An iconic anchor

Print edition : January 27, 2006

S. SARAVANAMUTTU represents a legion of broadcasters who were icons in the era of the romance of the radio. Popularly known as `Radio Mama' and then as `Vanoli Mama', Saravanamuttu is proud of his past. He lives in a quiet cul-de-sac at Wellawatte - the Tamil-majority pocket of Colombo.

Meticulous in his recall of the halcyon decades, Saravanamuttu hands out three sheets of his handwritten history of Radio Ceylon/SLBC - an organisation he entered in 1939 as a part-time announcer for rural programmes. For over an hour, he shared with Frontline its momentous past, when Radio Ceylon spelt magic.

From a part-time broadcaster to an icon of his times, the rise of Saravanamuttu is a chapter from the history of broadcasting in the region. In the early days of Radio Ceylon "all broadcasts were on one band and each broadcast went on one after another." It was in 1950 when Radio Ceylon's officials called upon Saravanamuttu to anchor the children's programme - the first of its kind. "The title `Radio Mama' was given by Sivapathasundaram [the then Director of Tamil services]; the conceptualisation of the programme was mine," he said.

The main focus of Siruvar Malar was that "children had to be attracted to the programme." What made it unique was a slot aired every Sunday, called `Kutty Nadagam' (mini drama). "It was there in every programme and was a huge success," he said. "I used to get nearly 30 letters every day from children. I used to reply to each and every one of them."

A van was placed at his disposal to ferry children to the radio station. "I was paid Rs.50 a programme. With that we also used to treat the children in the Radio Ceylon canteen with cakes," he remembers.

If the starry-eyed kids saw Saravanamuttu as `Radio Mama', he considers them "my students". Of the countless school-goers who participated in the programme between 1950 and 1973 - with two breaks - several went on to become icons in their respective fields. "S.M.A. Jabbar, the well-known cricket commentator - is one of my students," he proudly mentions.

Unfortunately, he says, the decline in the quality of radio programmes for children was an outcome of the advent of other forms of media - particularly television. Jeyanthi Jeyashankar, the current producer of the children's programme for SLBC, concedes that competition is difficult.

Retaining talent is even more arduous, SLBC officials say. Compared to the Rs.50 a programme Saravanamuttu earned as a part-timer, present-day salaries have gone up. Moreover, outbidding by the private media, which offer six times SLBC's salary, has meant a flight of talent.

A multi-faceted broadcaster, `Radio Mama' Saravanamuttu did not confine himself to children's programmes. When Queen Elizabeth visited Sri Lanka in the early 1950s, it was `Radio Mama' who gave the Tamil commentary for listeners of Radio Ceylon. He did the same for the funeral of the Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranaike. "I was the last person to leave the funeral site." The eloquent eyes of the veteran broadcaster reveal his professionalism as he recalls the final line of his commentary on the funeral.

To this day, Saravanamuttu is called `Radio Mama', but his legion of proteges-turned broadcast-icons is sadly thinning out.

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