By M. C. Rasmin –
Many senior Tamil broadcasters residing in Sri Lanka and other countries often utilize social media to document and share their nostalgic memories associated with their careers at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). While a few individuals have written books to preserve their lived memories, several others have published books to impart their wisdom to the next generations. Every memory of former broadcasters from the early 1950s to the 2000s contributes to the broader history of Tamil broadcasting. However, not every broadcaster’s legacy becomes a valuable lesson for the new generation. B.H. Abdul Hameed’s book, “Vaan Alaikalil Oru Vazippokkan” (A Wayfarer on the Airwaves), remains relevant even to the present and future generations. BH is a veteran and world-famous Tamil broadcaster who started his career at a young age. His book documents five decades of an outstanding career, showcasing not only his contributions as a broadcaster but also as a versatile personality encompassing roles as a lyricist, drama artist, drama director, and actor.
So far, a minimum of 15 books have been produced on Tamil broadcasting. The book “Oliparappukkali” (Art of Broadcasting) by S. Sivapathasunderam should be recognized as a pioneering work, being the first-ever Tamil book on the art of radio broadcasting. Subsequently, several others, such as George Chandarasekaran, Vimal Sokkanathan, V.N. Mathiyalahan, Ilayathamby Dayananda, M.C. Rasmin, and Uvais-ur-Rahman, have produced books on different aspects of broadcasting. Many others have written hundreds of articles capturing various elements of Tamil broadcasting.
However, B.H.’s book stands out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it does not merely focus on his personal history; instead, it delves into the evolution of Tamil broadcasting, encompassing local music, culture, poetry, and folk life. Secondly, it dedicates ample attention to the major milestones of Tamil broadcasting while acknowledging the contributions of his senior colleagues. B.H. is a globally popular broadcasting personality who has traveled wherever the Tamil-speaking community resides. Thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils residing abroad still invite him to their events and request him to host their programs. Similarly, he has always been a guest in the Tamil cinema world.
Yet, B.H. firmly states that his journey did not begin in isolation but was built upon the foundation laid by his seniors. He has dedicated a full chapter (Chapter 21) to explain, “We learn more from people’s experiences than what we learn from books. It is through the experience we acquire from people that our future is established. Every new generation achieves more than their previous generation. This is the rule of the universe. However, every new generation starts their journey from the point where their seniors ended theirs” (p.241).
Who is BH?
The book “Vaan Alaikalil Oru Vazippokkan” (A Wayfarer on the Airwaves) comprises 23 unique chapters, with an additional annexure including write-ups by Prof. K. Sivaththamby, Tamil actor Kamal Hasan, and Sillayur Selvarasan on B.H. Each chapter in the book follows a logical order, building upon one another and making the history of Tamil broadcasting meaningful to the reader. Prof. Sivaththamby indicates that BH was the first person to introduce a tradition in Tamil broadcasting where the core of a program was introduced succinctly and precisely for the audience. Sillayur Salvarsan introduces him as an “achiever of Tamil broadcasting,” and Actor Kamal Hasan identifies BH’s voice as “not only beautiful but also imbued with intellectuality” (p.300-306).
The book begins with the history of the invention of radio and the beginning of radio broadcasting worldwide. It is noteworthy that B.H. clarifies that several individuals had experimented with the radio medium before Marconi consolidated the lessons learned and embarked on his own experimentation, transmitting electrical signals through the air. The first chapter also recounts B.H.’s nostalgic visit to The Marconi Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company in the UK in 2016.
Beginning of Career
B.H. provides greater details about the context from which he entered Tamil broadcasting, shedding light on his humble beginnings. Growing up in poverty, B.H.’s mother supported the family by cooking and selling food in their locality. While he was not particularly interested in traditional studies, he showed a great enthusiasm for extracurricular activities. Despite not being popular for his regular studies, his speech and drama/acting abilities were recognized and appreciated by his teachers and peers. B.H. expresses his gratitude towards A. Ponnudurai, his teacher, and Pandit Sivalingam, his principal, for recognizing his talents and foresight in foreseeing his potential. Throughout the book, B.H. acknowledges his friend Joseph Edward for accompanying him and taking him to SLBC to witness the recording of the Siruvar Malar program, which served as a significant inspiration for countless Tamil broadcasters, including B.H. The memory of listening to the first Siruvar Malar program remains a cherished nostalgia for B.H.
