by Thilak S. Fernando

Kusum Peiris has been a household name in Sri Lanka for nearly thirty years. She has been ‘visiting’ homes, cars, vans, cafés, hotels and every nook and corner on a daily basis, from morning until evening through radio beams. Apart from being a veteran Senior Radio Broadcaster and Producer, attached to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, she has also been an illustrious icon on radio drama. Behind rolled cameras, she has given life to many a female character in numerous dubbed foreign language films. Her amiable voice has complemented with scores of beautiful female faces on the cinema screen to make spoken dialogues effective. She is also a sought-after Sinhala lyric composer. Her compositions have given an added lustre and feeling to popular Sinhala singers and acted as catalysts to make such songs popular-hits on radio as well on the television. For the second time she visited London during the Sinhala New Year this year to host and broadcast a special SLBC Lowa Wata Avurudu ( New Year round the world) programme to project how the Sri Lankan expatriates uphold and propagate their inherent ‘Avurudu Sirith Vrith’ (cultural values) despite being thousands of miles away from home. On the verge of her departure to Heathrow Airport, she allocated a breathing space to the Face2Face , News Lanka interview.

Q. When did you come to London this time? And were you on holiday?

A. No. I arrived in London on 12 April on official business from the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation to host a Radio Programme from London to the Sri Lankan listeners back at home, covering the Sinhala New Year celebrations in London by the expatriate community here. SLBC does this programme annually and it is called the ‘Lowa Wata Avurudu’ (New Year around the world)

Q. So, this can’t be the first time then that you visited London to conduct such a programme ?

A. Yes, this is my second visit. Last year also I visited London to present this programme from the East of London. Usually SLBC employees are sent to different countries every year to observe and project how the Sri Lankan communities outside their motherland preserve and propagate their culture, especially during this festive season. Normally many countries are covered and this several SLBC staff covered, Australia, Doha, the Middle East etc., and I came to London.

Q. What advantages, drawbacks, or impact do you think this programme might have on the Sri Lankan listening audiences?

A. This is normally well received and that is why it is continuing on an annual basis. The cardinal point here is that it is very appreciative to see how those Sri Lankan brothers and sisters who have left their motherland and living overseas have not forgotten their cultural background, and how eagerly they maintain and project with pride their inculcated traditional inherent values even thousands of miles away from home . For example a Sinhala programme transmitted from England starting with Seth Pirith is undoubtedly a soothing novelty to the years of thousands of listeners at home. And also we announced how the sweet meats were prepared and laid on tables in Sri Lankan homes here just like at home; then the traditional offering of the beetle leaves and seeking forgiveness from the elders, playing Raban, and even a rare scene in this part of the world of observing ganu-denu (exchange of money) done as a ritual or tradition at home. This has been the whole idea behind the programme and I am delighted to say that the broadcast has been well received at home.

Q. Where did you transmit the programme from?

A. Transmission took place from East London, with the help of my long-term friend, from Muan Palassa days, Lilani Perera. I must mention here that without her support and assistance it would not have taken place on two consecutive years. Personally, I am grateful to Lilani for affording me this opportunity as she has been like a sister to me accommodating and looking after me during this short period, and also taking me sight seeing etc., and even to distant places such as the Shakespeare Village, which I had only read in books before. My gratitude is also extended to SriLankan Airways for arranging my free travel to and fro.

Q. You are one of the very senior broadcasters in the Sinhala Section of the SLBC. Would you like to tell the circumstances behind your becoming part of the SLBC team of announcers? Who gave you a helping hand to come to the ‘ radio track’ so to speak?

A. While I was a student I took part in the Radio Rangamadala programmes, In 1965 I was selected as a Grade A drama-artiste. 1n 1972 I was chosen as a Relief Announcer of the SLBC. In 1976, I was made permanent as an established announcer of the Corporation. In 1986, I was promoted to the status of Grade ‘A’ Announcer. Then I was promoted as a Super Grade Announcer and at present, I am slotted into the Senior Announcer status. So many have helped me along the line and it is not fair to mention only a name or two here.

Q. Who were your contemporaries in the Sri Lankan Radio from the very beginning of your Radio Ceylon career?

A. Tilaka Ranasinghe, Indra Ramanayake, Samadara Kottage, Somasiri Chandrasena, Mala Vithara, Tilaka’s brother Douglas Ranasinghe & Ariyasiri Vithanage ( from my memory off the cuff) We all came to the Radio Panel as relief announcers at the beginning.

