Indra Ramanayake - The Nightingale Of The Radio ( 2001)
If I begin to get a glimpse of the miraculous richness of the ‘human being’ I could not help getting depressed by the fact that most of that potential remains unrealised in the vast majority of people. One such example amidst our Sri Lankan community in the UK today is Indra Ramanayake, once renowned as the Nightingale of Radio Ceylon.
Indra’s rise to fame within the Radio Ceylon (SLBC) is a tribute to the power and efficiency of modern means of communication. Like a clock needs two hands to move forward within a ‘time-frame’, she could not have moved forward without the full backing and the hand extended to her by her sister Karuna Ramanayake (Bodhinayake), who in her own capacity was at the helm at the time in Radio Ceylon presenting programmes such as Vanitha Latha. Indra was also propped by Dr. Buddhadasa Bodhinayake, renowned journalist and broadcaster, through his science programmes on radio.
When Indra got through her ‘A’ Level examination she responded to a SLBC advertisement for radio announcers. Her previous part-time experience in radio broadcasting enhanced by her opulent voice, helped her to be selected as a Grade ‘A’ announcer along with few others Dharmasiri Wickremanayake, Kusum Peiris, Tilaka Ranasinghe and Ariyasiri Vithanage.
Indra worked for some time as a relief announcer during which period she successfully completed her university entrance examination. However, she acted on impulse and followed her instincts with aggressive frankness of being a radio artiste. Ever since, a combination of childish face, mature body, innocence and her ‘nightingale’ voice became the basis for her ascent to popularity which vibrated through radio waves and had a magnetic effect on thousands of radio listeners throughout the country.
She handled thirty musical and commercial programmes a week on both, National, and Commercial Service of the SLBC and dominated the Commercial Service primarily by promoting the Ceylon Film Corporation releases covering their Sinhala and Hindi films. In addition, she became part and parcel of the radio-drama team (Radio Rangamadala ) rubbing shoulders with famous names such as Lucian Bulathsinhala, Dharmasiri Bandara, Somalatha Subasinghe, Wijaya Nandasiri, Wijeratne Warakagoda, Anula Bulathsinhala, Jaya Sri Sandrajith, Jayasekera Aponso, Mercy Edirisinghe, Denowaka Hamine, Karunaratne Amarasinghe, and Bandara K. Wijetunge.
She became a heartthrob especially with a programme called Keti Kathawa (short story) where listeners’ submissions were dramatised solo by her giving life to several characters in the story adding richness, feeling and emotion ‘in one breadth’ thus making the listeners glued to their radio sets.
She created the character of Amara Hamu in Kele Mal, Menike in Gaja Muthu and Samudra Devi in Veediye Bandara and her name became ‘immortal’ among radio listeners ! Menike character in Gaja Muthu, in particular, became so popular that when she left for London, the producer of the drama did not want to kill the character off, in her absence. Instead it was given a twist to the plot by making Menike ‘losing her voice after being poisoned by someone’ in order to substitute her role with another female artiste’s voice.
As an announcer she presented some of the most favourite programmes such as ‘ Sing Lanka, Guwan Meevitha and ‘Adhunikka Gee Tharanga’ (Amateur Song Contests) in association with famous radio icons such as Karunaratne Abeysekera, Lalith S. Maithripala, Ariyadasa Peiris, Chandra Wymen and Ranjith Peiris. Apart from presenting programmes she was heard reciting Kavi (poetry) in classical programmes such as Padyavaliya and Nava Mihiria.
She became interested in stage drama when Sugathapala Silva introduced her to Dr. Ediriweera Sarathchandra to take part in Mahasaara, followed by Sugathapala Silva’s Harima Badu Hayak and Thuranga Sanniya. Inspired by stage drama acting she continued by partaking in Senerath Yapa’s Hiru Nonagina Adirajyak and Bandula Vithanage’s Becket. Displaying yet another refracted talent within her she sang in Gunasena Galapathi’s Muhudu Puttu and Deèsa Nisa in which her sister Karuna played the main female characters with Cyril Wickremage and Damma Ja Goda. Just before leaving for London, she made a brief appearance as a TV newscaster on the ITV and Rupavahini which she continued until she left Sri Lanka.
