When Radio Ceylon swayed India

Anand Sethi,  whose original title is “The Dial of Serendipity,” ….

Anand Sethi takes a stroll down memory lane while tracking down the building which once housed Sri Lanka’s iconic Radio Ceylon

 Image courtesy: Anand Sethi

Bauddhaloka Mawatha is a wide, tree-lined avenue in Colombo in Sri Lanka. It runs from Galle Road in the west towards Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, the administrative capital of Sri Lanka, in the east. The avenue runs past a few university playgrounds and several colonial-era buildings, now occupied by embassies and ministries in a leafy part of Colombo 7, as the locals call it.

We are in a surprisingly comfortable air-conditioned Tata Nano cab (now reasonably ubiquitous in Colombo, replacing the old, beaten down three-wheeler scooter rickshaws) in search of a specific building: No 5, Torrington Square on Bauddhaloka Mawatha. The problem is that no one knows this address. It is not on our rather detailed map of Colombo.

A helpful senior citizen finally solves our problem. As in our own cities, other major South Asian cities have replaced old colonial road and area names with more “politically correct” ones. Thus, Torrington Square was renamed Independence Square when Ceylon became Sri Lanka. Our driver promptly gets us to the general area.

We are seeking a particular building that we have a photograph of. We stop and ask at several places. No luck. “There is no such building here.” How can that be! We are looking for one of the country’s most famous brands, Radio Ceylon, at its landmark address, where it should have been since the end of the Second World War. And yet the locals don’t know where it is.

Our driver helpfully suggests we enquire at the office of the government-run television station nearby. It is called Rupavahini. We are in luck. A senior guard there, on seeing the photograph we are flashing around, believes it looks similar to something that may be in the cluster of buildings across the side road leading to the offices of what is now the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC).

We enter the complex, surprised by the absence of security barriers. We are evidently foreigners, openly carrying two cameras and a large map of Colombo. Perhaps the comprehensive defeat of the LTTE has something to do with this, even though my wife, who is Tamil, is with me.

Then we sight the building in question. It has clearly been built around, with ugly modern add-ons tacked onto a grand colonial building. Yet, the main entrance is exactly the same as in the photograph we have with us. We are now indeed at the famous Radio Ceylon; the foundation stone at the entrance confirms this For a generation of South Asians, this radio station quite literally brought music (Western and Hindi pop) into our lives. Indeed, it was a must-visit place high on our personal bucket list.

The 1950s were not easy times in a new India. The euphoria of Independence had given way to grim realities. The Second World War and its aftermath had drained the nation of resources. Partition had caused untold damage, economic as well as psychological. Life was difficult. Public transportation was more or less non-existent; except for the rich and senior government officials, very few owned cars or other personal transportation. Telephones were available only to the most privileged. The waiting list for a telephone connection extended to multiple years.

The main entertainment and leisure, at least for the then younger generation in Delhi, was to go for a walk to the India Gate lawns and have an ice cream from a vendor (Keventers or Carry Hom) or to watch American freestyle wrestling at the National Stadium in the evening (Dara Singh versus King Kong, or Tiger Joginder Singh versus Seelie Samara, etc). The principal soft drink was a treacly sweet Vimto, with a glass marble in the bottle’s neck functioning as a valve to keep the liquid and the fizz in.

The advent of the 1960s brought further misery. The 1962 and 1965 wars caused more financial and social strains. Yet, through most of the 1950s and 1960s it was the Indian movie industry (Bombay, Calcutta and Madras—the term “Bollywood” was not yet coined) that provided a bit of escapism from harsh reality. The “filmy” songs in particular enabled one to relax and dream. It was a golden era: the likes of Talat Mahmood, Mohammad Rafi, Pankaj Mullick, Lata Mangeshkar, Sudha Malhotra and other greats ruled. But sadly, one could only hear these songs in a cinema hall, unless you were affluent enough to own a hand-cranked His Master’s Voice (HMV) record player that used a rusty steel needle on a thick 78rpm shellac record (also HMV, with a photo of its mascot, the dog Nipper, listening intently to a gramophone).