Beginning as Child Artists
B.H.’s entry into radio as a child artist was an accidental opportunity. While observing the Siruvar Malar program with his friend Edward, B.H. happened to be present when the regular child artist, S. Ramdas, was absent. The producer of Siruvar Malar conducted a mini audition among the youngsters present to find a replacement, and B.H. happened to be the fifth person examined and ultimately secured the role. It becomes evident from B.H.’s book that he wholeheartedly embraced every opportunity that came his way. He emphasizes the importance for a broadcaster to be ready to accept any opportunity, and this instance was the first time he did so. B.H. vividly describes the excitement of listening to the radio and walking to SLBC to participate in radio programs, even though he couldn’t hear his own segments live, as all the programs at SLBC were broadcasted in real-time.
B.H. highlights the significance of talent and its proper demonstration, noting that it will be duly recognized by authorities and seniors. Following his successful performance on Siruvar Malar, B.H. was given the opportunity to participate in Ilaigar Manram, a program dedicated to young people. This experience further honed his skills in planning, rehearsing, and preparing for radio programs. It paved the way for him to become a renowned radio artist in the Tamil national service, Muslim service, and educational service, even in his teenage years, earning him a payment from SLBC.
Eventually, B.H. became a relief announcer at SLBC. Initially, when the producer V. A. Sivaganam encouraged him to apply for the role, B.H. doubted his suitability. However, the practice gained from his involvement in Siruvar Malar and Ilaigar Manram proved instrumental in achieving this milestone. B.H. received training from several individuals, including S. K. Pararajasingam, Sanmuganathan, Venon Corea, Kokila Sivaraja, and others. B.H.’s foray into commercial broadcasting was also serendipitous. When a popular commercial broadcaster, S.P. Mayilvahanan, was sent on a compulsory leave, B.H. was chosen as the next immediate option by most commercial agents. It was through this opportunity that B.H. showcased his abilities. In his first commercial program, Navarasak Kovai, he incorporated a short drama, recognizing that radio storytelling is a powerful art form to captivate audiences. B.H. emphasizes the importance for a commercial broadcaster to design compatible programs that can effectively persuade the audience. From his early days, B.H. honed his skills in the art of persuasive storytelling through radio.
During his early years, veteran South Indian film actor Sivaji Ganeshan became a fan of B.H.’s radio work. When Sivaji Ganeshan visited Sri Lanka for an Indo-Sri Lankan joint film production in 1978 (Pilot Pramnath), B.H. went to interview him. Upon seeing B.H., Sivaji affectionately called him “Captain Samba Sivam.” This name referred to a character B.H. portrayed in a serial drama titled “Oru Veedu Koyilakirathu,” which he produced himself. This incident not only showcased the charisma of B.H.’s voice but also demonstrated his ability to create emotionally powerful dramas. Since childhood, B.H. had a keen interest in acting in radio dramas. He not only became a drama artist but also observed how his seniors, such as Shanmuganathan and M. H. Kuddus, produced radio dramas. Additionally, he had the fortune of learning radio drama production techniques at the Radio Netherlands Training Centre (RNTC) too.
The book highlights that B.H. was among the few who produced a significant number of poetry dramas. The poetry dramas he produced, such as “Kuyil Pattu” (Baradiyar), “Devane Un Kural” (P. Sathyaseelan), “Romeo Juliet” (Sillayur Selverajan), and “Yaal-Padi” (Ambi), reached thousands of people. He also fearlessly adapted popular stage dramas like “Usiyul Noolum” (Latees Veeramani) for radio. B.H. proved his skill as a stage drama director as well, directing Mahdi Hasan’s “Manaththirai” with a focus on national cohesion.
However, B.H. provides a historical account of how live radio dramas were produced at SLBC. He acknowledges that radio drama was mostly developed by people living in Colombo and its surrounding areas, which resulted in limited participation by artists from other regions. Nevertheless, several individuals from various parts of the country contributed to writing dramas. B.H. recognizes the immense contribution of Shanmuganathan, known as the father of Tamil radio drama, with deep admiration. He also shares a heartbreaking incident where, during a live drama, he was supposed to cry as if his mother had passed away, only to learn after completing the drama that his own mother had indeed passed away.
