Gnanam Rathinam - a pioneer Radio Ceylon

By K.S. Sivakumaran

Gnanam Rathinam, a Lankan Thamilian woman in her seventies lives in Sydney,
Australia for the past 20 years or so. A graduate of the then University of Ceylon,
Colombo, she married a non-Brahmin, E.Rathinam, a bilingual writer, poet, critic,
dramatist and a librettist for dance - dramas.

He is not living. His wife brought out four books of his posthumously during the past few
weeks. Just as much as her husband was a key figure in literary circles and an
innovative superintendent of translations, in the then Department of Official Languages,
Gnanam was also in her own right a pioneering and enterprising member of the
womankind in the then broadcasting world in this country.

In the mid-1950s, I came to know her as a programme assistant in the Schools Service
of the then Radio Ceylon. Although she does not know anything about my broadcasting
career even now, she once selected me as an actor to participate in dramas produced
by the Education Service. But I had never been called for any recording or live

The launch
Last Sunday (May 22) her book in English titled "The Green Light" -Memories of
Broadcasting in Sri Lanka was launched at Kolumbu Thamil Sangam in Wellawatta.
Despite the rain and the distracting "Kamban Vilaa" at neighbouring Ramakrishna Hall, a
fairly large crowd was present for the launch.

V.A.Thirugnanam of the Rupavahini directorate presided with Emeritus professor in
Sinhala J.B. Disanayaka and senior most woman broadcaster Satsorupavathy Nathan
reviewed the book in English and Sinhala respectively. Philanthropist Hashim Omar,
administrator Dr. Ramanujam and a Hindu priest, son of a pioneer broadcaster, V.N.
Balasubramaniam were on the dais. Former director-general of the SLBC, Weeraman,
former Sinhala news reader Liyana Balapatabandi, former radio personality and
simultaneous interpreter in Parliament, Saravanamuttu, former head of the Muslim
service at the SLBC, V.A.Gafoor, writer and orator and TNA member of parliament,
Eelaventhan and radio and print medium persons were also present at the function.

Neville Jayaweera
As JBD described a Sinhala scholar was reviewing a book in English written by a
Thamilian woman, that was unique and speak for the cordial relationship prevailing
among the different communities in this country. Neville Jayaweera was a dynamic
personality in this country in yesteryears. He had been a civil servant serving many
areas including the northeast and was a scholar in the Classic, English and American
literature and most of all in philosophy including the Saiva Siddhantam (the southern
Indian interpretation of Hinduism).

But to most broadcasters in this country he was the very best administrator bringing in
discipline, quality and professionalism in the field of radio broadcasting in Sri Lanka in
the late 1960s. Such a man (I wonder where he is now!)has written a Foreword to "The
Green Ligh" (The Green Light symbolizes the broadcast on the air).
Apart from his tribute on Gnanam Rathinam's contribution to broadcasting, Jayaweera
also mentions names of her contemporaries who we have forgotten:
Writes he: "Mrs. Rathinam was one of among a handful of graduates from the University
of Ceylon recruited to radio Ceylon in the 50s-60s. As far as I can recall the others
among them were E.K.Perera, Delorine Brohier, Indranee Gunaratna, C.V.
Rajasundaram, Gerry Jayasuriya, Christine Dias Blackeler, Chitra Malalasekera,
Sunanda Mahendra de Mel and Myrle Williams." (Wow! They were great ones, indeed).

He adds:
"They all shared in equal measure a sense of dignity and discipline, integrity, cultured
minds and a professional commitment of a high order.
They also brought with them to the profession of broadcasting a quality of education
from their school and university backgrounds which by the best international standards
of those days can be described as exceptional."

The writer
Here are some excerpts from Neville Jayaweera on the writer and her work: "Her highly
informative memoir "The Green Light" helps to fill, though in small measure, a great void
in the history of broadcasting in Sri Lanka.
It is a pity that hardly any professional broadcasters have left behind their personal
experiences at Radio Ceylon except, as far as I know, a short memoir by S.
Punniyamoorthy who was one of the celebrated Thamil announcers at that time.
Mrs. Rathinam belonged to a rare breed of broadcasters/public servants who were
thoroughly disciplined, professionally committed, cultured and did not get mixed up with
politicians in order to advance their careers but were content to be judged on the
excellence of their professional performance alone.

The writer's intention
Gnanam Rathinam clearly states that "The Green Light" is primarily about the Thamil
Section of the Broadcasting Organization where I worked for three decades.
However there are segments in the book mainly in Chapter 1 which describes in detail
the overall structure of the organization and related management issues. Hopefully this
background information will provide a broader perspective for my reflections on events
and personalities.

