Face to Face With Sumana Nellampitiya (2001)
An Icon of Sri Lankan Radio and Television, Sumana Nellampitiya, is a veteran Sinahala Media journalist with a long standing career. Her debating skills, as a school girl from Gothami Balika Vidyalaya, has groomed her with confidence and given the experience to become a successful Radio and TV presenter. She believes that newscasters should not look too glamorous on the TV; instead the news content should be the most attractive element.
Providence served her with a sledge hammer blow on her University education when her mother expired and the whole responsibility of looking after six of her brothers and sisters fell on her shoulders, when she got through her ‘A’ level exam .
She had to look for a job and then chose the radio. Soon her melodious voice struck a code with the Commercial Service at first which brought her to the pinnacle of her career. She is forthright and believes in the maximum that facts are sacred and the comment is free.
During her eighth visit to the UK she agreed to speak Face 2 Face for Newslanka and did not mix her words in answering some of the questions very boldly. She firmly believes on the word ethics in a radio and was very critical of some of the private radio stations in Sri Lanka today which she sees as a detriment to the present generation and the society.
She fearlessly challenges any Sri Lankan expatriate to say whether they are really and truly happy away from their homeland ?
She laments on the disunity among the Sri Lankan expatriates in England and says ‘it would be far better for all of us to unite and work as a single unit, putting individual differences aside when the mother country is facing a dire crisis.’
Q. Welcome to London. What was the purpose of your visit to London? Are you on holiday or on business?
A. This is my eighth visit to the UK. The purpose of this visit is to participate in the musical show performed by the disabled soldiers’ ( Ranaviru ) Band and also to take part in the Buddha Perahera which took place for the first time in London and to convey that message to Sri Lanka.
Q. When you are invited from various persons or organisations in London to participate in London performances do you evaluate the pros and cons of your visit before coming over, or do you simply grab the opportunity?
A. I can speak only for myself. This time the invitation came from Gamini Kirthichandra. I did some research to find out what kind of service he has rendered to our country through his organisation, The Sinhala Bala Mandalaya, and how the expatriate community in Britain had played a part in such endeavours..
Q. The number of shows in London, with Sri Lankan prominent artistes, is on the increase. In one month we have seen quite a few Sri Lankan artistes, from the cinema, drama, TV, and Radio, performing in London, within a week, and to put it in another form, it has become somewhat like a ‘contagious’ disease! From the point of a professional artiste based in Sri Lanka do you think it’s wise for Sri Lankan artistes to accept invitations from abroad ‘blind folded’, or do you think they do it as an additional income now that the American dollar and the Sterling pound are appreciating very much in the money market ?
A (Laughter) There are many questions within your question. During this month, I also have seen so many Sri Lankan shows in London with invited artistes from home. I don’t see this as a healthy sign. Because people here don’t have the money nor the time to spare to that extent on a week on week basis because the week-end is the only time people have time for, to attend to their affairs and chores etc. The other point is that when a show is organised in a foreign land we expect to make a profit out of it. Whether such shows are organised for charity or as a private business, only result I can foresee out of frequent shows is only a loss, at the end of each show. It does not matter how the dollar or the pounds behaves in the money market, but if everyone can unite and do one good show a month it would certainly benefit all concerned. That is my personal feeling.
Q. How do you see this in the eyes of a performer?
A. Yes. Every artiste's ambition is to perform to a fully packed audience and they get inspired that way, and it does not help them to come out with their best when they see a hall full of people. Performing to a somewhat empty audience will be like an exorcist doing a dance on a cemetery!
Q. I mentioned the Dollar and the Pound especially to see whether the Sri Lankan artistes are coming here to entertain the expatriate community and propagate Sri Lankan culture in England or simply to make a quick buck from a show or two?
A No, I don’t see any cultural side here at all. If an artiste visits merely for a fee, say for Rs.50,000 or Rs.100,00, then it cannot be equated with culture. I don’t think it’s right .True, we all need money but there’s more to it than money in an established artiste's reputation, talent, professional standing , panache etc. Therefore, when someone organises a show in London and cannot fulfill the above conditions, I don’t think it serves anyone any purpose.