B.H. became the first Sri Lankan broadcaster at SLBC to produce a radio drama script set on an actual location—the railway track. He took artists on a train journey to record the story, showcasing his exceptional abilities in drama production. Towards the end of each month, Mrs. Ponmani Kulasingam entrusted him with the task of producing a one-hour radio drama in the Tamil service.
The chapter also explains how B.H.’s radio drama “Komalikal Kondattam” later became a film. It becomes clear that in this drama, B.H. conducted an experiment by including several dialects spoken in Sri Lanka. Such experimental approaches were initially pioneered by veteran radio drama producer Shanmuganathan in his drama “London Kandaiya.” B.H. argues that it was the commercial service that made radio drama so popular in Sri Lanka. One of the remarkable dramas produced by B.H. was “Anichcha Malar,” featuring South Indian film stars Gemini Ganesan and Sridevi. B.H. recorded their voices in India, and they did not meet the fellow artists. This bold production technique was predominantly employed by B.H. at that time. He dedicated nearly five days to produce one episode of “Anichcha Malar.”
B.H. shares his experience in the Netherlands, where he attended a six-month training course. Notably, he introduced the concept of radio as a multi-visual media among fellow participants, which was appreciated by the trainers. This understanding aligns with the concept of convergence, which has become one of the core principles in the present era. B.H. made significant efforts to learn English in order to attend this training, showcasing his commitment to enhancing his knowledge. At the Radio Netherlands Training Centre, he learned about creating visual images using radio language. Importantly, the training helped him master the art of producing short audio documentaries and editing 48-minute interviews into 8-minute pieces. B.H. also learned production techniques for radio dramas and supported the trainers’ view that additional music should not compromise the strength of the script and characters. B.H. was known for his dedication and commitment to bringing radio dramas to life. His drive to be unique among his peers and his desire to always do something innovative set him apart. Although programs like “Isayanith Thervu” (Musical Line-Up), “Aam/Illai” (Yes or No), and “Speaking Skills” were initiated by others, B.H. approached them differently. The Sunday program “Isai-Kolam,” produced by B.H., played a crucial role in providing space for local musicians.
One of the significant aspects of the programs produced by B.H. was their strong participatory and research elements. One such program was “Meenava Nanben” (Friend of the Fishermen). B.H. traveled to various coastal areas to interview people, document their cultural life, identify the hardships they faced, and record their folk traditions. He discovered that many fishing communities had songs of their own, and he realized that incorporating these songs into the program would interest the audience. B.H. also interviewed listeners to gather feedback about the program and stayed with fishing communities to immerse himself in their lives. The success of “Meenava Nanben” led to the launch of “Kadal Osai” (Voice of the Sea), a dedicated radio station for people involved in fishing, with B.H. as the chief guest. Recognizing the effectiveness of “Meenava Nanben,” B.H. was invited to produce a similar program called “Vetrip Pathai” (Path to Success) to cater to people from Tamil Nadu. This program was aired on CIR (Colombo International Radio).
Another highly impactful program produced by B.H. was “Kiramaththin Ithayan” (Heart of the Village). While this program was initially designed to provide entrepreneurial guidance for rural people, it also became a platform to showcase local talent in various art forms and culture. B.H. shares an anecdote of visiting a remote village where they had to travel by motorbike on a single-track soil road. Upon their arrival, a woman holding a transistor radio approached them, and young girls and elderly women sang folk songs and invited the production crew. The significance of “Kiramaththin Ithayan” lies not only in its production history but also in its role in elevating the economic status of people living in rural Indian villages. This program introduced a novel approach to Tamil broadcasting.
Development of Tamil Classical and Pop Music
For some years, film songs were not allowed on All India Radio, making SLBC (Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation) the sole source of Tamil film songs. This resulted in Tamil film songs being widely available in Sri Lanka, and as a result, Tamil songs were aired throughout SLBC’s Tamil services. However, S.K. Pararajasingam, B.H.’s mentor, broke this tradition by producing a sponsored program in Tamil called “Maliban Kavikkural” (Maliban Voice of Poems). With the support of musician M.K. Rocksamy, he produced local classical songs and incorporated popular folk songs into the program. B.H. aired local classical songs for the first time, and this marked a change in SLBC’s broadcasting approach. Under the direction of Sunil Munasingha, the Director General of SLBC, broadcasters from the Sinhala service were instructed to play Indian film songs for only 30 minutes, which created an opportunity for recording local classical songs to become a norm.
