanka Gandharva Sabha was assigned the task of formulating a national anthem. A competition was organized and a panel formed by the Sabha was entrusted the duty of selecting an appropriate anthem.
This panel comprised SLB Kapukotuwa, Dr. OHD Wijesekera, Lionel Edirisinghe, Mudliyar EA Abeysekera, LLK Gunatunga and PB Illangasinghe. In a controversial decision, two of the panellists were declared winners.
A song written by PB Illangasinghe and set to music by Lionel Edirisinghe was announced to be the new national anthem.It began as – “Sri Lanka Matha/Pala Yasa Mahima/Jaya Jaya” and ended as “Jaya Jaya Dada Nanga/Sri Lanka Matha”. The fact that a song submitted by two members of the selection panel had “won” the national song competition evoked widespread resentment and protests. It was seen as blatantly unfair.
Although the song by the Illengesinghe-Edirisinghe duo was broadcast over “Radio Ceylon” on the morning of Independence day as the national song it was not sung at the official Freedom day ceremony due to protests.
While the song itself was flawless and above reproach it was the perception of favouritism in the decision to adopt it that fuelled criticism and protests. Thus the song which won the national song competition was unacceptable as far as the people were concerned and began losing credibility.
Meanwhile another song was slowly beginning to capture popular imagination of the people as a potential national anthem. This was the famous “Namo Namo Matha” written by Ananda Samarakoon who was a well-known painter as well as poet.
Ananda Samarakoon was born on January 13, 1911 in a small village, Liyanwela, near Watareka in the Padukka area. His parents, Samuel Samarakoon and Dominga Pieris were Christians. The son was christened George Wilfred. His full name was Egodahage George Wilfred Alwis Samarakoon. There was no Ananda in his name then and he was known as George Wilfred during childhood and early twenties.
Young George Wilfred studied at Christian College, Kotte (now Sri Jayewardenepura MMV)In 1934, he joined the staff of Christian College, as a teacher of art and music. Inspired by Rabindranath Tagore, George Wilfred joined Shantinekathan, Tagore's School of Fine Arts in Bengal.
He joined Shantinekathan in 1936 and studied art under the famous Bengali artiste Nanda Lal Bose, and music and singing under Shanti Devi Gosh. He came back in 1937 without completing his course and started teaching again. Upon his return George Wilfred became known as Ananda Samarakoon. In 1940, he joined the staff of Mahinda College,Galle.
“Namo Namo Matha” was not written originally for the purpose of being a national anthem. Its genesis is interesting. Samarakoon used to pay frequent trips to India even after his academic pursuit at “Shanthiniketan” had ended.
On one occasion he returned from India by air on his first ever plane trip. Samarakoon looking down was enthralled and excited at the sight of his native land. He jotted down a few words and lines that came to mind immediately after landing.
On October 20th 1940 he was at his ancestral residence in Padukka. Unable to sleep he tossed and turned in his bed. Suddenly he got up at about 10 pm and began writing a tribute to his motherland relying on the short notes written after his air trip from India.
Samarakoon wrote late into the night and the immortal “Namo Namo Matha” was born. He then took it to Mahinda College where he was teaching and taught it to Students after setting it to music. The song became popular and was included in a musical record in 1946. Being a fine singer himself Samarakoon recorded the song with his partner Swarna de Silva the sister of famous flautist Dunstan de Silva.
The song was also included in a book of poems published by him. It was called “Geetha Kumudini”. Sadly Samarakoon was unable to re-imburse the printing costs incurred to the printer RKW Siriwardena and handed over copyright to him.Samarakoon was to regret this later when his creation was acknowledged as national anthem.
When the Gandarva Sabha conducted the competition to select a national song Samarakoon was away from the Island in India but his wife and brother had submitted “Namo Namo Matha” for the competition.Though fully deserving it was overlooked and “Sri Lanka Matha ,Yasa Mahima” by the Illengesinghe-Edirisinghe duo was selected.
Despite “winning” the competition “Yasa Mahima” was spurned by most people because of the manner in which it was declared winner.”Namo Namo Matha” without any official status was enjoying wide exposure and popular acclaim. Its popularity among ordinary people was so great that public opinion favoured “Namo Namo Matha” over “Yasa Mahima”.
The song became famous after a 50 member choir from Musaeus College, Colombo sang it on a public occasion. It was also broadcast on Radio frequently. “Namo Namo Matha” though without official recognition was now becoming popular as a “de-facto” national anthem.
