A peep into our Colonial Past
These lines have haunted me from childhood. They are the last words
spoken almost in a hush by Radio Ceylon before the station closes down
for the night in the days when the British ruled this country. I don’t
remember whether they were spoken before the national anthem was played
or followed it or whether the anthem was played at all.
We were so familiar with imploring God to ‘save our gracious King’
that the ears may have skipped it at the sound of the first bars. But I
do remember being hushed to sleep night after night by those gentle
words spoken at the end of the day.
A passing word on national anthems before I come to the subject of
our colonial past. National anthems seem to be a modern phenomenon.
There were none in the past and in those ‘savage’ societies from which,
we are told, we have evolved.
The nearest that may be regarded as such is the chant I have often
heard either at kaavadi or at vel - harroh harrah! Govinda! But they
were not singing of this mundane world nor of any mundane person, but of
one who transcends all worldliness. Quite different to what our colonial
masters told us to do to old King George V - ‘send him victorious, happy
and glorious’ alas, to where we were not told.
It is interesting, however, to see how this chauvinistic streak of
thinking came to infect the culture of the whole of Europe pretty soon
and later the rest of the world, which is ever ready to imitate now what
Europe or America does. The last I heard was that Amaradeva was being
flown to the Maldivian Islands to do their national thing. In a way we
should admire the Swiss. Alone among the states of Europe it resisted
the official imposition of a national anthem, not because of its
chauvinism but because the Swiss parliament felt that national anthems
should not be selected by government decree but chosen by popular
Popular choice seems to be pretty bad in Switzerland, too, for they
seem to have opted recently, after a long period of hesitation, for a
psalm that has a melody said to be embarrassingly like Britain’s God
save the King leaving visitors in two minds whether to stand or sit on
It must be said, however, about the music of the British national
anthem that it has influenced many European composers like Brahms,
Hayden and even Beethoven who have introduced bits of it into their
musical compositions. The last named bestowing on it, in addition, very
high praise. “I must show the English,” Beethoven is reported having
said, “what a blessing they have got in God Save the King.” But the
lyrics in the song have not attracted such praise. Some of the English
people themselves are rather shy about certain verses in their anthem.
After World War II, for formal occasions, the anthem is now shortened to
one verse. The one that went - Scatter their enemies/ And make them
fall/ Confound their knavish tricks/ Confuse their politics being
As for the other notable European anthems the one that reached the
zenith of chauvinism was Deutschland uber alles (Germany above all).
That, however, has been tossed into the usual place, after the last war
- the dustbin of history. Strangely enough, the most well-known of
national anthems La Marseilles has been, only very recently, reconfirmed
as France’s national anthem. As long as the French Revolution lasted it
enjoyed a national status.
Ups and downs
Subsequently, it had many ups and downs, once banned by Napoleon,
restored again, dropped again by the Bourbons who later regained their
thrones. Naturally, they would never have supported an anthem that
called for murder and mayhem and for the overthrow of the tyrants. Only,
as recent as 1958, was it finally elevated to national status.
Enough of revolutions and national anthems. Let me get back to where
I began. The time I am speaking of was when the gramophone had reached
the zenith of its popularity and was about to drop from that height into
oblivion and fade into antiquity. The new pretender to the throne was
the ‘wireless set.’ Not many were the owners of it then. The country was
too poor to buy such goodies.
We were lucky to have as our neighbour the local Manager of a popular
Japanese shop, Ono and Co, in the Pettah. Give me five rupees every
month for six months, he said as a good neighbour, and the set is yours.
Those days many popular items like sewing machines and bicycles were
sold in this manner. The instalment system was the brick that firmly
built our consumer society and consumerism, which is today is consuming
Our single radio station was at that time conducting three channels,
at different times, in three separate languages.
Unlike today there was none to complain about the absence of a link
language. We were growing up in three different worlds. The English
speakers and listeners did not or did not want to know what was going on
in the Sinhala and Tamil parts of Radio Ceylon and the Sinhala and Tamil
listeners complemented each other likewise.
What was catching my interest in the wireless world then was the
music it was broadcasting. There were H.W. Rupasingha Master and Rukmani
Devi together singing their popular Siri Buddgagaya Vihare, M.K.Vincent
accompanying himself on an English mandolin either ascending or
descending Samanala Kanda and a Muslim singer singing Buddhist songs who
was even more popular than the later champion Mohideen Baig. The
gramophone companies, like HMV and Columbia, who lent their records and
who were only trying to market them, were the major source of the radio
station’s music supply around lunch time.
We had band music towards teatime, again on records, and invariably
by a British group like the Royal Grenadiers and sometimes our own
police band helped.
And on Sundays we had Kaffringha music at noon, no Wally Bastians,
just the music. And at six o’clock we went down to the woods every day
to join the Teddy Bears’ picnic, which went on till the next day, surely
a record for any radio theme song! From there we went on to hear the
honeyed voice of Tina Rossi singing parlez moi d’amour, never to be
heard after that.
Then we had the Andrews sisters singing their Woodpecker song and
with the war closing in we heard a nightingale sing in Berkley Square
and also people bidding Goodbye to Piccadilly and farewell to Leicester
Square. Dinah Shore, Vera Lyn, Gracie Fields, they have all vanished
But what my schoolboy memory was fixed towards closing time at the
end of each day was on the Test matches that used to be played just
before the Second World War.
That was the memorable series in which England recovered some of its
lost prestige after the bodyline disaster in the early part of that
Its main achievement in that decade, I should say, was England’s
ability to crawl up to 903 for 7 dec. in about three and a half days
batting with Hutton playing a laboured innings to pass Bradman’s world
record 334 (which, I think was done in a single day) and move on to 364.
Of course, it won immense praise from the English critics, but
watching or rather hearing a batsman thattufying for three days is not
the idea of good cricket in the mind of a schoolboy, particularly when
he is backing the opposing side.
And worse, with Bradman breaking his tibia while chasing a ball and
retiring to the pavilion, there was really no match worth speaking of
now. And all this on the thirty rupee wireless set.
You could still have the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a
voice that should now be stilled, if you switch on the SLBC’s Commercial
Service any morning today around 7.30.
And for the rest of the morning, continuously for about two hours,
and intermittently every hour thereafter, the voice of the BBC, which
has not been particularly kind to the name of Lanka in recent times, has
been given even more freedom of expression than ever before.
Which has left me wondering whether we received our independence
never, never to be slaves or ever, ever to be British slaves as
Britannia waives our rules.