Remembering Sri Lanka’s Nightingale: 30th Death Anniversary of Rukmani Devi
Soon after her birth, with the retirement of her father from the Ramboda Estate, the Daniels family moved to a residence in Cotta Road in Colombo.
She had four sisters and one brother - Mabel, Florence, Helen, Sarojini and Fredrick. She was the second in the family. Her father after shifting to Colombo was employed at the Imperial Chemical Pharmacy in Colombo Fort.
Today, October 28, is her 30th death anniversary. She received her education at St. Clare’s College, Wellawatta and St. Matthew’s College, Dematagoda. She was highly talented that she participated in Christmas Carols at the age of seven when she was a student of Chandraleka, a teacher at St. Matthew’s College. Chandraleka was the wife of the well known artiste, J. D. A. Perera, and was her mentor in singing.
Rukmani was picked to perform the main role in a Christmas play ‘The Cobbler’s Wife’, which was presented by the St. Clare’s College.
At the age of twelve, she played the role of Sita in the stage play ‘Ramayanaya’, staged by Walter Abeysinghe. Some of the other plays she took part in were Mayawathi, Janaki Haranaya, Rohini, Hangala Appu, Rajddrohiya, Sirisangabo, Keekaru Birinda, Kadavunu Poronduwa, Avatharaya, Peralena Iranama, Maly Yahanawa, Onna Babo Ethninniya, Wes Muhunu and Sivamma Dhanapala.
Her first recording was a duet ‘Siri Buddha Gaya Vihare’ with the famous singer H. W. Rupasinghe Master in the gramophone era, which brought her fame and fortune. The song was recorded on His Master’s Voice - (H.M.V.) disc in 1939.
The Daniels family shifted from the Cotta Road residence to Moratuwa and later to Negombo. There she met young Eddie Jayamanne when they were playing in the stage play ‘Avatharaya’. They met each other and commenced a love affair with the hope of getting married. As Eddie had no proper employment or source of income, the parents of Rukmani Devi opposed their marriage and filed action before the then District Judge of Colombo D. R. F. Dias. E. B. Wickremanayake, Q.C. appeared for Eddie, the plaintiff-petitioner seeking permission of court to marry Rukmani then at a tender age. The judge is reported to have said: "Go to the closest Registrar’s office and get married. You are the Charlie Chaplin of Ceylon marrying the Nightingale of Ceylon". They were married on February 18, 1943 at the Wellampitiya Church and later settled down in their own house named ‘Jaya Ruk’ in Negombo.
Eddie, the comedian, had an older brother, namely, B. A. W. Jayamanne, a prolific playwright of the time and Director of the Minerva Amateur Dramatic Club of Negombo. Rukmani joined that institution as a songstress. The founder of the club B. A. W. Jayamanne guided her not only in her career but it was through him that she met her future husband Eddie.
She proceeded to India by train in 1946 with the Minerva Group to act in ‘Kandavunu Porunduwa’. She acted as the main actress in that film and she was also the playback singer. She became the first and foremost actress in the field of Sinhala cinema at a time when women were not even allowed to go out of their homes without a chaperone.
At a time, when the local cinema industry was in its embryonic stage, it was the veteran superstar Rukmani Devi who enlivened the silver screen with her matchless performances.
The drama ‘Kadavunu Poronduwa’ was a product of the Minerva Group, which went to the Madurai Studio in Madras to film it and was directed by Jothis. The popular lyrics were composed by Hugo Fernando. The film was first screened at the Kingsley Cinema on January 21, 1947 in the presence of a distinguished gathering with the Leader of the House in the State Council D. S. Sennayake as chief guest.
When Queen Elizebeth II visited Sri Lanka, Rukmani Devi was introduced to her as the celebrity artiste of the times.
