Face 2 Face with GSB Rani
by Tilak S. Fernando in London

GSB Rani has been an icon in the Sinhala Radio and Silver screen as a much-admired singer. She was absorbed into the industry at the age of 14 when she accompanied her cousin to Colombia recording studios to see a recording. Providence however switched individuals and GSB Rani ended up cutting two Colombia Records. Subsequently, she became a playback singer in Sri Lankan films and an 'A Grade' singer at the Radio Ceylon. For seven years she worked as a Musical Programme Producer at the SLBC during a period its policy to phase out Hindi and Tamil tunes sung in Sinhala took effect. Despite her position and power as a producer, she only did 6 recordings of her own songs as a singer, instead she recruited so many new singers during her tenure and recorded over 7000 new Sinhala original songs. Later she became an innocent victim to a vicious petition made against her by a jealous element within the SLBC which ultimately ruined her career . Subsequently she was ostracised as a singer in Sri Lanka for 20 years. GSB Rani celebrated her 60th anniversary of being a professional singer in February 2004 from the Bandaranaike Memorial Hall. Immediately afterwards, she did her maiden tour to London to participate in Swarna Gee concert organised by Hela Sarana Charity in the UK. Overwhelmed by the reception, standing ovation she received and seeing the packed audience, GSB Rani commented, " I feel like I have come to see my own children in London". Face2Face managed to speak to her during her brief visit to London.

Q. You have just celebrated 60 years of being a professional singer in Sri Lanka with a fabulous show, Parama Ramani' from the Bandaranaike Memorial Hall, yet this is the first time your fans had a chance to see you singing live from a platform in London. Why was that?

A. True. As you know we did not have International exposure for a long time in our profession, but when the scene changed I was trodden under a heavy political boot.

Q. Would you like to elaborate on your last phrase?

A. For 15 long years I was ostracised by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and I was prohibited to enter the SLBC buillding. Altogether for 20 years I was denied an opportunity of recording a new song.

Q. How come?

A. From 1970 to 1977 I worked as a Musical Programme Producer at the SLBC. Mr. Susil Munasinghe, Chairman at the time, took a decision to phase out the broadcasting of Sinhala songs copied from Hindi and Tamil tunes. That responsibility fell on my shoulders.

Q. How did that affect your job then when you were helping the Sinhala music and the song to take over from foreign influence?

A. I pioneered original Sinhala songs in programmes such as Geetha Tharanganie, Prabuddha Gee, and Jana Prasanganie. In this operation I introduced quite a lot of new artistes such as Nanada Malini, Edward Jayakody, Victor Ratnayake, T.M.Jayaratne, Priya Sooriyasena, Mala Bulathsinghala, Abeywardhana Balasooriya to name a few. During those seven years I did record only six of my own songs but gave the opportunity for new artistes to record over 7000 new songs.

Q. What really triggered you to lose your job and come under a heavy 'political boot' as you put it, when you were doing such an excellent service?

A. During the JVP insurrection rebellious youth had chosen some Sinhala songs to communicate among themselves through the radio. One day, suddenly the Director General Susil Munasinghe summoned me to his office and I was shocked to see CID officers waiting to interrogate me. The CID ransacked the cupboards in my office and studio and removed a newly cut recorded song by Victor Ratnayake which was queued up for a suitable programme. The song was titled, "Kurullane Varella, Kobeyine Varella'. It was a beautiful song, which had no political connotations as far as I knew, but some nosy Parker had petitioned against me about it. On the following day I was summoned to the famous 4th Floor of the CID. The Prime Minister after hearing this incident phoned immediately and instructed the CID to finish their enquiries as soon as possible, but they dragged it on and despite my legal representations it became a fruitless exercise at the end; when the UNP came into power they discontinued my services.