In 1950 the then Finance minister JR Jayewardene presented a cabinet memorandum that the widely popular “Namo Namo Matha” be formally acknowledged as the official anthem. Prime minister DS Senanayake set up a select committee under the Home Affairs and Rural Development minister Sir EAP Wijeratne (Father of Dr.Nissanka Wijeratne) to finalise the issue. He had succeeded Sir Oliver Goonetilleke.
The committee headed by Wijeratne considered “Namo Namo Matha” and some other lyrics and decided that Samarakoon’s song should be the national anthem.
There was however a minor hitch. The committee wanted a minor change in the words. Samarakoon was then in India and returned home in mid -1951 after being summoned by Sir Edwin AP Wijeratne
The song had originally been composed when the country was under the British. Now it was independent. It was therefore felt that the 10th line in the song was inappropriate and had to be changed. Samarakoon agreed to change the line.
So the line “Nawa jeewana Damine” was altered to “Nawa Jeewana Demine Nithina Apa pupudu Karan Matha” with the wholehearted consent and approval of Ananda Samarakoon.
Sir EAP Wijeratne then presented a cabinet paper in August 1951 recommending “Namo Namo Matha” as the national anthem.It was unanimously approved by cabinet and formally adopted on November 22nd 1951 .
There were two Tamil ministers in the DS Senanayake cabinet then.They were GG Ponnambalam and C.Sittambalam.It is said that even before they could make a request Premier DS Senanayake stated that a suitable Tamil translation be formally adopted.The select committee headed by Sir EAP Wijeratne had accepted in principle that there be a Tamil version of the national anthem.
The Tamil scholar Pundit M. Nallathamby was entrusted this task and a neat Transliteration was done. The Tamil version came into use and was extensively used in official functions in the pre-dominantly Tamil speaking Northern and Eastern provinces.
The remarkable attribute of Sri Lanka’s national anthem is that it sings paeans of patriotic praise to the country alone and not to any race,religion, caste, creed or community. It is not parochial or partisan and appeals to the patriotic sentiments of all children of the Lankan mother.
Hence, the Tamil people found no reason to reject or protest against the national anthem. Once the meaning of the Sinhala words was known no Tamil found it objectionable. With an appropriate transliteration available the Tamils of Sri Lanka found themselves singing the national anthem with emotion and fervour in their mother tongue.
Four years after Freedom on February 4th 1952 , “Namo Namo Matha”was sung at Independence day ceremonies as the official national anthem. The Tamil version “Namo Namo Thaye” was sung in related independence day functions at the Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa Kachcheries. When Sir John Kotelawela visited Jaffna in 1954 the Tamil version of the national anthem was sung at functions felicitating the Prime minister.
On March 12th 1952 the Government published huge advertisements in Sinhala,Tamil and English newspapers announcing that “Namo Namo Matha” was the national anthem. While words in Sinhala and Tamil were published in the Sinhala and Tamil newspapers respectively the English newspapers had Sinhala words written in English.
While Namo Namo Matha was now being sung as the official anthem there was no uniformity in the melody or manner of singing. Different choirs and singers were rendering it in different ways. This was causing much confusion.
So the Government decided to appoint a committee to ensure that uniformity was ensured in rendering the national anthem.An eleven member committee was appointed in 1953. Among its members were Ananda Samarakoon himself, Devar Suryasena and JDA Perera. This committee set out guidelines as to how the anthem should be sung and also defined the exact tune for it.The melody was a refined version of the original tune composed by Samarakoon. The reputed firm Cargills then agents for HMV records was given the order to make records of the national anthem.
A disc was also cut for the Tamil version of the national anthem. While the melody and music was the same as that of the Sinhala version by Ananda Samarakoon, the Tamil words written by Pundit Nallathamby were sung by two women Sangari and Meena. The Tamil version was first broadcast officially on “Radio Ceylon” on February 4th 1955.
On June 24th 1954 the cabinet of Sir John Kotelawela formally endorsed the tune and singing of the National Anthem. The copyright ownership of “Namo Namo Matha” was formally acquired by the Government after payment of Rupees 2500 on that day. The money however did not go to Ananda Samarakoon as he had already transferred copyright to Siriwardena the printing press owner who had first published the song in a book of poems.
Having one’s composition officially recognized as the national anthem is indeed a great achievement.Ananda Samarakoon having accomplished this feat was entitled to bask in glory after reaching that milepost. Alas!That was not to be so.Instead of a dream existence there commenced an ordeal that turned out to be a cruel nightmare.
