December 20, 2011

Rukmani Devi - Queen of the Silver Screen of Sri Lanka

By Sumana Saparamadu

(By courtesy of, 02nd April 2006)

The statue of the lady in white at the Kanuwana Junction, Ja-ela, may be a familiar sight to those of you travelling along the Colombo-Negombo Road. The lady is Rukmani Devi, who was rightly called "Nightingale of Sri Lanka' and 'Queen of the Silver Screen'.

Were she living today, Rukmani Devi would be 83 years old. She was born on January 15, 1923, at Ramboda near Nuwara Eliya. Her father John D. Daniel was working on a plantation and her mother, Helan Rose was a teacher. The Daniels belonged to the Colombo Chetty community. They named their second daughter Daisy Rasammah; she later became the celebrity, Rukmani Devi. She was the second in a family of four sisters and one brother.

The cold wet climate of Nuwara Eliya didn't suit Daisy; so the family moved to Colombo. Little Daisy started schooling at St. Matthew's School, which was close to their home. Later, she was admitted to St. Clare's School, Wellawatta, where her mother was a teacher.

At St. Clare's she showed her inborn talent for singing and dancing. The Christmas play 'The Shoemaker's Wife', in which she acted, was the turing point in her life.

In the audience was Walter Abeysinghe, a play producer. Recognising the natural talents of the girl, he made inquiries and went to see her father to get his permission to give Daisy a part in the play he was producing.

Instead of putting his foot down, as most fathers of that day would have done, Daniel readily gave permission and encouraged his daughter, and watched with pride as his little daughter appeared on stage in the role of Sita in 'Ramayana'. This was in 1935, and Daisy was only 12 years old.

In her biography Jeevithen Viththi, Rukmani says that she stepped on the stage with her heart going pit-a-pat; but when she heard her own voice resounding in the hall, her heart was filled with pride and joy.

That was the beginning of her career as actress and singer, which spanned four decades. Soon, she was sought after by play producers. She was Mayawathi in Charles Dias' play by the same name, staged at Ananda College. She was Juliet in a Sinhala adaption of Romeo and Juliet. When the Minerva Players, a company of actors formed by B. M. W. Jayamanna and Eddie Jayamanna among others started staging plays, Rukmani got the main female role in all of them.

A milestone in her life was the recording of a duet with H. W. Rupasingha for the HMV (His Master's Voice) record company. This song "Siri Buddha Gaya Viharay" was one of the most popular songs of the gramophone era. Rukmani had spent a few days in Rupasinghe Master's home in Nupe Matara, and he had trained her to hold her breath, to modulate (regulate) her voice and sing naturally.

The date fixed for the recording was October 28, 1938. She was down with fever for a few days, and was anxious about doing the recording.

The night before, as she slept, she had a strange dream. A figure dressed in white was standing by her bed, "Don't worry. You can sing and you will sing", with those words, the figure touched her face and throat. Miraculously, she was well by morning and the recording was a 100 per cent success. (Rukmani has recounted this dream in her biography). That record sold fast and the HMV Company recorded more songs by her, some solo, some duets which became popular among both the young and the old.

It was in the late thirties that Daisy Rasamma became Rukmani Devi. Some say that Rupasinghe Master was responsible for this name change.

The first Sinhala film Broken Promise, first shown in January 1947, was an adaption to the screen of a play from the Minerva Players. Rukmani played the role of Ranjani, the heroine, and the lead role in all the BAW films that followed. By this time she was married to Eddie Jayamanna.

Starting with Broken Promise, Rukmani Devi acted in 84 films, playing the young heroine at the start, and graduating to elderly roles of mother and stepmother.

The last time she faced the camera was two days before her death, for 'Sakvithi Suvaya' directed by Gamini Fonseka.

She has acted in tragedies, comedies, films about society and historical films. She has even acted in a Tamil film. A high point in her career was her role as Malani in 'Kele Handa' (Moon Over the Jungle), the first Sinhala novel to be filmed.

She was well paid for this role. The large-hearted Rukmani Devi bought a Morris Minor with that money for her driver Denzil, instead of spending the money on herself.

On October 27, 1978, Rukmani and Eddie took part in a Musical show at Matara. They left Matara in the wee hours of the morning and were in Ja-ela, Tudella by 6.30 a.m. of October 28, when their vehicle crashed into a bowser, killing Rukmani Devi on the spot.

The news was broadcast that morning, and the whole country was in shock and grief. Thousands came from far and near to pay their last respects to their beloved idol before she was laid to rest at St. Mary's Church. Negombo had never seen such a crowd before.

A close friend, Leela Kottegoda commissioned at her own expense a statue of Rukmani Devi and this statue was unveiled on January 15 (her birthday), 1980 by Minister Anandatissa de Alwis. The road on which the Rukmani Devi Museum in Negombo is located was re-named Rukmani Devi Mawatha by President R. Premadasa, on October 28, 1990.

A stamp was also issued in her honour.

You might also like:

A rare collection of Christmas Songs recorded in 1975. Written by Rev Fr Marcelline Jayakody OMI & Ivan Alwis. Vocals: Rukmani Devi, Dayaratna Ranatunga & Amara Ranatunga.

1 comment: