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DateLine Tuesday, 26 August 2008

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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 opinion.

Popular choice

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 hearing it.

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 dropped.

Notable anthems

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 us all.

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.

Wireless world

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.

Band music

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 with time.

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 decade.

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.

Immense praise

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.



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