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Chimes of the old radio

Kolambin Katha Karami:

It was a ramshackle, dilapidated ancient house that god seemed to have forsaken - it was then called the Radio Ceylon. Its environs were choked with weeds and it was apparent the place had not been cleared or cleaned for ages. Wildly grown tall trees leaned over the Radio Ceylon and from outside it looked like another spooky abode of Dracula.

It was located on Cotta Road close to the Borella junction on one side and almost next- door to the headquarters of the Communist Party of Ceylon from where years later the explosive and controversial Aththa newspaper was published. There was no nameboard or any other sign to identify the only radio station in the then Ceylon which was administered by the Telecommunication Department.


Radio Ceylon

A pompous Britisher named John Lampson presided over Radio Ceylon - his pomposity was the result of his country’s Blimpish arrogance which held that citizens of this country didn’t deserve a Western luxury such as the radio; he considered rather conceitedly that Ceylonese were second-rate and towards Ceylonese radio artistes he had only contempt - he had already decided in his own mind that they were just a bunch of philistines. In his anti-Ceylonese sentiments he was ably supported by a coterie of Ceylonese officials who kowtowed to him and spied on local men.

The Radio Ceylon had just two studios which were not sound-proof. Radio artistes had to labour hard to perform. They were primitive studios and the station itself ran precariously.

When an orchestra rehearsed in one studio they had to stop all other programs in that studio. In the narrow antiquated corridor just outside the studio the conductor listened to the music over a small rediffusion set perched on a crude table. If the orchestra played one false note the conductor had to rush to the studio to alert the orchestra and correct the playing after which he returned to the rediffusion set.

It was frustrating yet these artistes worked tirelessly and ungrudgingly.

The popular theory was that broadcasting emanated from Colombo only, that Colombo was the chief point from which everything was beamed out. So it was not hilarious or funny when as Radio Ceylon opened for the day the benevolent and charming announcer D M Colambage chimed in: Kolambin Kathakarami - Calling from Colombo.” It was factual though the announcement was not in keeping with traditional broadcasting systems - the reference to Colombo blended well with the name of the announcer. D M Colambage was a pioneer at Radio Ceylon and throughout his broadcasting career he was known as Colomba Maama. Siri Aiya (U A S Perera) who did that most enthralling children’s program Lama Theeraya used to invite Colomba Maama or D M Colambage to be his guest artiste in the program. Colombage was very witty and so was Siri Aiya and between them they kept on a merry, exceedingly funny impromptu dialogue much to the amusement of children and adults alike - children laughed uproariously and Siri Aiya a competent poet and dramatist joined in the laughter. DMC was a highly skilled broadcaster and he would join Siri Aiya at a moment’s notice and sneak into the studio for yet another performance. The two blended well in their short programs because both were recognized literary men.

Siri Aiya conducted a 45-minute program - it was broadcast from 6.15 to 7pm every Friday. Somi Akka was his co-conductor and assistant. At that time it was Nanda Kevitiyagala, a very competent radio artiste - anybody broadcasting with Siri Aiya had to be very competent. Siri Aiya had a three-man orchestra for the program - Vincent Perera (mandoline), D D Danny (flute), and Darwin Munasinghe (tabla).

Siri Aiya was paid Rs 90 for the program and he in turn paid the princely sum of Rs 2 to each man in the orchestra.

The musicians did not complain. They came because they had an immense love and respect for Siri Aiya, the teacher.

We participated in the program along with Henry Jayasena, Trilicia Abeykoon, W K Rupasena and Pithrupala. Sometimes each of us also paid the standard fee of two rupees. Nevertheless it was big money for us in those schooldays. More than the money it was the celebrity status we won after the Friday program. On Mondays we were treated like heroes in school. It was a rare privilege to participate in Siri Aiya’s program. Other boys in the school envied us. On certain occasions Siri Aiya invited popular artistes like P L A Somapala and Chitra to sing in the program. They did so with relish. It was a time when art was not commercialized or compromised for money. Those artistes performed free because they were true artists.

On week days we had rehearsals for Lama Theeraya at Siri Aiya’s home in Meetotamulla where he lived with his mother. The three-man orchestra never failed to attend despite the measely fee. It was an incredible artistic commitment. There in his house Siri Aiya in shorts sat at his foot-bellow seraphina and played to our singing. Siri Aiya had a nasal, ringing voice and he was a good singer, he joined us and corrected us when we made some mistake. For a while he would stop playing the seraphina and regale us with his stories which he had in abundance.

He was an excellent dramatist too - he broadcast radio plays under the pseudonym Jayadeva. He would enact some scenes like a veteran Thespian and that took away the boredom and weariness of the rehearsals. At the end to each of us schoolgoer he would lend a book from his library. We must read it and return, if you returned the book without reading it you were caught: Siri Aiya asked you to relate the story in the book. The liars were not permitted to participate in the radio program. That would be devastating to us, amateur radio artistes. So meticulously we read the book.

Then the Cotta Road outfit was moved to the more sophisticated Broadcasting Corporation in Torrington Square where it is now.

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