Inspired by his senior, S.K.P., B.H. pioneered a new trend in Tamil classical songs. Initially, he aired songs produced by S.K.P., and later, B.H. played a pivotal role in providing space for classical music and local pop songs. Vivian Namachchivayam, the Controller of Tamil commercial service, initially allocated 15 minutes every Saturday for local songs, and due to B.H.’s enthusiasm, an additional 15 minutes were allocated to accommodate Tamil pop songs. One notable change introduced by B.H. was using pop songs to disseminate community messages, such as raising awareness about the harmfulness of alcohol consumption. B.H. leveraged the popularity and attraction of pop songs to serve the public interest. The programs produced by B.H. played a significant role in launching the careers of singers like Niththi Kanagaratnam and A.E. Manoharan. Their songs gained popularity through B.H.’s programs, and it was inspiring to discover that Niththi Kanagaratnam’s songs were aired in Tamil Nadu for campaigns against alcohol consumption. In his book, B.H. also documents the history of the famous Sinhala singer M.S. Fernando. He mentions that M.S. Fernando was highly popular in Jaffna for his pop songs, and when he performed there, he was surrounded by fans from the region. B.H. also acknowledges the contribution of poet Sillayur to the development of local classical music.
Additionally, B.H. highlights the immense popularity of the pop song program called “Kumar Gunaratnam’s Poppisai Puyal,” which was organized in various parts of the country. These programs drew such large crowds that the police had to control the entry of people. This demonstrates the significant impact of B.H.’s initiatives in promoting Tamil pop songs and creating a widespread following for them.
In the context of significant changes in the Tamil language due to factors such as migration, globalization, and technological advancements, B.H. argues for the maintenance of a common standard in radio language. He believes that maintaining a better standard in language can influence the audience positively. B.H. shares his personal experiences of how his language abilities garnered attention and even brought him closer to the prime minister. He mentions his involvement in various programs, including traveling across the country to host vital programs for R. Premadasa. B.H. also acknowledges that his voice was popular in the eastern province, leading to him being assigned the task of providing direct interpretation for the prime minister.
Throughout the book, B.H. expresses his concerns about present-day radio presenters neglecting fundamental grammar and language skills. He envisions the development of internet-driven radio that can connect Tamil-speaking communities across the globe, inspired by similar advancements happening in Canada and other parts of the world.
B.H. emphasizes the importance of reading, improving knowledge, and pronouncing phonemes accurately. He recalls how broadcasters in the early days were given exercises to read news within a limited time frame. He explains techniques for concentrating while reading and advises creating visual images in the mind while reading. B.H. also stresses the importance of maintaining a conversational tone, as if speaking to a close friend, and crafting interview questions in an open-ended manner. The book documents that when SLRC started experimental broadcasting, B.H.’s voice was accommodated in Tamil. B.H. shares an anecdote of encountering a group of radio listeners near Madurai who were listening to his own voice.
One of the globally popular programs among Tamil-speaking audiences, particularly in India and Sri Lanka, is “Pattukku Pattu.” In this program, singers are invited to sing songs, and the presenter, without prior announcement, stops the singer at a certain point. The next singer then starts a new song from the letter where the previous singer stopped. This tradition in Tamil poetry is called Andathi. While the program was initiated by his senior broadcasters, B.H. made it extremely popular among the audience. This program showcased B.H.’s expertise in Tamil music, songs, film history, and his familiarity with Tamil filmmakers, musicians, lyricists, and production companies. It gained global popularity and was aired on Colombo International Radio and Sun TV simultaneously. Several Tamil film directors even incorporated this program into their films. The way B.H. conducted the program became nostalgic for famous film actors and hundreds of broadcasters. Indian TV stations replicated the program under different names, such as Raj TV’s “Rajageetham,” which played a significant role in launching more than 17 film singers’ careers. One of the lessons for the next generation is that most of B.H.’s programs elevated public and hidden talents, providing them a platform for recognition and revenue. Every program B.H. produced and presented had strong public relevance and the ability to develop social capital among listeners.
