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Visharada Neela Wickremasinghe’s heavenly voice signals tonal decorated artistry – By Sunil Thenabadu

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Visharada Neela Wickremasinghe’s  heavenly voice signals tonal decorated artistry passes away at the age of 71 after a week of assuming duties as the Consulate General Sri Lanka in Milan – by Sunil Thenabadu


Sunil-ThenabaduVisharada Neela Wickremasinghe’s voice bears a signature Sri Lankan female voice, at the same time, possessing the attributes of a versatile South Asian singer, has been employed with facility in songs which music motifs were derived from diverse traits of music in equally diverse musical traditions. 

Throughout her trailblazing career, Neela preserves her signature Sri Lankan female voice, particularly when she sings songs with Western melodies. At such times, she is extraordinary in her ability not to be influenced by Western, Hindustani or folk music motifs. She wanted to be faithful to the expectation of the song and to exploit to the peak the sentimental and emotive properties of the melody, thereby, generating zest and sound perceptions in the minds of listeners. Neela had sung duets with legendary WD Amaradeva, Dr Victor Ratnayake,Milton Mallawarachchi , Somathilaka Jayamaha,Kamal Addaraarachchi, Kapila Herath , Amal Perera etc.

The power on the part of a singer to create sound perceptions in the minds of listeners is a rare attribute which most singers lack although they have been trained in the North Indian classical music. She is at best, in adapting semitones in folk songs, thus, converting them into folk music with refined notes.

The unique tendency in her voice is amply manifested in her repertoire of songs regardless of their sources of music; Western, Hindustani classical music or traditional folk music. A significant feature of Neela’s career in the field of music is that she entered the field following her studies and training in North Indian classical music unlike most other singers had either studied North Indian classical music after the commencement of their careers or while in the field as singers. 

Neela’s commencement of her career as a singer can be traced back to the days when the SLBC’s Music Research Unit under S Kulatilake who produced a series of programs on Sinhala folk music. Neela contributed immensely to the research programs on Sinhala folk music and programs such as ‘Meyasiya’. She rendered her voice to the song ‘Dethata Walalu’, a song based on Sinhala folk music, was a juncture in her career. 

  1. de S Kulathilake wrote the lyrics of the song and composed the music for it. In addition to becoming an instant hit, the song Dethata Walalu’ established Neela’s signature as a unequalled Sri Lankan female voice. 

Significantly, she has applied refined notes that she had mastered in North Indian classical music, for research on Sinhala folk music. One may argue whether it is possible to reproduce the original form of Sinhala folk songs in terms of refined notes of North Indian music. The original Sinhala folk music motifs are in the notes outside the traditional keyboard. 

Visharada Neela Wickremasinghe’s heavenly voice signals tonal decorated artistry

Following the success of the folk song, Neela had the opportunity of rendering her voice to many songs and creations at the hands of different directors of music. Significantly, she applied her voice to the popular song’s structure without ever being influenced by folk motifs with which she commenced her career. 

The popular song’s structure is a marked deviation from folk music and is altogether on a diverse ground. Comparing the songs ‘Suusetabaranin Saraseela’, ‘Daskon Saki Sanda’ which she sang with W.D Ameradeva, ‘Parameedam puramu Api dedena’  are altogether contrasting songs. In ‘Parameedam Puramu Api Denna’, Neela aptly adapts her knowledge of North Indian classical music to suit the melody form. 

In this instance, she deviates from folk music initially trained under C. de S Kulatilake. When rendering her voice to songs such as Master Sir, for which Nimal Mendis composed music, Neela  deviates from all three music motifs; folk music, North Indian Classical music and popular song’s constitution. Neela retains her signature by being loyal to the expectation of the song. 

According to musicology, generating zest would lead to the generation of psycho acoustic consequence on the minds of the listener. For instance, popular songs may generate gusto but they may not create sound perceptions in mind. 

Neela’s songs have the properties of generating zests and also generating sound perceptions in the minds of the listeners. She achieves this by intrinsic properties of her gifted voice and her ability to apply her knowledge of music in the practical context. It is a truth that there are many singers who have studied North Indian classical music but fail to sing so as to generate sound perceptions in the minds of the listeners. 

Voice depth and  voice colour vary from one singer to another. Although almost all singers may have individual voices and voice colour, there are only a few of them whose voice depth cum voice colours are exceptional in terms of musicology. Neela  has one such trained with her erudite voice with an incomparable voice colour. 

Visharada Neela Wickremasinghe’s heavenly voice signals tonal decorated artistry

A distinguishing attribute of her voice colour is her ability to sing direct notes with some acquired from Sri Lankan traditional folk music. Though her voice bears a typical Sri Lankan female voice, it has been trained in the Hindustani classical music tradition and she is quite at home with Sri Lankan folk traditions, Hindustani and Western music traditions. 

The folk motifs in her voice are manifested in some songs such as ‘Suuseta Baranin Saraseela’. She bears the same tonality in songs such as ‘Master Sir’, ‘Apa Hamunovena Hemanthe’, ‘Viyo Gee Gayena hade’, though their melodies are based on Western music. Neela maintains her unique Sri Lankan female voice while sticking to their Western music melodies. 

