Radio Ceylon, the trailblazer that was!


By Dr Upul Wiayawardhana

In spite of the likelihood that I may be accused of dwelling on the glories of our bygone days, a favourite pastime of ours, I would fail in my duty if I do not share what I discovered, by sheer accident,about an institution I was associated with in my youth. Listening to ‘Radio Ceylon’ on a ‘valve’ radio with a creaky sound, in spite of a huge aerial drawn across the two tallest coconut trees in our garden, was the main source of entertainment in our childhood. It was a time when, fortunately for us, children’s programmes were at their zenith and soon Karunaratna Abeysekara, better known as ‘Karuayya’, became my idol. I started writing to Karuayya’s ‘Lamapitiya’ and still remember the thrill I had when, for the first time, I heard my name on Radio Ceylon, when my short piece was broadcast over ‘Lamapitiya’. When I ‘migrated’ to Colombo in 1957, as there were no facilities to do Medical entrance from my hometown Matara, I had the good fortune of being able to assist Karuayya in his Sunday children’s programme ‘Saraswathie Mandapaya’. Since then, I have walked the corridors of Radio Ceylon and its successor, SLBC, hundreds of times but did not realize the importance of it in the history of broadcasting, till now.

I must thank Kishani Jayasinghe, who has made us proud by her numerous achievements in the field of Opera, for this discovery. Not having had the fortune of listening live to her Soprano rendition of "Danno Budunge" at the Independence Day Celebrations,I could not understand why it caused such a furore.Thanks to the world-wide-web, invented by the British Scientist, Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 who left the ownership of it to all of us than patenting it and the video-sharing website, ’YouTube’created in 2005 by Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, I was able to listen not only to her but also to numerous other renditions of this great piece of music inspired by Wagner. Not only that, I was able to listen to the critics and critics of critics as well! I did enjoy it for its difference but must confess, being a ‘Godaya’, Kishani’s rendition was not my cup of tea, the best version for me being the one by Nanda Malini with a male chorus. The cohesion this song brought about, which self-seeking politicians try to destroy, is amply demonstrated by the emotional renditions by even non-Buddhists like Rukmani Devi and Mohideen Baig.

Being an international star, Kishani, I am sure, is well aware that not everyone has the taste for her style and it is the prerogative of critics to criticize but that does not justify insults. I note with great regret that she had been insulted via social media but, again, I am sure she well understands that this is ‘a malady of the internet age’ when idiots think they are clever.However, I do not think she expected or anticipated the profuse apologies doled out under threat. What is incomprehensible is the reaction by politicians on the wane, running amok to foreign domains too seeking divine interventions, to make a political issue out of this and threatening censorship. It surely is making a mountain out of a molehill, as rightly stated in the superb editorial titled ‘Silencing songs and criticism’ (The Island, Tuesday 16th).

This is not the first instance "Danno Budunge" caused controversy. It had to be in 1950 or 1951, before M J Perera took over, in 1952,as the first Ceylonese Director General of Radio Ceylon from John Lampson of the BBC. Miss Joan Eleanor Ramsbotham, daughter of the then Governor General, Lord Soulbury sang "Danno Budunge" over the National Service of Radio Ceylon and her ‘English accent’ attracted criticism but it was her singing that made the song the popular song it is today. Kishani can be happy that she is in good company.

It is in my search for Miss Ramsbotham’s rendition that I came to know a lot about Radio Ceylon. We all know that it was one of the pioneering Radio Stations but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was the first in Asia and second in the world, just three years younger to the BBC.

From the factory of Marconi, the inventor of Radio, situated in Chelmsford in South-East England, first experimental music broadcasts began in 1920. Two years later, in October 1922, a consortium of radio manufacturers formed the British Broadcasting Company, which later became a corporation (BBC). The first radio stations in England were experimental station 2MT, located near Chelmsford, and station 2LO in London: both were operated by the Marconi Company. By late 1923, there were six stations broadcasting regularly in the United Kingdom.

This is how Wikipedia describes the birth of radio in Ceylon:

"Sri Lanka has the oldest radio station in Asia (world's second oldest). The station was known as Radio Ceylon. It developed into one of the finest broadcasting institutions in the world. It is now known as the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation

Sri Lanka created broadcasting history in Asia when broadcasting was started in Ceylon by the Telegraph Department in 1923 on an experimental footing, just three years after the inauguration of broadcasting in Europe.

Gramophone music was broadcast from a tiny room in the Central Telegraph Office with the aid of a small transmitter built by the Telegraph Department engineers from the radio equipment of a captured German submarine.

This broadcasting experiment was a huge success and barely three years later, on December 16, 1925, a regular broadcasting service came to be instituted. Edward Harper who came to Ceylon as Chief Engineer of the Telegraph Office in 1921, was the first person to actively promote broadcasting in Ceylon. Sri Lanka occupies an important place in the history of broadcasting with broadcasting services inaugurated just three years after the launch of the BBC in the United Kingdom."

M J Perera, as the first indigenous Director General, saw it that Radio Ceylon transformed itself to be the ‘King of the airwaves in South Asia". Radio Ceylon was the number one radio station and the market leader in the region in 1950s and 60s with a loyal base of millions of listeners. M J also became the first Chairman of Rupavahini Corporation and is credited with coining the term ‘Rupavahini’ for Television. On a personal note, I consider it was privilege I could treat him and was impressed by his modesty and simplicity in spite of numerous achievements.

Radio Ceylon had an extremely successful Commercial service which was headed by an Australian appointed via ‘Colombo Plan’, Clifford Dodd, who was instrumental in popularising the Hindi service. Hindi film songs of the golden era were listened to by Indians thanks to Radio Ceylon as they were not broadcast over All India Radio. Hindi Hit-parade "Binaca Geetha Mala" was a roaring success and enriched the coffers of Radio Ceylon.

Times have changed and we are inundated with radio stations but most of the time they broadcast old favourites sung, often badly, in new voices. On the occasion of the 80th birthday of Radio Ceylon in December 2005, this was the analysis by V S Sambandan published in ‘The Hindu’, leading English language newspaper in India, in its’ 1st January 2006 edition under the title "When Ceylon ruled the airwaves":

"Once the pride of the region, Radio Ceylon is today a fading memory. Can the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation regain its lost glory?

It is Christmas time and Jim Reeves is on air, taking Sri Lanka back to its days of romance and charm. "You are listening to Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and we've got more Christmas music going out for you. Hope you are tuned in to us," trills the friendly announcer. Another glorious old number "When A Child Is Born" floats across the skies. Requests pour in from all over the country and the programme continues to enthral those tuned in.When Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (as Radio Ceylon is now called) celebrated its 80th birthday on December 16, it was, sadly, a pale shadow of its past. Once the pride of the region's airwaves, it is today relegated to fading memories and confined to chapters of an era of broadcasting élan.

For Indian radio enthusiasts of decades gone by, it was Radio Ceylon that set the standards. Those were days before commercial broadcasts commenced in India and taking a break from the monotonous, though informative, broadcasts of All India Radio (AIR) meant twirling those vintage radios to trap Radio Ceylon's programmes. Once tuned in, the listener was treated not just to music of the highest quality. The magnetic voices of broadcasters, Jimmy Barucha (English), Ameen Sayani (Hindi) and Mylvaganam (Tamil), to mention just three, ensnared the listeners, taking Radio Ceylon to the top slot in the region's radio network …."

It is well worth reading the full article which brought tears to my eyes.

We had so much and if only we had politicians with a vision, we could have been the miracle of Asia.

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