There was, of course, no television. Those were the days of the All India Radio (AIR) monopoly. One could pick up some Western music on short wave (with all its static) from Radio Australia, Voice of America and BBC, or the few classical Western (usually Russian) music tracks interspersed with propaganda-thick Radio Moscow broadcasts. Listeners in north India had the luxury of a one-hour broadcast of the Western music request programme, A Date With You, presented by the redoubtable Preminda Premchand, on Friday evenings. But Indian “filmy” music was just not available on AIR. The reason being that the minister in charge during the station’s formative years in an independent India, BV Keskar, had decreed that Indian ears should not be polluted by “rubbish”. Hence, such music—Hindi, Tamil, Bengali—was banned from AIR. Incredibly, the same minister also banned the playing of the harmonium or any music with its accompaniment!

This inanity would have gone on forever, if not for some smart people in that lovely country just south of us—Ceylon. During the later years of the Second World War, the Allied South East Asia Command (SEAC) under Lord Mountbatten had set up an extremely powerful transmission capability (Radio SEAC) in Ceylon to broadcast all over Asia, as well as to the Allied troops stationed in the various sectors of the war. Radio SEAC was transferred to the government of the newly independent Ceylon in March 1949. Radio Ceylon formally started operations in December 1949.

Its operations were split between a National Service (broadcasting predominantly on medium wave) and the Commercial Service (utilising the powerful short wave transmitters). It was the latter service that was to become all the rage. Broadcasting in English, Radio Ceylon’s range of programmes covered Western music from pop, classical, country and western to jazz and big-band swing, as well as a range of quiz shows. Extraordinarily for the time, it even aired live concerts, some from Colombo’s leading venues such as the Galle Face Hotel. Global greats who performed live on Radio Ceylon included Jack Teagarden, the Golden Gate Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington and Eric Jupp.

Many people across India were hooked onto Radio Ceylon. It had, in a very short time, become the most popular and most widely listened to radio station in all of Asia. Many years later, I had the privilege of being seated next to Sir Edmund Hillary on a long-haul flight. He was then the high commissioner of New Zealand in New Delhi. We got talking about various things and somehow the subject of radio came up. He told me that when he and Tenzing were on Mount Everest the only station they could receive was Radio Ceylon.

Its announcers—the term radio jockey was still many years in the future—Greg Roskowski (“Happy-go-lucky Greg”), Jimmy Bharucha, Shirley Perera and the incredible Vernon Corea became the “pop stars” for that generation. Vernon hosted a wide repertoire of music and quiz programmes, including To Each His Own, Old Folks at Home, Dial a Disc, Saturday Stars and Ponds Hit Parade. I can still vividly recall hearing Greg’s last hit parade show. He signed off by saying in his slightly Polish American accent that he “had an absolute ball at Radio Ceylon”!

To tap into the burgeoning Indian listenership, its Commercial Service set up a company called Radio Advertising Services in Bombay in 1951 (headed by an American, Dan Molina), to get advertisements and sponsorships and to recruit broadcasters and announcers for its programmes and jingles. Shortly thereafter, with the wealth of talent and opportunities available in Bombay, a production entity called Radio Enterprises Pvt Ltd was established. Its first production director was Hamid Sayani, an actor, presenter and veteran of AIR.

He produced some memorable English programmes such as Polson’s Quiz Kids, Ovaltine Amateur Hour, Pearline Paris Double or Quits for Radio Ceylon. It was then decided that the station would address the huge In- dian market for Hindi language programmes, especially those based on popular Hindi film music. Ovaltine Phulwari, an amateur hour hosted by the movie actor Manmohan Krishna, was possibly the first such programme. More were to follow. One of the presenters of these shows would later become the famous movie star Sunil Dutt.

Hamid Sayani’s younger brother Ameen (due disclosure: he was my senior at school) helped out in producing a few English shows for Radio Ceylon. Ameen desperately wanted to make a name for himself in Hindi language programmes. He auditioned to take over from Manmohan Krishna and was selected. The show did exceedingly well. Ameen received one tin of Ovaltine per show as payment, but clearly he was destined for bigger things.

In 1952, the Swiss company Ciba decided to challenge the toothpaste duopoly of Colgate and Pepsodent in India by launching Binaca Top. Conventional promotion techniques had limited effect. A bright marketing mind sug- gested massive promotion on Radio Ceylon. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 1953, Ciba sponsored a programme on Radio Ceylon called Binaca Geetmala. It was initially produced as a half-hour competition programme during which a few random Hindi film songs were broadcast and the audience was asked to rearrange them chronologically. The prize of 100 rupees was a reasonably big amount in those days. Ameen Sayani was selected to do the programme. Its first broadcast on 3 December 1952 elicited nearly 10,000 letters. Within a year, each weekly programme was getting more than 65,000 letters.