Q. Apart from Radio broadcasting have you done any drama acting on stage and voice dubbing to radio drama etc., if so, what are they ?

A. Apart from radio announcing, I was also one of the artistes who were involved with the dubbing of voices to the Rupa Vahini when they launched the Television first. I was part of Titus Thotawatte’s dubbing team. I have also given my voice to many films covering leading characters. In addition, I have given my voice to foreign language films dubbed into Sinhala. I have done many Sinhala song compositions too. Then I have taken part in many radio dramas - many of Sugathapala Silva’s particularly. I have also taken part in radio dramas produced by Bandara Wijetunge & P.Welikala. Some of the dramas that have stuck in my memory are Monerathenna, Muwan Palessa, Kumbure Gama, and Sapumali. I have also written tele-drama scripts.

Q. Would you like to name some of your scripts that were dramatised ?

A Yes, Pahan Taruwa and Pahan Siluwa. Pahan Siluwa was a children’s drama. This was based on a research done by the UNICEF on |Asian countries. Pahan Taruwa was chosen as the best Radi Drama which was a love story based on teenagers

Q. You mentiond about composing lyrics for songs.. Would you like to throw some light on that aspect also.

A. Liyamna Vinodini’s Asura Sanin Eka Mohotakdee, Niranjala and Bandara Athauda’s Sihinayaki Oba, Abeywardena Balasuriya and Niranjala’s Nissansale Ma Thaniyen, Edward Jayakody’s Gan Ewre, Victor Ratnayake’s Hitha Gawa Danga Kala, Bandara Athauda’s Sithuwili Siravee I did compose lyrics for one of Malini Fonseka tele-drama songs and her Aradditha film – and these are only a few I can recollect off the cuff.

Q. How easy or difficult was it those days to become a Radio Announcer? Was it a craze or a fashion like today and how about the competitiveness ?

A. No, I don’t think there was any competition those days. I can talk about myself only, and in my case, I never considered it as just a job, but as a participation with the listeners where one could educate the audiences on the one hand and to make radio listening a popular item. I believe, the listeners are announcers’ closest friends in a sense, because a Radio Announcer has ‘access’ to any house or any motor vehicle, and we are constantly in communication with the public. It is equally the same with that of a radio drama artistes. In my humble opinion, we must never think it as just a job. True, we all need money to live, but in this job money should not be the main criteria. If there is one place in this world I love to be all the time, it has to be my work place, and I have dedicated so much of my time to my involvement with radio. I like to call the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation as my ‘Mahagedara’ (Ancestral home), because this is the home that has helped me to be popular as I am today.

Q. How long have you been in the service with the Corporation already?

A Around 29- 30 years… a long time! ( smiling )

Q. Apart from having a good clear and a projecting voice what other qualities or qualifications do you think one has to possess in becoming a successful radio announcer.

A. Voice is the most important ingredient to be a successful and popular radio announcer, no doubt. However, at the same time it is vital to have a wide and sufficient general knowledge. Why do I say so ? This is because, if we are trying to convey a message to someone, then we should be proficient in the subject we are going to talk about! The essential point to remember here is that a broadcaster should be able to deliver in such away that it will reach his/her audience, because listeners are the best friends of broadcasters . Undoubtedly the rise or fall of an announcer is inversely proportional to the broadcasters performance. I don’t know whether I am flattering myself too much, but in 1985 I received the Presidential Award for the Best and the Most Popular Announcer of the year.

Q. What do you think of the metamorphoses of the technology in communication from your early days to present time with Computers, DAT machines ,mixers sound tracks and various kinds of hi-tech equipment that are coming out to the radio industry.?

A. Actually, it’s a good thing because the advanced technology is eternally helping the broadcaster and it makes his/her life much easier. I remember during my early days in the Radio we had to use 45 r.p.m and 331/3 rpm records. These have been superseded by CDS and even today; we have entered a new era of Midi Discs and digital systems.

Q. In this part of the word, if you were to present a programme you are on your own with the computer, after getting everything loaded and queued up, and all you need is to press the button! In Radio Ceylon those days, if I can remember well, there was a separate person to operate the sound mixer etc and all what the announcer had to do was just to a bit of ‘yapping’ from a different glass cubicle. How is it now with the modern technology?