Although Neela’s voice colour may seem to be almost equal to that of Sujatha Attanayake for a fan, the two voices are distinctly different from one another. She possess the ability to apply North Indian Classical music techniques like Gamak, Than, Meend, and singing styles such as Khayal, Dhrupad, Tharana and Dhamar. One of the factors that Neela’s voice becomes unique is that she had sharpened her voice and implanted herself in the then Radio Ceylon by singing experimental songs under the guidance of ‘guru’ C. de S Kulatilake who experimented with Sri Lankan folk music and principally derived his music motifs from folk tradition of music. Songs such as ‘Dathata Walalu’ and ‘Badde Vatata’ were creations based on folk tradition of music. Neela’s voice was the most suited for songs based on folk music. 

In the song ‘Daskon Saki Sanda’,’Ikman Gamanin’, Neela’s voice evokes the legend behind the songs. Though she is well trained in Hindustani classical music and sang classical as well as semi classical songs, her stress seems to be on keeping the sweet tonality of her voice rather than the application of some of the techniques in singing. 
For instance, the tonality of her voice can be seen in some of the songs such as in the duet ‘Harimi Rajasapa’ which she sang with maestro Dr. W.D Ameradeva. In every melody, Neela endeavors to bring about a soothing effect by using her voice colour. This is the noteworthy feature in her singing. 

Neela’s muscular point is that she uses her flexibility of voice in measuring up the emotional and sentimental value of the melody. She uses her Sinhalese voice even in the upper ranges and maintains her voice colour in songs with Western music compositions. A prominent trait of her singing is ‘enunciation’ that is pronunciation of words in the lyrics. she derives emotive properties out of the words, which is a unique characteristic that is part and parcel of her musical personality. 

Visharada Neela Wickremasinghe’s heavenly voice signals tonal decorated artistry

Neela’s qualitative type of her voice is inimitable in the sense that it has the outstanding properties of a trained Indian singer with a signature of a Sri Lankan female voice. This identity is apparent due to the commencement of her career was with folk music. 

Apart from her talents, one of the significant characteristics of her career is that she had not shirked her responsibilities as a teacher of music despite her position as a professional singer.She had been a music teacher for twenty three years, the music teacher at Visaka Vidyalaya for eight years before she concentrated on her signing. She had never exploited her position to neglect her official responsibilities and duties as a teacher of music. She had also not exploited or abused either her popularity or fame to enjoy undue privileges to neglect her duties and cover up them with political protection. 

Although it is not directly linked to her musical personality, it should be stated that Neela  revealed her physical disability as a victim of Poliomyelitis or Polio and appeared for an advertisements for the prevention of polio free of charge. 

Given the fact that she is a popular figure and a bold woman, it is, indeed, rare that such gestures of goodwill and a great sacrifice on her part. Neela is a fierce critic for injustices perpetrated by a section of practitioners in the field of music even at personal cost and expresses her persuasion without fear or favour. About a decade ago an article was published in a popular Sunday tabloid edition inserted by a popular vocalist that ‘ Master Sir does not belong to Neela”.The following week itself she had defended herself by replying to the article confirming she had also sung the song ‘Master Sir’ song in addition to Neviille Fernando for the film “Kalu Diya Dahara”.Her song had gone a bit unnoticed as it was at the  tail end of the film.

It is a well-known fact that those who are in the field of music or arts have media ‘gangs’ (Madhya Nade) either to prop up their images by even highly talented artistes  to cover up their inabilities. Neela in contrast  has never tried to get cover up via such shameful media gangs. It is because she does not have any frontage of any inability to cover up. 

She ,the singing “nightingale” had inherited her musical instincts from her parents.Neela had sung as a play back singer in more than seventy films,She was a super grade artiste at the SLBC for over forty five years as a light and classical music vocalist since her talent was identified in year 1955 in “Amateur Voice”.From her younger days there had been no life barring singing.She was initially adjudicated as the winner in a singing competition during a New Year festival season.Since then she had never looked back having won all singing competitions she took part in.While schooling at Piliyandala MMV competitors of other schools were awfully scared of Neela who as a solo singer was very hard to conquer.Neela had won the plum in an all island solo singing competition in classical music.In response to a newspaper advertisement she had become first among 555 contestants in a test held at the Sarasaviya studio,Kelaniya in year 1966.She was hailed as a “Vocal Actress” as she possessed a pleasing personality  with a charming smile on stage while performing.She has had several mentors including Premadasa Mudunkotuwa with who’s guidance she had passed the “Sangeeth Visharada” degree in year 1974.Even to date Neela always remember them with utmost gratitude.

Visharada Neela Wickremasinghe’s heavenly voice signals tonal decorated artistry

‘Her tilting, vibrating, vaulting vocalizations with lyrics having layers upon layers of meaning have won the hearts and merits of so many enthusiastic listeners. She posses, unique characteristics of choosing the proper lyrics and she is very particular with regard to the meaning of every word. The rhythms and echoes of her songs has given the listener immense ecstatic delight.

