A black and white image of Rukmani Devi, the Wonderful Sri Lankan Actress!
Rukmani Devi, the Wonderful Sri Lankan Actress!

In the early cinema days, mostly males dominated the industry and they rose up to be popular superstars. Especially, in conservative countries like Sri Lanka, female emergence was less in show business. In an era as such, in the early 20th century, one elegant lady established herself as the first-ever female superstar of Sri Lankan cinema. She even surpassed the popularity and success of her male co-stars in most instances. After many decades, she emerged as a legend and the biggest influence to all the ladies who joined the cinema industry following in her footsteps. If you are familiar with Sri Lankan cinema, you already know who this is. Yes! It is none other than the legendary Rukmani Devi.

Here is all you need to know about Sri Lankan film actress and singer, the nightingale of Sri Lanka, Rukmani Devi.

Childhood of Rukmani Devi

Rukmani Devi was born on 15th January 1923. She was born in Ramboda, which is a beautiful, small village, close to Nuwara Eliya. Her father was John Daniel and her mother was Helen Rose. Her father worked as a plantation worker and her mother worked as a teacher. Further, her parents were Colombo Chetty Christians. She is the second daughter of a family of five kids.

Even though Rumani Devi became popular with that name in the Sri Lankan film industry, that was not her birth name. Her real name was Daisy Rassamma Daniels. Besides, even though she was born in Nuwara Eliya, she moved to Dematagoda with her family soon after.

She started her early education at St. Matthew’s school and later moved on to St. Clares’ school in Wellawatte. However, as a kid, Rukmani Devi was not very fond of singing and dancing. Still, she had some sort of talent for the aesthetic side from a very little age. So, she started practicing from a young age by singing nursery rhymes with the old gramophone at her home.

Fortunately, her family noticed her talent and was supportive of her from the very beginning. Especially, her father guided her to discover her talent and as a result, she started singing Christmas carols. She also played a role in the famous play, ‘The Shoemaker’s wife’ at an early age. Besides, one of the most noticeable performances from her childhood is her portrayal of Sita in Walter Abeysinghe’s ‘Ramayana’ when she was just 12 years old. She secured two other roles in the dramas ‘Janakiharanaya’ and ‘Mayawathi’ by the well-known dramatist Dick Dias.

Likewise, she showcased that she has a bright future in front of her from an early age.

Personal Life of Rukmani Devi

Rukmani Devi joined the Minerva Dramatic club in the 1940s. She became a permanent actress in the club and got the opportunity of playing the lead role in every single drama produced by the club then. However, the Minerva dramatic club became a turning point for her career and her personal life as well. That is because she met her life partner in this dramatic club.

He was Mr. Eddie Jayamanna, the veteran dramatist, actor, and singer. After associating with him closely for a few years, they fell in love. These two love birds faced much opposition from the parents of both sides. Anyhow, this couple married on 15th February 1943. After the marriage, her husband became her support system in her career. They even acted together in 16 films.

The couple lived at the famous ‘Jaya Ruk’ residence located at Angurukaramulla, Negombo.

Rukmani Devi Entering the Film Industry

Rukmani Devi’s entrance into the film industry was indeed a revolutionary act at the time. Especially, the mid-1930s were an era where women in show business were mostly frowned upon. In fact, males played many leading female characters in those times.

However, John Daniels took a bold move in guiding his well brought up daughter to the cinema industry. Many actresses followed in Rukmani Devi’s footsteps from the 1940s onwards.

Here’s how she flourished in her career as an actor and a singer.  

Her Career as an Actress

As mentioned above, Rukmani Devi’s father was the constant guiding light for her career in the early years. But unfortunately, he fell ill after her performance in Sirisangabo. So, she had to give up her studies and pursue an acting career to earn for her family.

Her father suggested that she give up her birth name and take the name ‘Rukmani Devi’ to sound more appealing to the industry. She also had to overcome the language barrier, since she was not that fluent in Sinhala.

However, she worked very hard to learn the language by memorizing the words. During this time, Mr. Sebert Dias, the father of Chitrasena offered to train her for a role in the play, Romeo and Juliet. After such very successful performances in the early days of their career, Rukmani Devi stepped into the industry as a permanent member of the Minerva Dramatic club. 