This 158 page interesting and informative book has five chapters of Broadcasting in Sri
Lanka - An Overview, Recollections - Some Directors General and directors, Speaking
of Programmes and personalities., Knowledge sharing - Thoughts on Training and
Travel, Journey into New realms - Entry into television.

Although the book focuses on her own experiences and her career with interesting
anecdotes as a broadcaster and administrator in Thamil, it also gives a lot of information
in regard to other language services and the gradual changes that took place during
the past 50 years or so.  In that sense the book is a partial, though, of some aspects of
the history of broadcasting in this country. Since the book is written from a personal
point of view, it is interesting to read as well as the writer pens her chapters in
understandable and clear language.

Here are some of the forgotten details or happenings in Torrington Square where the
pioneer and still popular and standard programmes in Sinhala, Thamil, English, Hindi,
Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada are broadcast and beamed to listeners in Sri Lanka,
India, Asia and the Middle East:

Chapter 1:
In 1943 the Broadcasting station premises was sited in a bungalow named The Bower:
in Cotta road, Borella. In early days the programmes in all languages were scheduled
and produced by announcers who covered airtime as well... The Colombo radio station
at: "The Bower" ceased broadcasts by midnight on 31 December 1949 and radio Ceylon
came into being on the first of January 1950... The re-organisation took place and the
appointments were made by the end of 1950.

John Lampson from the BBC was appointed Director General of broadcasting with
Pascoe Thornton also from the BBC as Director of Programmes, National Service...
After the BBC officers who headed Radio Ceylon left, the first local Director General was
M.J.Perera and Vernon Abeysekera, Director Programmes, all from the Ceylon Civil

The commencement of the commercial Service in 1950 was a landmark in the history of
broadcasting...The service commenced under the able direction of Clifford Dodd from
Australia, who was the first Director of Commercial Broadcasting. He was soon joined by
Tim Horshington who was appointed Assistant director...
The major turning point in the history of broadcasting in Sri Lanka was in 1967 when the
Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was formed...It was later renamed Sri Lanka
Broadcasting Corporation from January 5 1967. It was named Sri Lanka Broadcasting
Corporation in 1972 when Sri Lanka became a Republic.”
This chapter is so engrossing that I reproduce entirely in this review, but I cannot.
Please read the book to gather valuable information.
Chapter 2:

In this chapter Gnanam Rathinam recalls the services rendered by eminent scholars
and broadcasters such as the late M.J.Perera, Vernon Abeysekera, Clifford Dodd, S.B.
Senanayake, Neville Jayaweera, Ridgeway Thilakaratne, Stewert Wavell, Thevis
Guruge, K.Nadarajah, and C.V.Rajasundaram.

Columnist's contributions
Let me digress a little. This is about yours truly and it is for purpose of setting the
records straight for future references to broadcasters in Sri Lanka. This columnist has
been broadcasting over the SLBC since 1953.
First in Thamil as a participant on youth programmes and then as a presenter of
translated bulletins (UNESCO releases), reviewer of books and films, participant in the
Kalai Koalam programmes, contributor as a columnist for the "Vaanoli Manjari", actor in
commercial radio skits, relief announcer in the Commercial Service and then on the
National Service, newsreader, editor of news bulletins, speaker on cultural and literary
matters and the like. All this was in his mother tongue.
Later, yours truly participated in English reviewing books in Thamil, films, theatre etc in
"The Arts This Week" compiled by the late evergreen broadcaster Vernon Abeysekera
and produced by the versatile broadcaster and writer Delorine Brohier. She also
arranged talks for me on Hindu thoughts.
It was Vernon Abeysekera who directed me, guided me and trained me through
personally by the late Wendy Whatmore and encouraged me to take to broadcasting in
English. When Lucien Rajakarunanayake edited the "Radio Times" for the SLBC, this
columnist wrote for that magazine too.
This columnist also worked as an English relief announcer first on the national service
and then in the combined English service. He also read news bulletins. Presently he
works as a relief presenter on the commercial service in English. He has also presented
the first cultural monthly magazine in Thamil over the Rupavahini in Thamil titled "Oor

Chapters 3, 4 and 5
Gnanam Rathinam recalls the music, drama and dance presentations in Thamil over the
radio especially by those across the Palk Strait, her training and travel abroad, and her
entry into television broadcasting.
It is fascinating reading.
This knowledgeable, efficient and dedicated lady in broadcasting concludes her useful
and interesting book thus:
"When I look back on my career, my service in radio extended to thirty years while
service in television was three years... Despite the many challenges and agonies I
encountered mainly in the later years, I look back with joy and a sense of fulfillment in
my long career in broadcasting"