Binaca Geetmala was promptly upgraded to a one-hour hit parade programme. The Wednesday night slot (8–9pm) became known as “Geetmala” time, and the streets of India would empty out, all activity suspended, from Jammu to Jhumri Telaiya. Bina soon became the top-selling toothpaste, and Ameen Sayani a household name in India and its neighbouring countries.

  Ameen, Kulsum and Hamid Sayani

Radio Ceylon prospered largely at the expense of AIR. Radio had now found its mojo in India. According to Ameen, in an interview recorded in Volume VI of the CD series Geetmala ki Chhaon Mein, “Nobody bought radio sets that did not receive Radio Ceylon!” I recall hearing about a listener survey, possibly apocryphal, which seemed to suggest that in India, out of ten households with radio sets, nine were tuned to Radio Ceylon. The tenth was naturally out of order. BV Keskar and AIR were now well and truly beaten. In November 1957, having eaten crow, AIR announced the formation of Vividh Bharati, its new “filmy” music commercial division.

Thus, as we enter the offices of the SLBC through the old building of what was once Radio Ceylon, we are reminded of the hey-day of radio broadcasting. This radio station could make or break brands in India at one time. Movies and the careers of a host of Indian film stars and playback singers were established right here. “Big Brother India” and its national radio station were put to shame. But we also need to find out why, all of a sudden, this extraordinary service ceased to be what it once was, long before the era of FM Radio and today’s saturation television broadcasting had arrived.

For one thing, the tumultuous years of conflict in Sri Lanka had a role to play in the dropping listenership in south India. There was also a significant technical issue: the short wave bands used by Radio Ceylon had become cluttered with the rapid increase in worldwide broadcasting. The more powerful transmitters of Radio Moscow, Radio Beijing and some Arab stations were making it increasingly difficult for listeners in India and elsewhere to receive the station as clearly as before. Lastly, the advent of television, an increase in Vividh Bharati broadcasting and the arrival of FM services contributed to the reduction of Indian listenership in a big way. Yet, under pressure from the legions of loyal fans in India and other countries, the Hindi service was reinstated a few years ago—although only in a limited way. The glory days are clearly long gone.

    On Cue

At our request we are ushered into the plush offices of the director general of SLBC, Samantha Weliweriya. We are shortly joined by its top producer, Indira Priyadarshini Nawagamuwa, a celebrated presenter who anchored a special programme in memory of Vernon Corea on his birth anniversary. To our delight— and as a reassurance—we are guided through the various rooms that housed the Hindi ser- vice, as well as past the vaults containing, quite certainly, the most exhaustive collection of Indian music on old 78rpm records Many of the old names are still there, some, in fact, the offspring of the old timers who worked with Ameen Sayani, Vijay Kishore Dubey, Sunil Dutt and Vijaylakshmi. We meet the famously dulcet-voiced producer and editor of Hindi programmes, Padmini Perera, whose Hindi and Urdu would put most of us to shame. She very kindly gives us a CD of her live interview in 2009 with Ameen Sayani. We ‘re ecstatic when informed that the listenership, particularly for the farmaish programmes, is increasing again, with many additions from beyond India: Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Iraq, Iran and other outposts where migrant labour from the subcontinent live and work.

And what of Ameen Sayani? Did he ever fully retire? We know he did programmes for Vividh Bharati and is still anchoring Sangeet kay Sitaron ki Mehfil, which reaches NRIs in New Zealand, USA, Dubai and South Africa. He has also been involved in bringing out a multi-volume collection aptly titled Geetmala ki Chhaon Mein for the Saregama label (ex HMV). And his golden voice is back on Sunday afternoons with a special programme on Radio City 91.1 FM. May these evergreen words spoken in his inimitable voice continue to enthral us: “Namaskar bhaiyon aur behno, main aapka dost Ameen Sayani bol raha hoon.”

Anand Sethi has an abiding interest in military history. He is co-author of Doing Business in India. He lives in Dagshai, Himachal Pradesh, and is currently curator of the Dagshai Jail Museum.

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One response to “When Radio Ceylon swayed India

  1. Gehan

    Fascinating article about Radio Ceylon. Thank you!

Leave a Reply to Gehan Cancel reply