Q. You must have been heart broken after such a blow and what happened then?

A. Well! GSB Rani's name disappeared from the radio and elsewhere for 20 years. It was very heart breaking to find out that while going to help others I had to take the punishment. I had helped so many in the past but no one came for my help when I needed it most. Its only after so long when I was approaching the 60th singing anniversary Edward Jayakody and his wife Charita Priyadharshani approached me and took over the responsibility of organising the ceremony in such a grand scale. I do not have daughters but Charitha became my daughter during this period. I could not have afforded to have such a glamorous celebration and I must thank both Edward and Charitha for taking the responsibility, the media who gave me their undivided support and mainly President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, who authorised the use of Bandaranaike Memorial Hall for this occasion free of charge.

Q, So at last you were happy that after all these years your pupils and fans had not forgotten you as you thought!

A. Yes, I was a bit nervous at first to face the audience after a lapse of so many years, but I will tell you something - Parama Namani show was a wake-up call for me. Immediately afterwards I received this invitation from Hela Sarana in the UK. I was moved by the amount of fans who came to see me singing in London and treated and greeted me with a standing ovation. I felt like my children had come to see me in London and I was so moved. So, I want to tell my fans that from London I will rise up and again and this is going to be my second beginning.

Q. It's not the normal etiquette to ask the age from a lady, but since you have been talking about 60 years in the business, may I ask how old you are?

A. I am not shy to tell my age. I will be 75 years old this August. I was born on 30 August 1930 in Badulla and my father was a Police Sub Inspector. I was named as Gnai Seenai Bansajaya when I was born.

Q. You don't look your age at all, I must admit, and still you are looking quite robust. When I closed my eyes and listened to your singing at the Swarna Gee concert, I could only hear the same young voice of GSB Rani, which I used to listen as a schoolboy. How do you maintain the same young voice and the high pitch?

A Thank you for the compliment but I don't consider me as anyone special in that respect. Look at Latha Walpola Angeline Lanerolle (Gunatilleka) or Indrani Wijebandara. They too still maintain their young voices!

Q. When did you start singing professionally?

A.. In 1944 my niece's husband (Ahamed) wanted his wife to cut a record under the Colombia Record label. Ahamed had good connections and knew Master Mohamed Ghaus who was in charge of recordings at Colombia recording company. My cousin was rejected at the audition but master Ghaus exerted pressure on me to sing a song as a voice testing exercise there an then. With much reluctance I sang a Hindi song, " Hai Piya' sung by Dunith Roy and Rukamni Devi's Dasa Bala Dhari and Sara Sirini Ramya songs. I was accepted to record 2 new songs but had a bigger hurdle to overcome in getting permission from my father. Those days apart from singing, a Malay girl was not allowed even to get out of the house alone.

Q. How did you overcome that?

A. Master Mohamed Ghaus, my cousins, Master U.D.Perera and Mr. Dharmasena, G.M. Colombia Records spoke to my father. Ultimately he agreed but insisted that I should not use my name instead suggested that the record should carry my pet name 'Kitty'. Others disagreed to it saying that 'Kitty' would sound like a pussycat! Then they came up with a novel idea of using the first three letters of my name (G.S.B) and call me Rani, so this was how I was became G.S.B.Rani. Later on, when I married Anthony Perera I became JSB Rani Perera.

Q. What were your very fist songs on Columbia Records?

A. "Samagi Bale Paame', and a duet " Siri Sara Bhavane", with Mohideen Baig. Unfortunately my father died of a heart attack before the record was out and never had the chance to listen to them.

Q. How did you enter the world of play- back singing for films?

A. Shanthi Kumar invited me to sing in the film 'Asoka Mala' for which we had to go to India for recording. Due to my father's death I could not go and missed that first opportunity. Subsequently, I sang in Ceylon Theatre's film. Suranganie.

Q. How did you get into the Radio Ceylon?

A. P.L.A. Somapala, who was a member of Master Mohamed Ghaus's orchestra at the Radio Ceylon, arranged an audition for me. An eminent music director from India, Pundit Ratna Jankar, who arrived in Sri Lanka, conducted auditions for The Radio Ceylon. I passed as an 'A Grade' singer. Later PLA afforded me the opportunity to sing in Sirisena Wimalaweera's film Asoka - Aadara Saagare song.