In 1956 SWRD Bandaranaike became Prime minister riding the crest of a Sinhala nationalist wave. The new Government hailed as “Apey Aanduwe” ran into a series of problems and difficulties soon. There were political demonstrations against the government, strikes by workers, communal violence and natural disasters like floods, fires and landslides.
In the search for scapegoats certain elements (with vested interests perhaps) pounced upon the national anthem.In a burst of superstitious or irrational frenzy “Namo Namo Matha” was singled out as the cause for all the troubles afflicting the country under the Bandaranaike dispensation.
A vicious campaign was launched against “Namo Namo Matha”. The charge was that the notations in “Namo Namo Matha”were unlucky and the cause for the Country’s ills and misfortunes. The letter “Na” at the beginning was described as a malefix.The inauspicious “Ganaka” or “Gana” at the beginning of the national anthem had an ill-effect on the country it was alleged.
A 'gana' is the placing of the first three syllables - how the long and short syllables occur. The opening words of the anthem 'na-mo-na' short-long-short constituted an unlucky gana it was stated.
As criticism mounted Ananda Samarakoon was constrained to defend himself against the charges. He engaged in many newspaper debates and also spoke at public meetings in defence of “Namo Namo Matha”.
To make matters worse Samarakoon underwent financial difficulties. Although he conducted a regular program on the Educational service run by “Radio Ceylon” his creative compositions did not meet with much commercial success.He produced a song and dance pageant “Amaraneeya Lanka” in 1957 but it was a major flop. The onslaught against “Namo Namo Matha” destroyed Samarakoon’s peace of mind. In September 1959 ,the Prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated. Elections to Parliament in March 1960 saw a hung Parliament emerge. Dudley Senanayake’s short lived minority government fell. Fresh elections were called. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was swept to power in July 1960. Bandaranaike’s widow Sirima became Prime minister.
The new Government took the campaign against “Namo Namo Matha” seriously. The Home and Cultural Affairs minister Maithripala Senanayake appointed a committe of “experts” to examine the issue and determine whether the national anthem was the cause of the Country’s troubles.
The committee recommended that the words “Namo Namo Matha” be changed to “Sri Lanka Matha”. Ananda Samarakoon protested vehemently and opposed the proposed change. The Government however went ahead and unilaterally amended the national anthem from “Namo Namo Matha” to “Sri Lanka Matha” in February 1961. Ananda Samarakoon’s consent was not obtained. Since copyright was now vested with the Government there was no legal remedy available to the poet to prevent this arbitrary action.
The act however had a distressing and debilitating effect on the poet. The well –known journalist Kumudini Hettiarachchi wrote a poignant article about Ananda Samarakoon in the “Sunday Times” some years ago. In that article she quotes the poet’s nephew Sunil Samarakoon about how the matter affected his uncle.
One day when Sunil was eleven years old his uncle had parked his baby Austin car near the gates and shouted out to Sunil “ Puthe ,Mage oluwa galawala, wena ekak hikarala” (son my head has been removed and another fixed instead)
“When Loku Thaththa told me that his head had been removed and another placed there, I was just a child and didn't catch the significance, until much later. He was, of course, referring to the substitution of Namo, Namo Matha, with Sri Lanka Matha in the National Anthem," said Sunil Samarakoon, nephew of Ananda Samarakoon, the composer of Sri Lanka's National Anthem. "I remember the day he came home to talk to my father, as he usually did when he had a problem. When I went to greet him as soon as he parked his car, he put his hand on my shoulder and said those words about the oluva (head) in despair. He was never the same again. He became morose. They had changed it without even consulting him." Writes Kumudini quoting Sunil.
On April 5th 1962 Ananda Samarakoon was found dead.. His door was broken open as he was not answering knocks on his door. The inquest revealed that he had died of an overdose of sleeping tablets.There was a letter on his desk to then opposition leader Dudley Senanayake complaining of how his anthem had been mutilated. There was also a serene painting on his easel of Lord Buddha meditating and a deer looking on.
A few days before his death, Samarakoon wrote a letter to the 'Timesman' column on the “Times of Ceylon” newspaper .He wrote, "The anthem has been beheaded. It has not only destroyed the song, but also destroyed the life of the composer. I am frustrated and broken-hearted. It is a misfortune to live in a country where such things happen to a humble composer. Death would be preferable". January 13th 2011 is the birth centenary of this great poet and lyricist who bestowed upon this country its national anthem. The nation owes him a grand commemoration. It would be far more useful to celebrate the birth centenary of the man who gave us our national anthem instead of squabbling over the language in which to sing it . (ENDS)
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at