A brief history of radio and radio drama
In this week's column I want to focus on the history and evolution of
radio drama in Sri Lanka.
Like many other legacies of British rule in Sri Lanka, radio
broadcasting was introduced to the island by and largely thanks to the
pioneering efforts of the then Chief Engineer, Telegraph and the Ceylon
Armature Wireless Society, Edward Harper who was named as the 'Father of
broadcasting' in Ceylon. Like many interpretations of history and lack
of systematic research and record books the history of broadcasting in
Sri Lanka may consist around many stories and personalities.
Asoka Tillekeratne, a well-know retired broadcaster now maintains
useful records highlighting the history of broadcasting in Sri Lanka. In
his blog, Tillekeratne writes:"In the colonial time, as in other
countries, in Ceylon too, radio broadcast was introduced based on the
BBC model. In Ceylon, the first experimental broadcast was started on 22
February 1924 at the building of Young Men's Christian Association
(YMCA). After a few months of experiments, on 27th June 1924, the radio
broadcast was inaugurated in Ceylon by the then Governor Sir William
The early radio experiments held in Colombo were nothing but
broadcasting of music using a gramophone. The earliest radio programs
were conducted from a small room in the Central Telegraph Office that
came under the Telegraph Department. The technical facilities were
limited to a small transmitter built by the telegraph engineers
extracted from radio equipment of a captured submarine owned by the
During the World War II, the radio operations were fully controlled
by the allied forces who operated Radio services on South East Asia from
Colombo. At the end of the war, the station was handed back over to the
Until October 1949, the radio broadcasting was governed by the Postal
and Telecommunication Department except during the war operations. One
of the major developments of radio broadcasting in Sri Lanka (Ceylon)
was the establishment of the Radio Ceylon as a separate department in
Eventually, the Government realised the potentials of radio, as a
medium that is capable of reaching out the masses through entertainment,
information and education centric programs.
Apart from music and songs which have been the most prominent aspect
of entertainment in radio broadcasting, radio play has been one of the
popular modes of entertainment from the inception of radio broadcasting
in Sri Lanka.
The establishment of Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation (CBC); was named
as the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Services (SLBC) on January 5 in 1967.
This new identity and the agency changed the landscape of radio
broadcasting in Sri Lanka gradually expanding and introducing coverage
of radio programs in all three languages across the country.
The application of radio drama in the spheres of education and
development had begun during the tenure of the first Chairman and the
Director General of CeBC, Neville Jayaweera. It was basically
development broadcasting aimed at accelerating the 'national
development'. Then UNP Government launched an ambitious programme titled
'Grow-More-Food Campaign' from 1965 to 1970s. Programmes were introduced
as well as programme strategies were mapped out in order to disseminate
information, instruction and advice on agriculture, fertilizer, health,
rural development, co-operative, self-help and allied areas. However, it
was during Ridgeway Thilakeratne's tenure that radio drama was used as a
medium to disseminate messages on development. It was extremely
difficult to determine the direct impact of development broadcasting on
the increase of paddy harvest.
Early days of radio drama in Sri Lanka
The short drama obtained from Britain in 1927 titled " Wireless
drama'' can be considered as the earliest instances of radio drama
broadcast in Sri Lanka. The wireless dramas were produced by Colombo
Amateur Dramatic Club for CeBC. It was, however, in the early 1950s that
the first couples of Sinhalese scripts for radio drama were out of world
literature. Owing to the lack of original Sinhalese scripts, celebrated
works in world literature such as Anton Chekov's 'The Proposal',
Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment', Pearl S Buck's "The Good Earth"
and Nicolai Googol's "Marriage" were converted into series of radio
dramas. Among the early radio dramas which was extremely popular, were
W.A Silva's "Maha Re Hamu wu Striya", Martin Wickremasinghe's "Rohini"
and "Gamperaliya". Lenard Wolf's "Village in the Jungle".