Q. What made you seek a career in the Radio as an announcer rather than pursuing your studies at University level and becoming a professional woman?
A. I did not have adequate marks to qualify for University entrance. After sitting two exam papers my mother expired and it affected my exam and the university education altogether. I was seventeen years old then, and I had the responsibility to look after my sisters and brothers ( a total of six). While I was at home only I managed to pass my A.L examination and I could not pursue my education after that. But even to-date I go to school in my dream world.
Q. What do you think of women’s role as Executives and high-powered managing persons these days in Sri Lanka as against the dominant attitude men took towards women those days?
A. ( Infectious laughter) When you compare Sri Lanka with a sophisticated country such as England and look at the female population in Sri Lanka, yes, they are doing well in executive and management levels. My feeling is that it would be better if females are involved more in the management and executive levels.
Q. How do you substantiate your argument?
A. I believe that a woman is capable of handling any situation more effectively than a man. Reason is simply this. When you talk about a married woman, she undergoes various stages of responsibility, especially after becoming a mother. No doubt, even men go through this phase, but during that phase there is a vast difference between a man and a woman's areas of responsibility from absorbing pain to family management. There's another angle to this. If you take Britain and Sri Lanka for example, what we have in Sri Lanka is a completely male dominated chauvinistic society. . Now see, if you are a married person in England you also have to help the wife in house chores etc. In Sri Lanka we don’t see much of progress on that score still. But we, as women give prominence to the man in the house - even when we go to eat we offer the plate of rice to the husband, father or the elderly male first!
Q. Do you belong to the old school or the new trend of modern millennium woman?
A. (Laughter). I am a mixed person. I have been working for a long time and there is what is called a generation gap when I look at my young colleagues today. But I don’t feel a generation gap at all, and I should be able to sail along with the new generation smoothly. If not, we will automatically get cornered. In short ,we have to move with the times.
Q. What is your personal opinion on the language and the spoken Sinhala emanating from some of the new commercial and private Radio stations in Sri Lanka? Some believe that at times it can be very irritating to one’s ears
A. Tilak, this is a point which I have been discussing on many occasions. In Sri Lanka today we have extremely talented youth but in a Radio establishment there should be a code of practice and a code of ethics. This magic word ethics cannot change from generation to generation. There is certain decorum to follow in a radio and there are certain topics which are taboo on radio waves. Have you ever heard of a radio teaching its audience to tell lies?
Unfortunately today some of these private radios teach people to tell lies with competitions to choose who can come out with ‘ the most effective false story’! It does not matter if the speaking style changes, and I admit that it’s important to have various methods to woo listeners, but to stoop to such low levels in interaction with the audience would be disastrous.
Let me give you an example of a conversation out of a private commercial radio. One announcer asked a listener: “ What are you doing this evening” ? The listener replied:
“ I am going to the Majestic City today”. Why are you going there?
Asked the presenter and the listener boldly replies: “ To see girls’ legs”. This is the gospel truth and today some of our Radios in Sri Lanka have come down to such gutter level. The result would be that the whole concept of having a radio would be lost.
Q. When I asked one of your colleagues recently about her experience in England, she was very impressed with the orderly nature of things in this country and she seemed to think that the Sri Lankan community is very happy and a contented lot. What are your feelings out of your many visits’ experience to London
A. My colleague may not have been exposed to the Sri Lankan community living in London during her short visit as much as I have done over eight times. I don’t believe any Sri Lankan living in England is living happily. I don’t see that. When we come to a foreign land and even if we become permanent residents, we will always be second-class citizens.
In our country, we can breathe freely. When you say England it’s a country where democratic freedom is at its height, but Tilak, this is not your country. Can you tell me that this is your country ? No! Every time mentally you live in Sri Lanka and physically in a confined frame. Can you get the same feeling you get in Sri Lanka by sitting under a tree here? Can you get the same inspiration of the breeze and the calm environment from a village lake by standing in front of Thames River here? I don’t say this country is bad, but however much problems we have in Sri Lanka our country is ours. We cannot come to a foreign land and say this is my country.