A veteran film journalist A. D. Ranjith filling a void in the literature of Sinhala cinema, traces her life, since her birth up to her demise. Her life, works and presence on stage and screen is indelibly inscribed on tapes, discs and films, journals and above all, in the loving lasting memory of Sri Lankan filmgoers and lovers of music. Her lifespan was almost that of the history of Sinhala cinema in the formative stages in the mid-Twentieth Century. Graduating from the stage where she performed for Minerva Theatre Group, she was the only actor-songster in the Sinhala cinema who could be identified and talked of with admiration and gratitude.
With a string of success to her credit, she gracefully matured from teen-lover on stage to youthful lover and loving mother in cinema. Since the day she played the role of Sita in ‘Ramayana’ she never looked back until her demise under tragic circumstances on October 28, 1978 at Tudella, Ja-ela when she was returning from Matara after attending a musical performance. Her van collided with an oil Bowzer of the Petroleum Corporation.
She was born a Christian although at the launching of her important events in life, she obtained the blessings of the Sangha. She had the novel ‘Maraka Pimma’ in her possession at the time of her death. A Buddhist monk, prior to her death, had predicted that she would meet with a fatal accident and warned to be extremely careful.
Rukamani Devi was the first local cinema actress with the launching of the first Sinhala film ‘Kadavunu Poronduwa’ (Broken Promise) screened on January 21, 1947. Her film career covered a period of three decades and she acted in around 90 films. She possessed an inborn talent for singing in many forms as the theme demanded.
She engaged in double acting in ‘Umathu Vishvasaya’ as mother and daughter in 1952. Stanley Perera is the only film actor living today with whom she acted. She also opened a Cinema Industrial Company named Jaya Ruk. ‘Siriyalatha’ was the first film produced by that company and screened on June 27, 1957. It was in ‘Kavata Andare’ that both Rukmani and Eddie acted as husband and wife for the first time.
‘Magul Poruwa’ was the film in which she acted a main role for the last time, in 1967. Gamini Fonseka for the first time acted with her in ‘Daivayogaya’. The last song she sang was to the film ‘Ahasin Polowata’ - ‘Doi doi doi, written by Ausgustus Vinayagaratnam and Lyrics by Nimal Mendis.
She acted for a film for the last time in her life was to ‘Sakvithi Suwaya’ and it was a scene of a death. It was with Derick Silva that she sang a song to a disc, for the last time. She sang with Eddie Jayamanne, her husband for the last time in a musical programme at Uyanwatta in Matara, one day prior to her death.
Singers who sang with Rukamani Devi were H. W Rupasinghe, Hugo Fernando, Stanley Mallwaarachchi, S. S. Veda, Aruna Shanthi, Dharmadasa Walpola, Mohideen Baig, H. R. Jothipala, Sisira Senaratne, Susil Premaratne, W. D. Amaradeva, Milton Perera, Milton Mallawarachchi, C. T. Fernando, Felix Anton, Drick De Silva, Victor Ratnayake and Neville Fernando.
Her lyrics were by Nandana Kithi, Benedick Fernando, Lawyer Charles Dias, Hugo Fernando, Herbert M. Seneviratne, Karunaratne Abeysekera, Chitrananda Abeysekera, Wimaladasa Perera. K. D. K. Dharmasdasa, Sunil Ariyaratne, Sri Chandraratne Manawasinghe, George Leslie Ranasinghe, Ajantha Ranasinghe, Augustus Vinayagaratnam, Sarath Wimalaweera.
In 1955 at the ‘Paataka Tharagaya’ conducted by the ‘Dinamina’ she was selected as the best actress with a majority of 16, 221 votes.
At the ‘Deepasika’ awards ceremony conducted by ‘Lankadipa’ she was selected as the best actress of ‘Kela Hada in 1956.
She was selected as the best background singer for the song ‘Doi doi putha’ in the film’ Ahasin Polowata’ at the first Presidential Awards Ceremony held in 1976. She won the ‘Rana Thisara’ award at the ‘Sarasavi’ Awards Ceremony held in 1979. It is unfortunate that she was not living to receive that award.