By Tilak S. Fernando
GSB Rani who died last week at the age of 74 was an icon in the Sinhala Radio and Silver screen. Born on 20 August 1930 and named as Gnai Sinari Benzajaya she was 'absorbed' into the musical industry in 1944, at the age of 14 when she accompanied her cousin to Colombia recording studios as a spectator. Providence, however, changed individuals and GSB ended up by cutting two Colombian records: 'Samagi Bale Paame', and " Siri Sara Bhavane, a duet with Mohideen Baig," The biggest obstacle next was to get permission from her father as he vehemently objected to the idea of using her own name. However, with a lot of persuasion an amicable agreement was reached between her father and the record company to abbreviate her name and use Rani. So she became GSB Rani, and later entered the stardom as a popular playback professional singer in Sri Lankan films and an 'A Grade' artiste at the Radio Ceylon.
From 1970 to 1977 GSB Rani worked as a Musical Programme Producer at the Radio Ceylon when Mr. Susil Munasinghe was the Chairman of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation. When the CBC took a bold decision to phase out broadcasting Sinhala songs copied from Hindi and Tamil tunes that responsibility fell on GSB Rani's shoulders, as the programme director Sinhala service. She continued to work in that capacity for seven years recruiting many new singers and promoting original Sinhala tunes through Nanada Malini, Edward Jayakody, Victor Ratnayake, T.M.Jayaratne, Priya Sooriyasena, Mala Bulathsinghala, Abeywardhana Balasooriya to name a few. During her tenure she was successful in recording over 7000 new Sinhala original songs of these artiste's until she fell prey to a poison pen by a jealous element within the Radio Ceylon. It ruined her career for many years to come. Consequently, she was ostracised as a singer by the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation for 15 years and Radio Ceylon building itself became out of bounds for her. In 1994 under the PA administration she was brought back to the limelight as a Director of the Independent Television under special instructions from President Chandrika Kumaratunge Bandaranaike. She held that position until 2001.
GSB Rani celebrated her 60th professional anniversary in Sri Lankan musical industry (Parama Ramani concert) in February 2004 from the Bandaranaike Memorial Hall. Immediately afterwards, she did her maiden tour to London in March and participated in Swarna Gee concert organised by Hela Sarana Charity. Inspired by her fans that thronged to the Camden Town Hall to capacity she commented, " I feel like I have come to see my own children in London after so long! Having been trodden under a heavy political boot and raising her head again after fifteen long years she declared in London that she 'bounced back once again from the Bandaranaike Hall in February 2004' and her second journey in her professional path had just begun from London, at the age of 74! When she spoke those emotional words she was determined to catch up with the lost years in her musical career but unfortunately providence served with a sledge hammer blow quite unexpectedly in September, letting down her wider circle of fans, when she had to answer the final call from above.
During her accomplished career in the Sri Lankan cultural scene GSB Rani contributed to Sri Lankan drama by appearing as Mandri Devi in J.D.A. Perera's Wessanthara , Premila Queen in Upali Wanasinghe's Daskon and the main role in Rodi Kella stage plays. She sang most of her duet songs with the most well known singers in Sri Lanka, such as Mohideen Baig, Dharmadasa Walpola, H. R. Jothipala, Sirira Senaratne, N. Karunaratne and W. Prematilleka. In London GSB Rani created history by singing a duet with Isaq Mohideen Baig, the son of the late Mohideen Baig and became the only female singer in Sri Lanka who had shared the microphone with singers of two generations, particularly with the father and son combination.
Gnai Sinari Benzajaya became GSB Rani Perera after her marriage to Anton Perera. Influenced by her brother-in-law, Politician, R. S. Perera, she dabbled in Sri Lankan politics, and became a staunch SLFP supporter and an all Island organiser of the women's wing of the Party . In 1967 she contested the Municipality elections to represent Milagiriya Ward on the SLFP ticket and lost by 448 votes. Becoming a political target and treating her election defeat as only a pitch and toss game, GSB Rani continued 45 years of her life in politics unaffected but only with her strong convictions and political ideology. Naturally she had to pay a heavy price for it, which once lost her lucrative career at the Radio Ceylon. In recognition of her extended service and life long dedication to the SLFP, President Chandrika Bandaranayke Kumaratune, who was the leader of the People Alliance, included GSB Rani's name in the National List of MPs during the recent general election; she narrowly missed the opportunity of becoming a nominated member of parliament in the Sandhanaya Administration.
Born as Malay and married to a Sinhala Catholic she not only became a Buddhist but also managed to convince her husband and her three children also to become Buddhists.
As a direct result of GSB Rani's intervention and relentless efforts in persuading the Director General of the CBC, amidst a lot of bureaucratic stone walls, she managed to install a young Buddhist priest at the Radio Ceylon for a Dhamma Chinthawak programme. The young priest was effective and became very popular with the listening audiences. Soon by popular demand the Radio Ceylon hierarchy had to allocate a permanent slot for this young monk for Radio Bana programmes, which hallmarked as his first Buddhist sermon on the radio.
GSB Rani was so thrilled with her achievement in her campaign to install this young priest at the Radio Ceylon. Subsequently when this popular young priest ordained to Upa Sampada status, he took the name Panadure Ariya Dhamma Thero who became a household name throughout the country as an effective preacher and an authority on performing Bodhi Pujas. Finally the Director General of the SLBC congratulated and complimented GSB Rani for her determined efforts and fighting spirits by saying " Rani you are not only good in selecting singers but you are pretty good at selecting Buddhist priests also for the radio." Venn. Pandora Aria Damma Thero respected her, thanked her and treated her like his own mother and even addressed her calling' amme'. In London GSB Rani told me whenever anyone calls her 'amme' she could not help but her mind went straight back to the memory of Panadure Ariya Dhamma Thero.
I was privileged to meet with my school days idol in London after many years. During a media interview she told me, "Sonny, if you believe in Buddhism you will never go wrong in life' which kept on resonating in my ears constantly. Now that GSB Rani has left us leaving only the memories, good deeds of her and her voice on magnetic tapes as the only 'living' symbol of her existence on this earth for us to remember, I am certain that she has peacefully gone on the chosen path where she thought it would take her. May her attain nibbana.
Tilak S. Fernando