By Somasiri Munasinghe –
Another voice in Sinhala music fell silent on August 10. Latha Dissanayake, who claimed a prolific career of five decades in Sri Lankan native music as a dancer, singer and teacher, lost her second bout with breast cancer in the Maharagama hospital, where she was in palliative care.
She has been living in Canada since 2002 and beat breast cancer the first time, but we never knew that she became a victim of the dreaded disease once more. When she cured the first time, she invited the Toronto-based Tamil physician, Dr. Ramesh Asirwathan, who detected her cancer initially, as a chief guest for the fourth edition of her top-rated Sanda Kiranin musical show as a show of gratitude.
She staged the first of her solo performance in Sri Lanka in 1988, and donated all the proceeds of the show’s fourth edition in Canada to Maharagama Cancer Hospital, where she died.
Born Padmalatha Dissanayake in Maradana on May 23 in 1943, she was the second girl in a family of 11 siblings. Her father was from Kandy, the mother from Matara, and she studied at Ananda Balika Colombo. While at school, she learnt dancing under Jaya Shantha, brother of well-known dancer Pani Bharatha. Impressed by her skills at the tender age of 11, Shantha recommended joining the Government College of Fine Arts, where his brother taught.
“I remember future singers like Victor Ratnayake, Sanath Nandasiri, Sujatha Aththanayke, Dayaratne and Amara Ranatunga learning music under Lionel Edirisinghe while I learnt dancing under Panibharatha at the same time,” Latha said in her final interview on Derana TV in 2019.
She mastered her singing and trained her voice in a class conducted by singer Dharmadasa Walpola and under the able guidance of crooner Sisira Senarathne. She got the opportunity to sing in the chorus of some of Walpola’s songs and joined maestro Premasiri Khemadasa’s orchestra.
She got through as an A-Grade singer in Radio Ceylon after a tough audition conducted by Indian musician Dipal Nath in 1965. She produced her debut melody titled Mama Ithin Nidi Dev Duwa. Later, Latha sang in Premasiri Khemadasa’s Kalemal. All the early songs she sang as Sarala Gee became hits in the mainstream music.
She told me politician Mudiyanse Tennekoon, fondly known as Podi Putha (youngest son), wanted to marry her while she was teaching dancing at the St. Paul’s Milagiriya, a premier girls’ school in Colombo.
“One morning, I got a message from the principal that there were two visitors waiting for me at the guest room. When I rushed there, to my utter surprise, I saw Tennekoon and W. Dahayanake waiting to meet me,” she said.
W. Dahanayake was the prime minister of Sri Lanka from 1959 to 1960 and a good friend of young Tennekoon, who was engaged in politics from 1956 to 1970, holding key ministerial portfolios. Latha did not say why she was not ready to tie the knot with such a well-known person. Later she got married to a navy officer from Dankotuwa.
Latha, who ranked among the top female singers in Sri Lanka, had a unique quality to her melodies. Every song she sang became massive hits earning many fans even in the generations after her.
Who could forget her haunting melodies that often sang of the pain and joy of the most basic human emotion coloured by doubts, unknown fears underlined by hopes for a better tomorrow? Her melodious, bouncy voice never bordered on pessimism and despair despite fluctuating moods of her love ballads.
After the marriage, her singing career hit a brief hiatus. During the short break, she concentrated on her dancing and accompanied Sri Lankan dance troupes abroad. In 1977 she toured 15 countries with the Navy dance troupe led by Premalal Danwatte. Later she covered 28 countries along with a cultural dance troupe to popularize newly-minted national carrier Air Lanka’s services abroad.
After returning to Sri Lanka, her son encouraged her to resume her singing, and she recorded one of her greatest hits Ruwana Ambare. Another of her greatest hits was Sanda Kiranin which she sang with Milton Perera. Latha later sang the melody with the late singer’s son Priyankara Perera.
When she was new in Toronto, she did not know many people. Latha waited near grocery stores and Dollar shops to catch Sinhala-speaking women asking whether they had daughters who would like to learn singing and dancing. Latha roped in six girls, organized a musical show which became very popular among the Sinhala community. That paved the way for her own dancing academy, presenting many musical presentations of locally-grown talent.
She complained to me about her troupes’ inability to come first in the competitions organized by the city among the various communities living in Toronto. “The Canadians who sit on panels of judges don’t know anything about South Asian dancing traditions,” she told me once. “They are enchanted by the Chinese girls who perform tricks high up in the air and select them every time. That is not dancing. That is gymnastics!”
The last time I met Latha was at a function a few months before the Covid 19 happened. She was excited about the prestigious national honour, Kala Bhushana, awarded to her by the Sri Lankan Cultural Ministry to honour Latha’s services to arts. She promised to meet me for an interview, but before that, she left us.
I know how she suffered from cancer, but when she bounced back miraculously, we were all happy for her and to hear that the dreaded disease had claimed her while she was away from hundreds of her fans and friends in Canada is heartbreaking. Rest in peace Latha Akka; our greatest consolation is you have left a significant body of work for us to celebrate your exemplary life!
Toronto Maha Vihara held a Mathaka Wasthra Puja in memory of Latha Dissanayake on August 12.