Rukmani Devi portrayed many unique roles in many popular stage dramas of different genres. She was also lucky enough to star in the first-ever Sinhala film, ‘Kadawunu Poronduwa’. She started her film career by playing the role of ‘Ranjani’ in this film. Therefore, Sri Lankans consider her the first cinema actress in the Sri Lankan film industry.

This cinema journey she started in 1947 lasted for three very successful decades. Her final movie was ‘Ara Soysa’ where she played the character of Vadigapatuna’s mother in 1984.

In between these two movies, she has graced 98 movies with her performances and she played the leading role in 84 of them. Apart from the Sinhala cinema, she has also starred in English and Tamil movies. Accordingly, Rukmani Devi became the first Sri Lankan actress to star in Tamil movies. The Sri Lankan film industry was blessed to be graced by such a versatile actress.

Rukmani Devi’s Career as a Singer

Rukmani Devi’s gracious voice earned her the title of ‘the Nightingale of Sri Lanka’. Her voice was just perfect for both the stage and the silver screen alike.

She was also a regular singer in Rupasinghe’s Master’s band. She had to overcome the language barrier and then go through many practices for singing. As a result, she rose up to fame again as one of the most talented singers of her era.

Rukmani Devi has gifted several immortal classics to Sri Lanka’s music industry. She also gained recognition as the only actress who did all the playback singing for all her characters at the time. She was often featured in ‘Radio Ceylon’, which is the oldest radio station in South Asia. Her hits still dominate the charts. Many directors absolutely loved working with her as she is basically an all-in-one package. 

Awards of Rukmani Devi

Rukmani Devi has been awarded so many times for her excellent performance in movies and for her singing career as well. This includes several national awards.

Here are some such special awards that Rukmani Devi received in her career.

  • She received the best actress award for her role in ‘Kele Handa’ at the Deepashika awards ceremony in 1956.
  • She also won the award for the favorite female singer in the 3rd Sarasaviya awards held in 1966.
  • Rukmani Devi has received a presidential award as the best singer for her song ‘doi doi’ from the movie, Ahasin Polawata.
  • Again, at the Swarnadhara award ceremony in 1959, she earned the title of the favorite singer.
  • Besides, she was lucky enough to receive two special awards at the Sarasaviya awards in 1969 and 1986.

As such, Rukmani Devi was appreciated by countless awards at various award ceremonies throughout the years.

Rukmani Devi as a Fashion Icon

Rukmani Devi became a lady superstar when there were very few female influential figures. And also, this was a revolutionary period for fashion as well. People were mainly following movie stars for fashion. And thus, Rukmani Devi became a highlight in the fashion industry.

The beautiful Rukmani Devi was one of the most photographed women of her time. She was the face of almost all the popular magazines of that era. She can be seen wearing saris in most of her photographs. The six yards of pure grace is what suits her elegance the most. Then, her hairstyle, makeup, and even accessories got trending immediately when a photo was published in a movie. This is really a power move as this is without any internet or social media. In fact, her style became the signature style of that era. Hence, Rukmani Devi’s unique fashion sense and natural beauty made her one of the unique style icons of all time.

Death and Legacy

The legendary Rukmani Devi was lucky enough to have a prosperous life and simply the whole country loved her. Yet, the Sri Lankan film industry was not lucky enough to be graced by her presence for a long time. Rukmani Devi faced an untimely and tragic death on the 28th of October 1978. She met with a serious motor accident when she was returning from a musical show in Uyanwatta. This incident took place close to the St. Mary’s church in Tudella. Her funeral was held in a ceremonial way as fans from all over the country gathered to see their heroine for one last time. 

To celebrate her memory, a statue was built at the Kanuwana junction. If you want to learn more about her life, there’s a Rukmani Devi museum situated in Negombo. Then, on the 28th of October 1990, president R. Premadasa renamed the road which leads to this museum in Negombo as the ‘Rukmani Devi’ Mawatha.

The Bottom Line

Even after many decades, no other actress has been able to conquer Rukmani Devi’s stardom. Thus, she is held in high regard as an influential female role model. Indeed, her legacy will shine brighter for a long time in Sri Lanka as the first-ever female superstar of the Sinhala cinema, and as a significant highlight in the Sri Lankan film industry.