BBC Sinhala Service
In London, her entrance into the BBC World Service, Sinhala Section, was greeted with almost instant acclaim. She believed that the best way of being on top in radio announcement was a matter of continuity - permanence of serving the Sinhala service and constancy of style.
Sandesayawas only a 15-minute programme once a week at the time and she was paid £5 a week as wages! At the BBC, she met Wasantha Raja, the then Producer of Sandesaya. Their working relationship seemingly developed into a romance and finally ended up in wedlock.
Indra remained in the UK after her marriage working for the BBC. In the Sandesaya programme, she started reading news, participated in an English-in -Sinhala learning programme for listeners in Sri Lanka and hosted an exclusive health programme by interviewing a series of doctors, including Dr. Buddhadasa Bodhinayake.
Additionally, she covered outdoor activities in London such as the Chelsea Flower Show. Joining the BBC in London was regarded as her entering into another area by transferring energy and talent from the stage in Sri Lanka to microphone once again in London to be popular worldwide through the world service of the BBC.
Even to date her is part and parcel of the Sandesaya programme, which has come a long way covering broadcasts seven days a week for thirty minute duration where she has become the only popular & female voice. Her newscasts can be heard today anytime on the Internet through Sandesaya programme (http: //www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala).
Few years prior to Wasantha Raja’s name became associated with the LTTE providence served her with a sledgehammer blow to their marriage, which ended up in a divorce. In the concept of existed political scenario that followed in Sri Lanka could be viewed as a blessing in disguise but not from a family perspective! She becomes extremely disturbed when her name is dragged out still into Sri Lankan politics, and naturally leaps in fury whenever such title-tattle raises its ugly head.
With equal ferocity, she defends her own privacy, refuses interviews, questions and explanations, years after she severed her marital ties with him, a fact many who point an accusing finger to her seem to forget. Wasantha Raja was ‘imported’ from the BBC to the Sri Lankan Rupavahini Corporation as its Chairman by the Sri Lanka government (President Chandrika Kumaratunge) and placed on the pinnacle of his career long before he was ‘branded as a LTTE sympathiser’.
Indra Ramanayake maintains that Wasantha Raja and she were two separate individuals, the only common factor shared between the couple was only a marriage bond, yet she cannot fathom how some extreme nationalists get the wrong impression about her!
“Wasantha has never tried to influence me into politics or whatever his activities, nor have I ever surrendered to his political ideology”, she always shrugged off such propaganda.
“I am also an educated person, and furthermore, long before he got involved in Sri Lankan politics we had been separated, divorced and in fact he had re-married twice”! She exclaimed.
“I have a 16-year-old son now from him, still I cannot think why some of the fellow Sri Lankan radicals are after my blood and trying to couple me with whatever his activities are or were! I repeat, water has flowed under the bridge long long time ago between the two of us and should I be penalised for the rest of my life for whatever he got involved with”? She emphasised during this rare face to face exclusive interview.
Her dedication to Sinhala and radio has been profound. When Lanka Udanaya, the half hour Sinhala radio programme in London through Sunrise transmitters, was subjected to criticism for its lack of professionalism and in-depth performance Indra Ramanayake willingly came forward to serve the Sinhala community and to uplift the Sinhala culture in England.
Being a professional of high calibre in radio announcing, she was not after making money but her motive was to sincerely part with her knowledge, experience, and talents. Consequently, she volunteered to sacrifice her Friday evenings until midnight (on the day of the radio broadcast) and income amidst all her associated problems of finding ‘baby-minders’ to look after her son who had to be kept alone at home.
