How Sri Lanka's 'Manike Mage Hithe' became an election song and viral hit

Mumbai artist Raj's Hindi cover of the track got one million views in a day and India's ruling party used another version as an election anthem

Sri Lankan singers Yohani and Satheeshan Rathnayaka are behind the viral song 'Manike Mage Hithe'. Photo: YouTube / Yohani

In August last year, YouTube artist Rektron aka Raj in Mumbai was sipping a cup of chai outside a tea stall when he heard the song Manike Mage Hithe for the first time.

“Our chaiwala [tea seller] was making tea and suddenly his phone rang. This song was his ringtone,” Rektron tells The National. He couldn’t get the tune out of his head. After several failed attempts searching for the track online, Rektron came across the Sinhala-language official cover version of Manike Mage Hithe, sung by Sri Lankan artists Yohani and Satheeshan Rathnayaka on YouTube.

A few days later, Rektron released a Hindi cover of Manike Mage Hithe. “I remember it was the morning of August 17. I just published it and fell asleep. When I woke up at 2pm, my phone was buzzing. I had 500,000 views,” says Rektron, “I was shocked. How could this happen?”

Within a day, Rektron’s cover received one million views on YouTube — now it has more than 38 million views.

This isn’t the only cover version of Manike Mage Hithe. Since the release of the official Sinhala-language song seven months ago, it has been covered by various artists across the world in a number of languages. Some of these versions include a Bengali cover with more than three million views, a Nepali cover and a recent English cover released by Dutch singer Emma Heesters.

The song is a global hit now, with 130 million views, favoured by people from chai stalls in India to Bollywood celebrities such as Madhuri Dixit and Jacqueline Fernandez. And recently, another Hindi cover of the song became the official poll anthem of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, for the state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Despite the immense popularity of Yohani's viral version, it was also a cover of the Sinhala song released in July 2020, by Rathnayaka and composed by Chamath Sangeeth. Artist Dulan ARX wrote the lyrics.

“The original song was [a] sort of an experiment. We wanted to see how people would receive it,” says Rathnayaka. Later in 2021, Rathnayaka worked on the official cover with Yohani, who performed the song at Expo 2020 Dubai on Saturday, March 5.

“Within three weeks after Yohani and I released the cover, we started getting a few comments from the Indian audience.”

Rathnayaka credits the song's popularity in India to a number of factors. “First, both mine and Yohani’s names have a subtle Indian resemblance. And some of the Sinhala lyrics — if you take words like manahari for example — have a Hindi touch," he says.

But above all, Rathnayaka says the song became popular thanks to its strong sonic qualities. “It’s a very catchy tune that you can’t easily forget.”

Rathnayaka believes that the song grew in popularity when child artist Miah Kutty from Kerala sang it live on television. “And then, [Bollywood superstar] Amitabh Bachchan tweeted about it. After that, it was everywhere,” he says.

YouTube artists Jalaj and Rajat Sharma, who post covers under the name JalRaj, also recorded a Hindi version.

“We received the request to cover Manike Mage Hithe in almost every second comment on YouTube. That’s when we decided to look for this song," the siblings, from Mohali in Punjab, say. "The tune and the lyrics, although we couldn’t understand a word [of it], straight away went into our head. It captures your soul, so it was clear why everyone wanted us to cover it."

The song’s popularity in India was also one of the reasons why BJP picked it up for their election campaign, says Urmi Chanda, Harmony scholar at University of Wales Trinity Saint David. “BJP plays an A-game when it comes to using the media. Their first major political success seven years ago hinged largely on the success of their media campaign. They've continued to harness this potent force,” says Chanda.

“Using the Sri Lankan super-hit Manike Mage Hithe as the template for their political anthem in UP shows that they know what works with the masses, especially the youth. Yes, the original song has musical merit, but that's not the sole reason for it being picked. Its insane popularity among Indian audiences, especially on social media platforms, is what drives this choice. It is catchy and it is immediately recognisable."

Rathnayaka says he came to know about the BJP anthem on social media. “They didn’t reach out to me. I don’t know if they sought permission from Chamath, who’s the music composer of the song,” he says.

No official acknowledgement or a statement was given to Yohani either, Chanda says. “If they didn’t inform the original artists, it’s blatant lifting to use a popular song for political ideologies.”

But Rathnayaka is happy that the song is taking Sri Lankan music global.

“I think it’s the first time a song from Sri Lanka became a viral hit across the world. It was so humbling to see how people from different countries came to embrace this song despite the political tensions between our countries," he says. "People loved and appreciated music for music. I come from a small island nation, and to see something like this was a special feeling.”

Updated: March 06, 2022, 5:44 AM