Haroon Lantra: Talat Mahmud of Sri Lanka
by Premil Ratnayake
[color=orange]Somewhere in the fifties, they held a glamorously-lit carnival at Maradana’s Ananda Balika Vidyalaya. Maradana or Mariakade was then notoriously famous for old-time carnivals, especially Ananda College. At the end of the carnival grounds inside a class room there was an unattended microphone. Perhaps it was mounted there "live all the time to make special announcements. Now and then a diminutive Malay youth flamboyantly dressed sporting an Errol Flynn moustache and a Dilip Kumar hairdo strolled in, walked to the mike and sang a Hindi film song. The crowds paused on their tracks to listen, for, it was a ‘hit’ number, Mohamed Rafi’s ‘Hum Apne Dilko Fassana.....’
The singer was Haroon Lantra. Standing behind him playing on an imaginary flute was Henry Dissanayake who later proved to be a highly talented singer. His untimely death robbed the local musical world of a melodious voice. Had Henry lived he would have posed a threat to Lantra and many others. Seated beside Lantra and Henry in that classroom was another school boy drumming on a class room desk to keep the beat to Haroon’s singing. Haroon "Kumar" Lantra ("Kumar" is the playful tag coined and slapped on by friends and DJs to cover the Malayan "Tuan"; Haroon had nothing to do with it) is easily our best singer — on screen, stage or radio or elsewhere, including the now not so frequent Bajavu sessions.
Recently he celebrated fifty years as a vocalist. Belatedly though the National Television in quite a surprising move (did some discerning Nightingale kick them awake from self-imposed slumber?) went to town taking with them the unassuming singer for an hour’s glorious ride of a musical extravaganza. For almost fifty years the indigent crooner had remained in musical wilderness, neglected by all, his talents unrecognised, living in penury, and, suddenly they have "discovered" him. Haroon would have chuckled. I, on my part, wanted to roll on the ground in uncontrollable laughter. What hypocrisy on the part of the State Media!
Be that as it may, the TV people deserve a pat on the back. Good show though it was somewhat sullied by a vague promise of a house for Lantra. I hope by now he is comfortably settled in a new house, for, singers too need a house to live.
When Lantra got his first break to record a song, not surprisingly, he chose Rafi’s "Hum Apne." which Haroon sang at the Ananda Balika carnival. The Sinhala words ran "Sundaravu Dharme Budunge Tiloka". It was Lantra’s first recorded song though he prefers to give the first slot to Talat Mahmud’s "Meri Yaadme" which in Sinhala he sang thus "Love Sema Da Thanha." Perhaps that was because Talat was his favourite singer. So much so Haroon was in the habit of saying that if ever he owned a car it would be a Hillman. Talat drove a Hillman car!
Haroon‘s first break into film playback singing came in S. M. Nayagam’s "Prema Tharangaya." Muttusamy was the Music Director. Lantra sang the memorable number, "Manu Jeevane." No film assignments thereafter for a long time. Professional jealousy or "back-cutting"? Or was it because film wallahs and music directors went for cheap pop songs which Lantra used to dub contemptuously as "Dun Tel Sangeethe"? But the music duo Rocksamy and Lateef knew well Lantra‘s worth, They used him in "Sigiri Kashyapa." The song was "Giluna Hada Santaane". Muttusamy again got him to sing the hit-song, "Mage Namali" in the film, I believe, "Sekaya" . It was a Mohd. Rafi number but Lantra added his own musical nuances to it and it has become a household musical item.
Before all that Maestro Premasiri Khemadasa, the most original of our composers, got Lantra to sing for his ballet, "Nava Rella" to the lyrics of Dharmasiri Gamage — "Pipaseyan Piri Polothale". Khemadasa understood Lantra’s voice. He used him in K. A. W. Perera’s "Senasuma Kothanada" to sing Dharmasiri Gamage lyrics, "Sulan Kurullo."
At one time, Haroon Lantra had an half-hour Islamic program of Ghazals over the Radio. I do not know what has happened to those programs first introduced by Mohamed Ghouse, his wife Kurshid Begum and Mohideen Baig.
Ironically though, Lantra was never offered a radio program though he sang infrequently over the Commercial Service and recorded some songs for a pittance.
Haroon Lantra never did a job as such and life was hard for him. But he never complained. About once a year he recorded some songs for Columbia discs turned out by Millers Ltd. And that too for a measley sum.
In those days there were Shylocks at Cargills and Millers who exploited our poor singers and drained the very blood out of them. Perhaps Haroon Lantra experienced the most memorable moment of his singing life when Mohamed Rafi, that great Hindi film playback singer came to Sri Lanka in the fifties to sing at the YMBA Hall, Borella. The hall was packed and the crowds spilled over to the grounds of the Buddhist institution. It was a time when hi-fi sophisticated electronic equipment was unseen and unheard of. There was one big loud speaker strung under the roof at one end of the YMBA Hall. A single microphone was mounted on stage at the other end for Rafi to sing. Rafi dressed in sherwani studied the stage, the mike, the crowd and the loud speaker and said he wanted to "test" how the voice would be carried through the crude mike and into the loud speaker. He wanted the organisers to fetch someone to sing over the microphone. He would stand under the loud speaker and listen. They picked Haroon Lantra for the job. Lantra gladly accepted it, went over and crooned a lovely melody of Talat Mahmud over the microphone. Rafi was visibly impressed. He walked across and complimented Lantra.
"Why, don’t you like my songs?" Rafi asked.
"Oh, I do," Lantra said, "but I like that song too."
South Indian film playback singer A. M. Rajah and his wife Jikki had sung several Sinhala songs for our movies. Rajah had a voice similar to that of Lantra. Rajah jealously guarded his reputation as a Sinhala playback singer in Sri Lanka. He had heard of Lantra but had not seen him sing. It seemed that when he finally heard Lantra sing, Rajah got cold feet.
So G. S. B. Rani narrated at the Lantra’s fifty-year TV program. Rani and Lantra had been contracted to sing for a Sinhala film in India which died a premature death. Rani and Lantra went to India. Rajah too was going to sing for the film. But then he suddenly vanished, Rani recalled with a chuckle. And then Rani and her cousin Lantra returned home.
Lantra speaks English and Sinhala fluently but he cannot read or write Sinhala. He writes down his songs in English but sings with a perfect Sinhala diction.
In the Sri Lankan musical agenda nearly every singer is a Sangitha Visardha or Pandit or at least a Kala Suri Haroon Lantra is not crowned with any of these titles. But he could outsing many of them. In India, Mohamed Rafi, Talat Mahmud, Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar, Samshad Begum, Asha Bhonsle, Kishore Kumar, Mahendra Kapoor, Manna Dey, G. M. Durrani Masthana did not hold of any of these lofty titles but, boy! could they sing!
I wish to think that it is for the good of singing and music in Sri Lanka that Haroon Lantra has never been conferred with such exalted titles. Let Tuan Haroon Lantra remain just Haroon Lantra with his Golden Voice which no title can embellish or diminish.