In summary, B.H. emphasized the importance of maintaining a common standard in radio language, shared his experiences and insights on reading and language skills, and highlighted the impact of his programs, particularly “Pattukku Pattu,” in promoting local talent and creating social connections among listeners.
Contribution to Films and Lyrics
B.H. expresses gratitude to his friend S.P. Mayilvahanan for giving him and Ramdas the opportunity to dub the film “Haralakshaya” into Tamil. This was B.H.’s first experience in the film industry. Notably, he completed the Tamil version of the film in just five days, while it took the director Tottawatta nearly two months to dub it in Sinhala. B.H. and his team also dubbed the film “Abirahasa,” which featured Vijeykumaratunga.
One widely known drama produced by B.H. is “Komalihalin Kummalam.” Inspired by poet Sillayur, B.H. and Ramdas created a serial drama with a comedic sense. However, they received a warning letter for allegedly insulting the southern dialect, which turned out to be a jealous act by someone who falsely accused the drama of insulting southern Muslims and their language. To address the issue, they included various characters representing different faith groups in the drama. “Komalihalin Kummalam” ran for one and a half years, and listeners started using dialogues from the drama in their daily lives. Eventually, the radio drama was made into a film, in which B.H. played the role of an ayyar. He also appeared in L.P. Adhavan’s Tamil film “Sooriyodhayam,” which was initially filmed as “Isaip Payanangal.”
B.H. recounts his involvement in the popular Tamil film “Thenali,” in which renowned actor Kamal Hasan invited him to assist with the Jaffna Tamil dialogues. B.H. changed the dialogues written by Crazy Mohan to the Jaffna dialect and also wrote dialogues for scenes related to Sri Lankan conflicts. He spent over a month in production and dubbing, assisting Kamal in speaking Jaffna Tamil and during the recording process. Some media criticized his involvement in the film, but he clarified in European media interviews that he drew inspiration from the dramas written by K.S. Balachandran and produced by himself.
Under the name of Irai Thasan, B.H. wrote lyrics for several local classical songs, which were sung by renowned singers such as T.M. Sounderarajan, B.S. Sasireka, and Karthik. He also assisted Kamal in the film “Thenali” by adding Jaffna dialect to a song written by Kalai Kumar. B.H. dedicated a night, providing support over the phone, during the recording of this song. Additionally, he contributed culturally rooted Tamil words to several other songs, such as “Injarungo… Injarungo” and “Oja-ye… Oja-yee.” He also wrote a popular song titled “Singore” for the film “Kannaththil Muththamittal,” directed by Maniratnam. Furthermore, B.H. wrote the lyrics for the title song of the Raj TV program called “Raja geetham.”
B.H. humbly acknowledges the love he received from listeners and his deep respect for his radio career. During the 1983 period, there was a rumor spread that B.H. and his wife had been killed, which went viral. Prime Minister R. Premadasa became aware of this and instructed the Director General of SLBC to provide special transportation for B.H. to come to SLBC and conduct programs. B.H. visited SLBC and read the news, confirming that he was alive. Indian media then published news refuting the false rumors of his death. B.H. believes that personal discipline and character contribute to the beauty and intelligence of one’s voice. R. Premadasa recognized the value of B.H.’s voice and invited him to compere most of the events attended by the prime minister as part of his development projects.
New Windows in life
B.H. candidly discusses the challenges he faced due to his popularity at SLBC and beyond. Some individuals wanted to diminish his popularity, and when it became a problem for his colleagues, he made the decision to resign from SLBC. However, he emphasizes that when one door closes, new windows open in life. On the same day he resigned, he received an invitation from Cathay Pacific to go to Hong Kong to record/digitalize flight announcements. The payment he received for this opportunity was equivalent to what he could earn in two years at SLBC. B.H. believes that when you have confidence in your own abilities, obstacles should not be a concern as new opportunities will present themselves.