Q. You have been involved with stage drama as well, haven't you?

A. Yes, I played the role of Queen in J.D.A. Perera's Siri Sangabo, Premila's character in Upali Vanasinghe's Daskon and as Rodi Kella in Rodi Kella drama.

Q. Who were the male singers who did their first duet with you?

A. Dharamadasa Walpola, H.R. Jothipala, K. Sena, Sisira Senaratne, N. Karunaratne and W. Prematilleke. But it was with Mohideen Baig that I have sung most of my duets. My husband, Anton Perera, introduced H.R. Jothipala to the industry.

Q. That's interesting. How was it done?

A. When Anton and I got married, Sirira Senaratne had organised a Paduru Party as a celebration for us. Well known Maradane Choppe` brought Jothipala to the 'bajawwa' and pleaded with Anton to speak to Master Chandrasena to give Jothi a break, and it was done.

Q. You say you have been involved in politics for 45 years and as a passionate supporter of the SLFP and you have still not changed?

A. That's true. I came into politics influenced by my brother in law R.S. Perera who contested the Kelaniya electorate. In 1977 I was introduced to Horana MP. Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and Nikaweratiya MP Mudiyanse Tennakoon who were trying to organise a SLFP all Island women's wing. I was appointed as a founder member of the women's wing from the Borella seat. In 1967 I contested the Municipality elections (Milagiriya Ward) on the SLFP ticket and lost only by 448 votes.

Q. So you are still very much into politics and you should be in Sri Lanka these days especially as the general election is just round the corner?

A. Well I am here only for 2-3 days to participate in the Swarna Gee concert, which is to raise money for the needy in Sri Lanka. You will be pleased to know that our Leader, Hon. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratune has, without my knowledge even, incorporated my name into the nominated MPs list in the forthcoming elections.

Q. You were born Malay and you say you and your whole family are now Buddhists. How come?

A. True, I have always been inspired by Buddhism. As a child I lost my parents and then onwards I started to concentrate on Buddhism and read a lot on Buddhism. When I got married my husband was a Catholic but now we all are devout Buddhists. I firmly believe, from my own life's experiences, that anyone who believes in Buddhism will never fail in life.

Q. What is your most memorable event in life?

A. When we were in Kuppiyawatte Temple Road in Maradana a young Buddhist monk used to come on 'Pinna Patha'. Later we found out as curious school girls that he came from Kotmale Amarawansa's thero's temple. I had a great urge to offer a dane` to this young priest and later Anton did not object to the idea at all. So one day we offered him food and he became very friendly with us after that. This young priest used to conduct beautiful Buddha Pooja and give interesting discourses, which appealed to me very much and attracted crowds. He became a popular 'podi Sadu for Bana preaching and Bodhi Pujas'. Much later when I was in the Radio Ceylon I wanted to invite this priest to a Radi (Bana) discourse but Vijithananda Manikdiwela, the Director of Religious Service said, "Rani Nangiye that's a dangerous thing. If I do that the Chief monk will eat my head off, but since you insist I will try my best to give him a slot at least for one Dhamma Chinthawak (thought of the day) programme.

Q. So did you succeed?

A. I did not give up. Next I approached the Director General, Ridgeway Thilakarante and presented my case. He too got cold feet and passed the buck back on to Manikdivela. The D.G told Manikdiwela, to try and do something but diplomatically. Ultimately the young priest was invited, due to the pressure exerted by me, to fill a gap of another scheduled priest who could not make the Dhamma Chintha talks. The young priest's discourse appealed to thousands of listeners and letters by the dozen started pouring in requesting more and more discourses from the young priest. The Monk became very popular all over the island through the Radio and at maturity he was ordained as Panadura Ariya Dhamma Thero who became an authority in conducting Bodhi Pujas in Sri Lanka. Until the venerable monk passed away he used to call me 'Amma' (mother); every time some one calls me 'Amma' even now, my memories straightaway go back to that podi Sadu who became the renowned Panadure Ariya Dhamma Thero. The complement I received from the Director General of the SLBC was that, " Rani you are not only good in seleting singers but you are good at selecting Buddhist priests also."