Awards presented to SPB, Sangakkara

Playback singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam and Sri Lankan cricketing star Kumar Sangakkara being honoured, with other awardees, in Colombo on Tuesday.  

“I have not received an honour like this,” said playback singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. It seemed a surprising remark, coming from an ace playback singer with several coveted national and international honours.

But it was not merely the grandeur of the awards ceremony organised by Sri Lanka’s Kamban Kazhagam that moved him. The singer, whose “greatest passion after music” is cricket, got to share the dais with one of the most admired icons of the sport – Kumar Sangakkara.

Bringing the two icons – of film music and cricket – together, with other accomplished Sri Lankans, was the Kamban Kazhagam in Colombo, named after the 12th century Tamil bard who penned the celebrated ‘Kamba Ramayanam’, a take on the Ramayana in Tamil verse. His writing has inspired many spanning centuries, leading to a body of work marked by high scholarship and literary appeal. Today, there are Kamban Kazhagams world over, organising literary festivals.

“Only 10 % of this [Kamban Pugazh] award must go to me. The rest of it is meant for the innumerable instrumentalists who played with me, the composers and lyricists who gave me these songs, the recording artistes and most of all, all of you who listen to it,” said SPB, an artiste with a record of over 40,000 songs, and a huge, fan base among Sri Lankan Tamils. In 2016, he performed live to a large audience in Jaffna, in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.

“I have no qualms saying this on stage, I haven’t seen an audience as receptive to Tamil art and culture in Sri Lanka, anywhere else in the world,” the singer said at Tuesday’s event, held at the sea-facing Ramakrishna Hall in Colombo’s Wellawatte area, a predominantly Tamil neighbourhood. The hall was packed, forcing organisers to provide impromptu, additional seating along the aisle adjoining the auditorium. And yet, there were many more, watching the ceremony standing behind.

“I am so thrilled to be here with Sangakkara. You’re a great human being and one of the finest ambassadors of Sri Lankan culture,” SPB told the cricketer on stage. That was also why the organisers decided to honour Sangakkara, who received a spontaneous standing ovation from the audience.

Founded by scholar 'Kambavarithy' Ilankai Jeyaraj 40 years ago in Jaffna, the organisation’s Colombo chapter is celebrating its silver jubilee this year.

Essentially a forum for debate and discussion on Tamil literature and culture, the Kazhagam has been honouring prominent Sri Lankans from different fields and ethnicities every year. “From 2009, when the war ended, we strongly felt that we must honour at least one Sinhalese person every year. Sangakkara, as an icon who stands for ethnic harmony, was a natural choice for our committee,” Mr. Jayaraj told The Hindu.

The other awardees were Tamil parliamentarian and senior lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran, High Court Judge Justice S. Thurairaja, writer A. Muttulingam, senior bureaucrat V. Sivagnanasothy and research scholar A.M. Nahiya.

“I am humbled,” said Mr. Sangakkara, currently president of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) , calling for harmony in diversity, and emphasising there was “no room for exclusivity or suspicion”. He was reiterating a message that he powerfully expressed at his famous MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s in 2011. Kamban Kazhagam deemed it fit to play excerpts of his speech there, with a Tamil translation.

His reference in the video clip, to his parents sheltering Tamil friends during the gory 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, and his message saying: “I am Tamil, I’m Sinhalese, I’m Muslim & Burgher. I’m a Buddhist, I’m a Hindu, a follower of Islam & Christianity. But above all, today and always I will be a proud Sri Lankan,” drew thundering applause from the audience, on what was also Sri Lanka’s Independence Day.

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