Victor Miguel's drama "Ratmal Yaya" which was broadcast in October 6,
1980 was a popular radio drama. Ananda Sirinsena's radio dramas such as
Vajira, Handiye Gedara, As deka, Sadagala Thanna, Gaja Mutu, Sesath
Kumariya, were some of the popular radio dramas in 1980s.
Historical radio dramas
Radio drama on history was a trend in the 1980s. Mervin Senaratna was
among the prominent writers who wrote scripts on historical themes. It
should be stated here that it was a difficult task to make a story out
of history and broadcast a program for a long time without distorting
the historical facts. Mervin's 'Sugandiha' is an important radio drama
in this regard. Inter alia, he had made a structure appropriate for
radio dramas on theme from history. Although the P.B Alwise Perera was
pioneered the tradition of historical radio drama, it was Mervin
Senaratne who introduced continuous historical drama to Sri Lankan
listeners. Senaratne's radio dramas such as "Vidiya Bandara", "Dole
Landa", "Vasundara", "Swarnapali" and "Sahageevana lanka" were also
popular radio dramas. Children's radio dramas were of higher standard.
Sugathapala de Silva and radio drama
The entire landscape of radio drama in Sri Lanka was substantially
changed with Sugathapala de Silva's entry into the field of radio drama.
It was Sugathapala de Silva who salvaged the Sinhala radio drama from
its monotonous and rather predictable format which was modelled on
British radio dramas. Ajith Samaranayeke writing on the death of
Sugatapala De Silva on his famous 'Sunday Essay' on Sunday, 3 November
2002 provides useful information and insights: "Sugath worked for long
at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation as a producer and in the late
1960's was in charge of the weekly radio drama and the weekly short
story programs which were the first stamping grounds of writers and
dramatists who are today well-known in their own right."
Silva who joined the SLBC in 1969, had changed the form and content
of contemporary Sinhalese radio drama. Rudimentarily, he attempted to
evolve characters, their moods and mentalities with a limited space of
air time, going beyond then conventional norm of mere presentation of
incidents. He did his experiments with radio drama through "Guvanviduli
Ragamadala" (Radio theatre) grooming a generation of script writers for
radio drama. His own creations such as Vellata Giya Gahaniya, Pathal
Karayo and Para Addara were not only popular among the listeners but
also inspired a generation of amateur script writers of radio drama.
Sugathapala de Silva encouraged and presented creations by writers such
as Sumithra Rahubadde, Aravvala Nandimithra, Karuna Perera, Srilal
Kodikara, Megala Mudiyanse, Kathleen Jayewardene, Rohana Kasturi and
Karunaratne Amarasinghe. Over the years, Sugathapala de Silva made a
lasting contribution to the development of radio drama as one of the
effective modes of entertainment.
Development oriented radio drama
Apart from uplifting the public taste of literature, radio drama
format was utilised to put across messages of development to the masses
. A significant aspect of radio drama is its applications in
dissemination of information relating to development. For instance, on
April 5, 1963, a radio drama titled "Kivule Kumbura" by Tissa Rajakaruna
and Berty Galahitiyawa. The drama was woven around a story of a young
farmer couple who dedicated their lives to the development of a
Government's settlement where they were given lands for cultivation.
A drama "Kumbure Gama" which was broadcast over SLBC in April 3, 1969
was also a development oriented drama. It was written by well known
writer, translator and retired civil servant Amaradasa Gunawardena and
produced by Jinadasa Yakupitiya. The drama was on the theme of farmers'
societies. Pahan Siluva a drama on Community Health (Paul Saukkya) was
broadcast from 1974 to 1975. Tamil dramas such as Kandavul Than Thai
were on the theme of family health.
What is important here is that radio drama is not only a popular
medium of entertainment but also a medium which can be employed in many
vital areas such as education, development and dissemination of
information on health and community development. But the emergence of
television, the role and the impact of radio dramas have diminished but
it may be a transient phenomenon.
However, in a country where oral traditions going back to over two
millennia, one cannot just ignore that radio drams has no place in the
21st century with the advent of massive development programs going to
take place in every district of our nation.