New Delhi: Long before the age of podcasts and audio streaming, the radio saw its own version of the Cola Wars in India from the 1950s to the 1970s. One was the hometown favourite, All India Radio (AIR), which remains a mainstay on the airwaves till today. But the other was a foreign radio service that managed to gain a foothold in India. It was South Asia’s oldest station and much like AIR, had colonial roots, down to its name — Radio Ceylon.
Established by the British Empire in Colombo on 16 December 1925, Radio Ceylon functioned as a news service for the Allied forces during the Second World War and came under the control of the Ceylon government after the country’s independence in 1949.
By the time the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation took over following its establishment in 1972, Radio Ceylon had already cultivated a large fanbase stretching well beyond Sri Lanka’s borders into the rest of South Asia, including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal, but especially in India.
It had an array of iconic announcers, polyglot presenters and diverse music and entertainment programming, but that was not its secret to its success. Instead, it was its vast library and material collections that allowed it to dominate South Asian airwaves. Among those responsible for developing and curating this collection was producer and Hindi programming creative Vijay Kishore Dubey, who made the most of his relationships with the Mumbai film and music industry.
“Radio Ceylon had the largest library of gramophone records, of Hindi, Punjabi, Pakistan, Nepalese songs, as well as instrumentals and English songs, a collection the likes of which you couldn’t find anywhere else,” says Ripusudan Kumar Ailawadi, a former newsreader for AIR in Bhopal who relocated to Colombo from 1977 to 1980 to work for the rival station.
“Our records rotated at 78RPM, with Extended Plays (EPs) at 45RPM and full-length Long Play albums (LPs) at 33RPM, using magnetic tape storage. It was thanks to this record collection and library that presenters like Ameen Sayani were able to successfully broadcast Binaca Geetmala and other music shows,” Ailawadi added, referencing the crown jewel of Radio Ceylon’s programming, for Hindi audiences.
In its heydays, Radio Ceylon had managed to capture all of India’s major vernacular markets, by dividing the day’s programming schedule into Hindi, Tamil and Telugu segments — to name a few — and even found room for children’s shows on Sunday afternoons, which were initially spearheaded by the likes of legendary presenters Vernon Corea and Greg Roskowski before Ailawadi got involved.
While former diplomat and high-profile long-time listener Nirupama Rao had claimed that she first heard English-language music such as The Beatles thanks to Radio Ceylon, others said that they learnt Hindi thanks to the station’s popular programs, according to Ameen Sayani’s son, Rajil.
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The ‘real reason’ behind its meteoric rise
Radio Ceylon’s meteoric rise in popularity among Indian listeners perhaps benefitted most from the restrictive policies of then-Information and Broadcasting minister BV Keskar, an observation documented by Calcutta University’s Department of Museology associate professor Mahua Chakrabarti. The minister had banned film music on AIR in 1952, deeming it too risque and crass.
“The attempt was forcefully executed with a refusal of the public to go along with it,” Sayani said.
“When people found out they could hear Hindi film music on ‘Radio Ceylon’, they started getting fed up of AIR and started shifting to ‘Radio Ceylon,’” Chakrabarti wrote.
She notes that the initial years of Radio Ceylon’s foray into the Indian market were amateurish and unprofessional, but it didn’t take long for the station to overcome its ‘teething problems’ and surpass AIR during the 1950s-70s period. While Hindi listeners enjoyed radio hosts Sayani Manohar, Mahajan or India’s ‘first RJ‘ Gopal Sharma, Tamil listeners both in Jaffna and Madras had the privilege of hearing the likes of K.S. Raja and Mayilvaganam.
“Mayilvaganam’s silken voice, with his singsong Jaffna Tamil diction, captivated the ears of Indian listeners. Between them [English-language presenter Jimmy Barucha], Sayani and Mayilvaganam opened up the listeners’ sensitivities to the finer elements that transcended mundane facts,” V.S. Sambandan wrote in The Hindu.
On the whole, Ailawadi believes that within his tenure, he observed and was involved in Radio Ceylon’s pioneering shows that bigger television networks in India have since appropriated.
“Doordarshan’s Newstrack was a copy of our show Radio Patrika, while Rajat Sharma lifted from S. Kumar ka Filmy Muqaddama to create Aap ki Adalat, and many music countdown shows are imitations of Binaca Geetmala,” Ailawadi asserted.
According to long-time fan and retired bank clerk Piyush Mehta, Radio Ceylon also benefitted from AIR banning Kishore Kumar songs during the Emergency as listeners turned to the Sri Lankan station to continue enjoying their favourite artist.
Impact of Sri Lankan Civil war on Radio Ceylon
But Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) underwent political turmoil of its own in the late 60s and early 1970s. Affected by linguistic controversy and bouts of violence that later led to the protracted Sri Lankan Civil War, broadcasting was temporarily ceased in Tamil Nadu as a result of the rise of Dravidian parties and Sri Lankan Tamil separatism.
“On August 14, 1970, a report was published announcing that the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation would progressively reduce and ultimately stop playing South Indian film music…In two weeks, Radio Ceylon banned songs penned by famous Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi. According to Sutantarian, a weekly published by the Federal Party of Tamils, the line in a song that went…’we will build a bridge across the sea (to Ceylon)’ made the Lankan authorities deeply uncomfortable,” Nitya Menon wrote in The Hindu.
Apart from these external issues, AIR by this time had launched its own competitor programme in Vividh Bharati, which Ailawadi considers to be the real kicker to Radio Ceylon’s dwindling revenues in India by the late 1970s.
“The Ceylon administration was now disappointed by the lack of money coming from India. Some advertising clients like Lux came for small radio spots but they also shifted to Vividh Bharati as they got better deals.”
Ailawadi broke his contract with Radio Ceylon and returned to India in 1980 due to spikes in violence related to the civil war — severing one of the last links the station had to its Indian market.
Forty years later, Radio Ceylon lives on through its mobile app, YouTube archives and the popular memory of fans like Mehta who interviewed several former Ceylon announcers and created a Facebook fan community group to document the station’s best works online. Ailawadi, on the other hand, laments the lack of recognition received from the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation for his contributions, having “earned so much money for them”.
(Edited by Monami Gogoi)
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