The nagging smile she displays while singing seems to emerge from the depth of her heart and soul. It is a genuine act of expression without any camouflage makes the song more glamorous with her very pleasing personality. At solo concerts here and abroad fans wait eagerly for the rare aesthetic nourishment, which they relish. Her variations are found in abundance singing a series of songs is remarkable, with her melodious voice. Unlike many vocalists she never goes behind popularity. She has been acclaimed and hailed by large cross section of fans. She has made many packed audiences remain spellbound with pin drop silence at her recitals with tilting melodies having variety in abundance. She believes in not having recitals at frequent intervals. Over the years her voice has grown to a high depth and could only be described as a kind of sobriety, which has given her songs a semblance of sheer maturity. She has won every possible award, the Sarasaviya Award four times, Presidential award, Sumathi Tele award, Zonta award and Vanitha award. To her the acclaim she has received from fans is treasured more than any of these awards.

She has made several trips overseas for solo ‘Master Sir” recitals. The first visit was to West Germany in February 1980. Since she has  sung to audiences in USA, Australia, Middle East, Canada,Switzerland,Austria, Norway, Denmark ,Sweden and UK.

Her humanness attributes had inspired her to participate voluntarily in a project launched by UNICEF to save the children by eradicating Polio from our country in the year 1989. She appeared in a hoarding and a poster produced by UNICEF. She even on request visited the shanty dwellers to educate them with regard to taking of medicine as they would not listen, if an ordinary person made this plea. She sang a song composed for this campaign, which was heard frequently over the radio airways and T.V. channels. Her efforts helped immensely to eradicate Polio through this exercise by year 2000.

She has had the unique opportunity to sing  songs  for music composed by Dr Lionel Algama, Athula Somasiri, Victor Ratnayake, Nimal Mendis, Stanley Peiris, C De S Kulatillake  and a host of other musicians including young Samantha Perera. She prefers to give talented young musicians their due place. All of them gauged her potential and predicted a good future for her. She has been encouraged and boosted by music maestro Nimal Mendis to prove her versatility by immortalizing heavily westernized compositions such as “Viyo Gee” ” Rantikiri Sinaha” “Master Sir” etc., Many of her popular songs have been sung in about eight cassettes initially in year 1978.She also had directed music for Tele Dramas.

Visharada Neela Wickremasinghe’s heavenly voice signals tonal decorated artistry

Her career as a playback singer blossomed with time and became a sought after singer from 1980 onwards. In the year 1984, the song “Bodhiye Viharaye” for the film “Ethin Ethata’ for which . she received the Sarasaviya award. The following year in 1985 too although she adjudged the winner of the Sarasaviya award.Once earlier she was deprived of receiving the first award at the last moment by an unscrupulous music director had not allowed to her to attend the awards ceremony. She is one person who is fully committed and dedicated to her career. She has confessed recently that she has sufficient strength to stand on her feet, which she has inherited from her mother. She sets goals for herself and when she reaches the goal, from that point she forges beyond. It was discussed at a discussion ‘Nissansala Reyak’ over the SLRC compared by Sunil Sarath Perera where Dr Dayaratna Ranatunga, H.D. Premaratna and Sabitha Perera also participated, that only those who cannot reach the peak or dominate seek help like a push to be recognized. Only weak personnel need to be pushed up and form groups to come up. Neela is one artiste who does not require these strategies. However she had encountered frequently missiles and brickbats aimed falsely at  her for sheer jealousy.

After her retirement  after twenty three years as a music teacher, final eight years as the music teacher at Vishaka Vidyalaya while making new musical compositions she wanted to protect our children, felicitate veteran artistes not given recognition and to  look after elderly parents. She on her own initiative formed ‘The Mother’ organization where she is the founder/chairman established in the year 2002. She organized the ‘Master Sir’ recital and the entire proceeds were distributed among the experienced orchestra who needed to be felicitated for their services which were not recognized, with handsome cash awards and ‘the mother’ replica. She performed a similar recital on 30th Oct. 2004 at the BMICH to a packed audience. From the proceeds of that show she felicitated veteran artistes, of Rs 25,000/- each together with ‘The Mother’ replica. All of the recipients were elated to have received the awards. In addition to these awards ten brilliant students selected from rural schools hailing from hapless families in villages such as Girandurukotte, Ampara, Vavuniya, Anuradhapura etc., who have entered the university without attending a single private tuition class were awarded handsome cash prices to pursue their higher education. The ‘Master Sir’ recital was a complete sell out and was a musical splendour.She also built and donated a house maestro musician  Shelton Premaratne on a land allocated to him at ‘Kala Pura’ a decade ago.

The ‘Master Sir’ recital organized for media personnel, friends and fans was held at the “Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa performing arts theatre” to a packed audience in the year 2013 .

In conclusion it is pertinent to state that she has sung a considerable number of songs which add up to a variety of assortment of eastern, western and classical songs. But in my view she has many an unsung songs in her armoury. May she find the time to elevate our deep sense of high appreciation by successfully vocalizing those countless unsung songs, which are sure to be everlasting hits?

Sunil Thenabadu in Brisbane

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