She assisted the organiser of Lanka Udanaya to prop it up when it was sailing through a cultural as well as a financial storm and steered it into calm waters by training the novices in the Lanka Udyanaya team to make it an effective radio broadcasting programme while herself read news, the vital feature which attracted the listeners as well as advertisers during that half hour of broadcasting.
When the programme presenter was out of the country (in Sri Lanka) for a considerable period of time and the red alarm bells started ringing to announce its imminent death due to financial constraints of continuing the programme, she took the plunge and held the fort steering the programme single handed while another patriotic member of the Sinhala community in London, Shantha de Saram, did all the spade work in approaching advertisers and collecting payment to be made to Sunrise Radio to save this Sinhala programme in the UK.
Sadly, in certain quarters in the Sri Lankan Community in London whiskey began to lubricate the gossip machine where some men started to adjust their tie knots and made thier vocal codes open up viciously to sling mud and spread numerous rumours to the extent that she was being financed by the LTTE to run the radio programme!
“Some chauvinists looked at me wearing coloured glasses which is nothing but may be out of an element of professional jealousy I guess; they held propaganda meetings against me and even presented a ten page petition castigating me to President Chandrika Kumaratunge” she lamented. “This is the prize I received by trying to do something for the sake of my own culture, my own language, my own nation and my own community in London, and it was absolutely shameful and unfortunate”, she endorsed.
Once an Indian businessman launched a satellite radio programme called the TBC, Tamil Broadcasting Corporation, to offer the Sri Lankan community in the UK and Europe seven days a week with one hour for Sinhala programmes, absolutely free of charge. Indra was approached, as she was known as a Radio Announcer. She tried her very best to get some of her Sinhala colleagues from the community involved as it was too much for her to do it alone with other activities at the BBC, and other personal commitments and responsibilities. She gave it a try however temporarily, and in her efforts to find suitable people to run the programme during that period TBC Sinhala programme became extremely popular especially in Europe among the Sri Lankan expatriate community of all races.
Although the response and feedbacks the new radio had, yet a golden opportunity which was offered on a platter had to be abandoned during the time when Lanka Udanaya was finding it extremely difficult to manage financially with exorbitant charges levied by Sunrise Radio.
“Even during this short period, some elements were trying to fabricate that it was a LTTE backed programme and I was assisting them! I can only laugh at these loose talk without getting worked up and treat it as peculiar humour prevalent in our London community”, she said with a cynical grind during the interview.
“It is the same when it comes to various other Sri Lankan social activities in London where compeering or Sinhala presentations are involved” she says. “Either such activities get overshadowed by the pseudo accusation; or they look at me with squinted eyes and carry on with the usual mudslinging campaigns against me, or more shamefully they all want everything free of charge saying it’s all for a good cause” !
Expressing her feelings further she said, “from my experience, this is applicable to the whole of our Lankan community across London and that’s why I have no time or energy for such preposterousness. I consider myself a professional and equally expect payment for my services, as much as they earn out of their do’s in whatever name and form they perform”.
“Furthermore, I have learnt my bitter lesson and cut my losses on several occasions in the past when organisers of functions approached me with all sincerity and promises to honour my payments but after the show they have completely shown a Nelsonian eye to the agreement”, she continued with a slight professional pride and command.
Circumstances that have been created by some in London have made Indra Ramanayake to withdraw into her own shell and continue her radio career right now only in the limelight of the BBC and oblivious to her community activities reluctantly.
Indra Ramanayake’s closest friends and her family will admit privately that ‘she is very emotive, not malicious and uninterested in the vagaries of Sri Lankan community gossip which most of us unfortunately continue to enjoy. Her greatest treasure is that she remains an absolute mystery. Her capacity for passion, compassion, gentleness and equally ‘fire’ are more profound than anything that can be expressed in words.
She lives with simplicity, direction, and modesty. She has a strong instinct and a clear idea of what she wants to do. She is not a controversial beauty, which was rather lucky, and it has kept her on the narrow, thorny little path towards becoming a popular Radio cum TV presenter.