Maestro percussionist leaves a legacy:
Throbbing beats in the realm of music
Peerless in repertoire, Darshanpathy Wijeratne Ranatunga's rich music
legacy spread over many areas in the field of music although he was
better known for his mastery in tabla. He also demonstrated his skills
in rhythm composition, music composition. Maestro Ranatunga was a
teacher and academic par excellence. His symphonies on the tabla on
themes such as rain and metropolitan life testify to his deep
understanding of music as well as his mastery in the application of
music particularly in the realm of popular music.
It was in the applied music, he left his footprints. At the zenith of
his career, maestro Wijeratne Ranatunga was a sine qua none for the Sri
Lankan film music industry. In composing rhythms for songs in films, it
was said that he used to ask for the lyrics Reading the lyrics he would
compose rhythms for songs making the rhythm composition integral part of
the lyric so that the rhythms would be organic and unique to the lyrics.
Though it is often underplayed, rhythm composition demands a deeper
understanding of music and intricate beats which would ultimately play a
vital role in making a successful song.
Although he played and experimented with percussionist instruments
from both Hindustani and Sri Lankan folk music traditions, his forte was
the tabla, for which he was the most accomplished artiste of his
generation. One of the facts which vindicated his singular contribution
in introducing and popularising Tabla is his students who perform in
almost all concert of music.
Innovation was a part and parcel of his career in music. For
instance, over the years, he devised hand-movements and Tabla beats to
suit the Sri Lankan conditions. He widely experimented with indigenous
percussion instruments such as drums of Sri Lanka and Udakkiya.
In his early days, Wijeratne Ranatunga, among his contemporaries, was
known as Dolky Wijey (Dolky is an Indian percussion instrument) as he
used to play the Dolky. Although his application to enter the Government
College of Music or Heywood as it was known then was not entertained,
Dr. Lionel Edirisinghe was informed of his talents and that he deserved
a place in the college. His entry into the field of music was purely
coincidental. At the test, Wijeratne Ranatunga played the Dolky. Most of
his contemporaries at the time at Heywood later played prominent roles
in the field of music. Among his contemporaries were Victor Ratnayake,
Mervin Perera, Austin Munasinghe and Amitha Vedisinghe.
He studied playing the tabla under the tutelage and counsel of
Visharada D.R Peries and Sangeeth Nipun P.V Nandasiri and A. D
Kodituwakku . He joined the Institute of Music Studies which was then
affiliated to the University of Keleniya as a demonstrator. A
significant aspect of his career at that stage was that he acquired a
dual personality in both classical and applied tabla playing.
Wijeratne Ranatunga studied at Maharagama Central College. In 1976,
he completed a one -year course at the Lalitha Kalayathanaya as a
tablaist and vocalist. His first music teacher was Dr. Premasiri
Khemadasa's influence was pervasive throughout his career
particularly in the sphere of applied music in which he was the
One of the instances where Wijeratna Ranatunga's versatility in a
classical performance demonstrated was when Prof. Deepali Nagha highly
praised his talents in Hindustani classical music as he was called
impromptu to replace a tablist on stage.
He demonstrated his knowledge of techniques in Hindustani classical
music in a manner in which he altered his style of playing to suit the
principal instrument in the performance such as Sitar and Flute or the
singer. He employed diverse methods of playing such techniques as Sath
Sangat and Jawab Sawal ( Question and respond between the instruments)
to suit the performer.
He was also able to recognise the talents and the style of playing of
main instruments whether it was a Flute or a performer and instruments
such as Gathkari. However, uniqueness of his methods and techniques was
that his ability to alter Hindustani techniques to suit the classical
music environment of the country. However, the important fact is that he
devised his methodologies based on Hindustani classical music tradition
yet with an indigenous signature.
For instance, after he became a teacher at the university, every beat
on the tabla was his own and not those copied from master tablists in
India. In addition to improvising his own beats on Tabla, he also
introduced hand motions. For instance, he could play the tabla on both
parts of the instrument in a harmonious manner while introducing
Although he was a versatile classical performer, his contribution, at
times, was prominent in the field of applied music. One of the factors
for his extraordinary talents and the skills in the field of applied
music is his mastery of indigenous percussion instruments such as the
Udakkiya and Rabana.
He integrated the indigenous tone motifs of such instruments as the
Udakkiya and Rabana into his creations. He used Rabana in an innovative
manner in such songs such as Hita Mithuru Sulaga (Victor Ratnayake),
Nangiye Maliye, Dagabmaha Vawu.
For instance, he mimic the sounds of the Kol drum used in Bengali
Rabindra Sangeeth for the song Arundathi Tharakava Se.
At the zenith of his career, Wijeratne Ranatunga composed rhythms for
songssuch as Mage Amalbiso (Sunil Edirisinghe), Bomaluve (Sanath
Nandasiri). Directors of music who worked with him, state that he would
read the lyrics before composing rhythms for it. It was by and large due
to the influence of maestro Khemadasa on Ranatunga. Wijeratne Ranatunga
also composed music for several songs including Ipadunuda Ma
Hadavatenna, Galana Galana Dolapare, Gangava Galabasa Adure,
Wijeratne Ranatunga, the most accomplished tablaist in the country,
discovered through his researches that the tabla can be tuned in such a
way as to produce copious sounds including those produced by the
Uddakiya (A traditional drum used in Up Country dancing) and Tammatama
(a pair of traditional drums often played at Buddhist Viharayas
associating with religious activities).
He has produced several symphonies using the tabla. For instance, the
symphony of rain is, indeed, a marvelous work as the maestro captures
even tiny drops of water and the rising tempo of the rain. He also
produce a symphony encapsulating a complex life-style and its
characteristic pace in a modern fast moving society.
Maestro Wijeratne Ranatunga was internationally acclaimed for his
mastery in tabla by many countries including Italy which conferred him a
special award in recognition of his talents on April 9, 2000 after
several successful tours there Italy.
He had performed in Italy, Germany and France in addition to his
recent tours of New York where he performed with Pradeep Ratnayake at
the Disney Land Theatre and at the Sidney Opera House with Rohana
Weerasinghe. He wrote the book entitled Using Tabla in Sri Lanka in
His departure is irreparable loss not only for the academia where he
imparted his knowledge of music but also for the field of applied music
which needs more and more artistes, musicians and rhythm composers in
the calbre of Wijeratne Ranatunga.