Radio Ceylon – the Sri Lankan channel India turned to when AIR banned film music in 1952

New Delhi: Long before the era of podcasts and audio streaming, radio saw its own version of India’s cola war from the 1950s to the 1970s. One was hometown favorite, All India Radio (AIR) , who remains a mainstay on the airwaves to this day. But the other was a foreign radio service that managed to gain a foothold in India. It was the oldest station in South Asia and, like AIR, it had colonial roots, right down to its name – Radio Ceylon.

Established by the British Empire in Colombo on December 16, 1925, Radio Ceylon operated as an information service for the Allied forces during World War II and came under the control of the Ceylon government following the country’s independence in 1949 .

By the time the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation took over after its establishment in 1972, Radio Ceylon had already cultivated a large fan base extending far 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, multilingual presenters, and a diverse music and entertainment lineup, but that wasn’t the secret to its success. Instead, it was his extensive library and document collections that allowed him to dominate the South Asian airwaves. Among those responsible for the development and curation of this collection was Hindi producer and programming creator Vijay Kishore Dubey, who made the most of his connections with Mumbai’s film and music industry.

“Radio Ceylon had the largest library of gramophone records, Hindi, Punjabi, Pakistani, Nepali songs, as well as English instruments and songs, a collection the likes of which could not be found anywhere else,” says Ripusudan Kumar Ailawadi , a former newsreader for AIR in Bhopal who moved to Colombo from 1977 to 1980 to work for the rival station.

“Our records ran at 78 rpm, with extended recordings (EP) at 45 rpm and full-length albums (LP) at 33 rpm, using tape storage. It is thanks to this record collection and library that presenters like Ameen Sayani have been able to successfully broadcast Binaca Geetmala and other music shows,” Ailawadi added, referring to Radio Ceylon’s crown jewel of programming, for Hindi audiences.

At its peak, Radio Ceylon had managed to capture all of India’s major vernacular markets, dividing the day’s programming schedule into Hindi, Tamil and Telugu segments – to name a few – and even had found space for children’s shows on Sunday afternoons, which were initially led by legendary presenters like Vernon Corea and Greg Roskowski before Ailawadi got involved.

While former diplomat and longtime listener Nirupama Rao claimed she first heard music in English like The Beatles through Radio Ceylon, others said they learned Hindi from the station’s popular programs, according to Ameen Sayani’s son, Rajil.

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The “real reason” for his meteoric rise

Perhaps the meteoric rise in popularity of Radio Ceylon among Indian listeners benefited most from the restrictive policies of then Minister of Information and Broadcasting, BV Keskar, an observation documented by Mahua Chakrabarti, a professor associated with the Department of Museology, University of Calcutta. The Minister had banned film music on AIR in 1952, considering it too risque and crude.

“The attempt was forcibly executed with a public refusal to accept it,” Sayani said.

“When people found out they could hear Hindi film music on ‘Radio Ceylon’, they started getting fed up with AIR and started switching to ‘Radio Ceylon’,” Chakrabarti wrote.

She notes that the early years of Radio Ceylan’s foray into the Indian market were amateur and not professional, but it didn’t take long for the station to overcome its “start-up problems” and overtake AIR during the period of years. 1950-1970. While Hindi listeners enjoyed radio hosts Sayani Manohar, Mahajan or India’s ‘first RJ’ Gopal Sharma, Tamil listeners in Jaffna and Madras were privileged to hear artists like KS Raja and Mayilvaganam.

“Mayilvaganam’s silky voice, with its singsong Jaffna Tamil diction, captivated the ears of Indian listeners. Between them [English-language presenter Jimmy Barucha]Sayani and Mayilvaganam opened listeners’ sensibilities to finer elements that transcended mundane facts,” VS Sambandan wrote in The Hindu.

Overall, Ailawadi believes that during his tenure he observed and participated in the pioneering broadcasts of Radio Ceylon which India’s biggest television networks have since appropriated.

“Doordarshan’s Newstrack was a copy of our show Radio Patrikawhile Rajat Sharma went from S. Kumar ka Filmy Muqaddama create Aap ki Adalatand many musical countdown shows are imitations of Binaca GeetmalaAilawadi said.

According to longtime fan and retired bank worker Piyush Mehta, Radio Ceylon also took advantage of AIR’s ban of Kishore Kumar songs during the emergency as listeners turned to the Sri Lankan station to carry on. to enjoy their favorite artist.

Impact of the Sri Lankan Civil War on Radio Ceylan

But Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) experienced its own political turmoil in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Lankan, broadcasting was temporarily halted in Tamil Nadu due to the rise of Dravidian parties and Sri Lankan Tamil separatism.

“On August 14, 1970, a report was released announcing that the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation would gradually reduce and eventually stop broadcasting South Indian film music… Within two weeks, Radio Ceylon banned songs written by the famous Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi. According to Sutantarian, a weekly newspaper published by the Federal Party of Tamils, the line of a song that said… ‘we are going to build a bridge across the sea (to Ceylon)’ made the Lankan authorities deeply uneasy,” said writes Nitya Menon in The Hindu. .

In addition to these external problems, AIR then launched its own competing program in Vividh Bharatiwhich Ailawadi sees as the real driving force behind Radio Ceylon’s declining revenue in India in the late 1970s.

“The administration of Ceylon was now disappointed with the lack of money coming from India. Some ad clients like Lux came for small radio spots but they also turned to Vividh Bharati as they got better deals.

Ailawadi broke his contract with Radio Ceylan and returned to India in 1980 due to civil war-related spikes in violence – severing one of the last ties the station had with its Indian market.

Forty years later, Radio Ceylon lives on thanks to its mobile app, its YouTube archive and the popular memory of fans like Mehta who interviewed several former Ceylon announcers and created a fan group on Facebook to document the station’s best works in line. 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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