Tracing the fascinating story of the rivalry that raged between All India Radio and Radio Ceylon between the 1950s and 1970s.

Last December, Radio Ceylon, as the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation is now known, turned 88. Inaugurated on December 16, 1925, Radio Ceylon was the first broadcasting station of South Asia. In today’s age of dish TV and podcasting, radio is almost forgotten but for an entire generation in India, Radio Ceylon set the benchmark for radio programming and enjoyed immense popularity. Then, from the 1950s and up until the 70s, Radio Ceylon was challenged by the new kid on the block, All India Radio (AIR). This is the story of the fractious relationship the two competitors shared during the peak of their popularity.

India and Sri Lanka, by virtue of their shared colonial past, are bound by a peculiar dynamic, at once familiar yet complicated. The relationship that All India Radio and Radio Ceylon shared at the time reflected this same dynamic. The politics of competing nationhood and the compulsions of vying for the same audience were significant in the creation of their embroiled relationship.

Their two worlds were not worlds apart. Originally established by the British in Colombo, Radio Ceylon was a broadcasting station that became an especially integral asset to the Empire during the Second World War. The South East Asia Command, as it was known, functioned as the voice of the Empire, broadcasting news of war to servicemen in the East. More strategically, it was planted as an instrument to counter propaganda from the Axis powers (Japan and Germany) within the Empire.

A couple of decades after the two countries gained independence, AIR and Radio Ceylon crossed paths. Interestingly, it was the struggles of two newly born nations navigating the politics of popular culture that catapulted the confrontation. The banning of film music on AIR in 1952 by B.V. Kesakar, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister, drove Indian listeners to tune into Radio Ceylon. The popularity of Radio Ceylon soared, while AIR became increasingly isolated.

Many in the nascent government were of the opinion that relaying popular film music on the country’s official broadcasting channel was unbecoming of a young nation eager to prove itself as a world power. Popular film music was seen as vulgar, unrefined, and hardly an appropriate totem of Indian ‘national culture’. Vigilance was mounted against plebeian lara lappa film songs, and they were replaced with light, classical music that would edify and uplift perishing cultural tastes. However, the move was not mounted without resistance.

On April 7, 1954, Parliament was left reeling by a scathing attack from Harindranath Chattopadhyay, who roundly criticised the functioning of AIR. He argued that popular music had been excluded from the station’s programmes without any effort made by the government to understand what listeners wanted. Sardar Hukum Singh in the same session emphasised that AIR had failed to satisfy the people with its ‘light music’.

The stupendous success of Radio Ceylon in capturing Indian audiences was produced as testimony of this fact. Some reports even suggested that the decision by Radio Ceylon to launch a Hindi broadcasting station in Bombay was a calculated move to cash in on the rising unpopularity of AIR.

Radio Ceylon earned such an enviable reputation for itself across the sub-continent that The Hindu ran a listing of radio channels called Ceylon Radio Times, which reviewed short-wave transmissions of different radio stations regularly.

Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala and Mayilvaganam’s soothing voice in Jaffna Tamil had by now become fixtures of domestic leisure across swathes of the sub-continent. The sway the radio station commanded was so wide that in February 1957 the High Commission of Ceylon had to issue a press release dispelling misinformed reports in Indian newspapers which said that candidates contesting for upcoming elections could campaign on Radio Ceylon. The terse order read, “Ceylon Radio does not indulge in politics”.

However, the triumphant run of Radio Ceylon in India was soon to face turbulence. The rise of the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu in the 1970s and the strong desire by a group of Tamils to form a separate state, Eelam, saw fault lines emerge between Ceylon broadcasters and Indian listeners. On August 14, 1970, a report was published announcing that the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation would progressively reduce and ultimately stop playing South Indian film music. The move was attributed to several complaints received from listeners who pointed out that many film songs served as propaganda for the DMK, which had recently won political heft in the general elections of 1967, thus changing the dynamics of national politics in India irrevocably.

In two weeks, Radio Ceylon banned songs penned by famous Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi. According to Sutantarian, a weekly published by the Federal Party of Tamils, the line in a song that went “…we will build a bridge across the sea (to Ceylon)” made the Lankan authorities deeply uncomfortable.

The anguished responses from listeners in India reveal the extent of the confrontation. In a Letter to the Editor, A. Sankaran from Tiruvannamalai was outraged at Radio Ceylon’s actions and accused it of being paranoid. In another letter, P.K. Vishwanathan from Coimbatore appealed to the Broadcasting Ministry in India to address the issue of Radio Ceylon using the Indian national anthem as filler music. The relationship grew progressively more hostile.

By 1971, Ceylon had severed all links with the Indian news industry. It officially notified the Press Trust of India that it no longer required its services. Radio Ceylon, which had once formed a crucial part of the cultural landscape of India between the 1950s and 70s, now receded into a separate sphere of influence. Vividh Bharathi, the commercial wing of AIR initially launched to combat Radio Ceylon, now blossomed and soon took over to rule as the king of the airwaves.