Learning from previous generation
Throughout the book, B.H. shares his wisdom with present broadcasters. In Chapter 18, he explains the importance of being a good reader and enhancing broadcasting skills. He emphasizes the connection between reading habits and the ability to read quickly in radio broadcasting. B.H. suggests that broadcasters should write down significant points before presenting them, but it is equally important to comprehend the core message and present it from memory as well. He also advises visually comprehending the text to maintain a smooth reading flow and read lengthy sentences without interruption. B.H. shares an example of reading for 22 minutes without any stops or corrections, impressing the sound engineer from Cathay Pacific, who called him a “magician.” This reading style has helped many TV presenters. B.H. believes that radio presenters should aim to maintain a soulful relationship with their audience. He also provides insights on formulating open-ended questions for radio/TV interviews, emphasizing that the questions should allow the resource person to deliver key points.
B.H. acknowledges the influence of his predecessors and seniors in shaping his career. In Chapter 21, he emphasizes that each new generation achieves more than the previous one, but they start their journey from where the previous generation left off. He learned this quality from S.P. Mayilvahanam and several others, firmly believing that his popularity and remarkable history were established by his seniors. He traces the history of Tamil broadcasting in Sri Lanka back to 1935 when permanent announcers were accommodated at SLBC. He mentions names such as Navaliyoor S. Nadarasa, S. Sivapathasunderam, V.N. Balasubramaniyam, S. Kunsithapatham, V.A. Gaffoor, S. Punniyamoorthy, V. Sundaralingam, S.P. Mayilvahanam, S.K. Pararajasingam, and others who worked as Tamil announcers during the World War. B.H. also worked with M.H. Kuddus for nearly two years, producing drama in his name, and learned about broadcasting discipline from S.K. Pararajasingam and the importance of respecting the younger generation from S.P. Mayilvahanan.
B.H. emphasizes the importance of recognizing the contribution of Iyam-pillai Nadaraja, the first broadcasting engineer. In the last chapter, he expresses his concern that the Tamil language is losing its originality and emphasizes the role of media in preserving its authenticity. He believes it is essential for Tamil-speaking generations living in different countries to make Tamil their language. B.H. shares a story about S.P. Mayilvahanam, who was sent on compulsory leave, to highlight the jealousies, egos, and competition that have existed within SLBC.
BH’s career teaches us valuable lessons about being a successful broadcaster. One important lesson is understanding the power of the radio medium. BH demonstrates the capacity of radio to elevate public life and emphasizes the importance of utilizing every opportunity given. Young broadcasters can learn from him to approach their work with an open mind, incorporating elements of innovation, creativity, sustainability, and replicability. BH’s ability to showcase these qualities allowed him to simultaneously present six TV shows in Tamil Nadu. He is known for putting maximum effort into everything he does, as highlighted in Sillayur Selvarajan’s book on Romeo Juliet drama.
Chapter 20 of BH’s book is particularly relevant for aspiring broadcasters in any language. His popularity and recognition among the Tamil-speaking population are unmatched. He earned respect from people of diverse backgrounds, transcending ethnic, religious, and other differences worldwide, primarily due to his deep reverence for the Tamil language. Following the migration of Tamil-speaking people to various parts of the world after 1983, the language underwent significant changes influenced by globalization, technology, and South Indian films. BH played a crucial role in connecting Tamil broadcasters around the world, fostering a global Tamil community, all while maintaining the originality of the language, even after extensive travel to different regions.
In an era where traditional broadcasting is becoming less relevant to young audiences due to digital media and social platforms, BH’s career still holds valuable lessons. He understood the importance of appealing to emotions, persuading audiences, capturing attention, and addressing audience needs, which are now crucial skills in the digital age. BH’s programs were carefully designed to cater to the needs of the people, even in commercial settings, representing their cultural traditions and customs. Contemporary broadcast critics encourage radio stations to engage audiences, share ownership, and provide space for increased participation. BH had already incorporated these qualities into his broadcasting, which is why his programs continue to be discussed across generations. His adaptability, novelty, innovation, ability to generate social capital, and persuade audiences are key characteristics that contribute to his enduring popularity.
*M.C. Rasmin is a media researcher and academic specializing in journalism studies. He has taught at several prominent local universities, including the University of Peradeniya, University of Vocational Technologies, University of Colombo, and University of Jaffna as a visiting lecturer. With a passion for radio broadcasting, Rasmin began his career in 2003 as a radio broadcaster. For over a decade, he served as a relief announcer, commentator, and news reader at SLBC, making significant contributions to the production of numerous radio dramas.