A. Yes, its true we had only to do the talking at that time. With the new technology, we have to manage ourselves and I think its good because we become very active and fully involved with whatever we are doing. In addition, it gives us a golden opportunity to learn many new things, after all life in general is a university all of the time., isn’t it ? Nevertheless, there’s another side to this coin, and that is, a professional’s presence always helps you psychologically, rather than being ‘dumped’ there in a glass cube on your own to manage your own affairs during the presentation of a programme. However, the fact of life is that one has to move with the times all the time if one wants to be progressive in this world.

Q. What do you think of the calibre of the present day announcers compared with that of the old school veterans such as you?

A. There are many talented broadcasters today and I am very proud of it. We should value new ideas and welcome new blood. As I said before; to be progressive we have to move with the times.

Q. Do you think the present generation of young announcers are better equipped mentally to handle the modern techniques involved with radio broadcasting, such as computers, dat machines, mini Discs?

A. I don’t think it matters much and generation gaps will not hinder the broadcasting or handling of modern equipment when one masters one’s job. As long as one is conversant with what one is doing and aware of one’s responsibilities such questions do not arise..

Q. SLBC announcers, no doubt, are the best performers in Sri Lanka today. Nevertheless, I have seen and heard personally when I was in Sri Lanka last year, some of the announcers who appear on various TV channels to read news, which to my hearing was appalling. Some were even like school children reading English school textbooks ! Why do you think, in your opinion, that in a powerful medium like the Television in Sri Lanka such incompetent staffs are thrown into the deep end to the detriment of the TV channel’s reputation?

A. I would not like to answer that question (with a shy smile).

Q. With the increase in number of commercial radio stations, such as Taru, Hiru, Sri, Sevana to name a few, which have been mushrooming in Sri Lanka of late and their quality FM services attempting to monopolise the wave beams, how do you rate the SLBC Sinhala programmes, especially the ones you are handling and performing?

A. No I don’t think its something to worry because listeners fall into multiple of areas.It does not matter what radio or which radio station the broadcasts are being transmitted for the mere fact that those who want to listen to a particular programme will always be tuning into their favourite programmes, irrespective of the Radio Station. No, I don’t think it will affect the Broadcasting Corporation programmes at all because as far as the listeners are concerned it’s the quality and the listener preference that affect the rating of any programme.

Q. Would you like to discuss your family here ?

A… No problem. My husband, Nelson Peiris, is a Producer of Radio drama at the SLBC. My elder daughter is Wageesha, second daughter Thamali Peiris is quite known in Sri Lanka as a TV and Radio presenter as well as a tele-drama actress, Thamali became the most popular Radio Announcer once. I have a son also, Rajith Peiris

Q. Now that you have been to London more than once what do you think of London and England in general?

A. Life style here is much organised. Even road traffic is much disciplined and the houses are kept neatly and everything is very pleasing to the eye. I came across many nice Sri Lankans in London and I didn’t see any difference in their attitude by being here. They extended our inherent Sri Lankan hospitality to me while I was here. There are quite many Sri Lankans living in London and they mind their own business. This is how people should live, isn’t that so? Without being inquisitive…!

Q Do you really think so… ? What makes you think that people are not inquisitive and do not pry into other’s affairs here and they mind their own business?

A. (With a shy and an infectious laugh) This I am saying with my limited knowledge and experience within my 10-12 days here and you are asking me with years of experience having lived in this country! What I said was that it is very good, if people are minding their own business and not being inquisitive….. (continued her laughter…)

Q. Many people in Sri Lanka have this notion of England as a paradise, life here is a bed of roses , and the roads are paved with gold, as it were. Unfortunately some people who go on holiday from here spend lavishly in the eyes of the locals, having the advantage over the rupees against the Sterling pound (£:1:Rs.127) No one talks how expensive and difficult and stressful life here is ! And most importantly no one dare opens their mouth to talk about their concealed psychological impact they suffer from, especially those who have burnt their boats and come over here seeking greener pastures..

A. If that is true, it is very tragic. We may have minor short comings and problems at home but for me there is no place like Sri Lanka. ( smiling again )

Q. Do you realise that it has become a fashion to come to England now from Sri Lanka? How many people have mortgaged their houses etc., paid substantial amounts of money to agents just to get here. Do you know that many have been dumped into the sea while being transported from the Continent and others have died of suffocation inside sealed containers during their travel overland trying to cross from Italy, France etc. And worst of it is that the ‘ so-called lucky’ ones who land here have to seek refugee status without realising that they will be granted permission to stay here and they become distraught, disappointed, disillusioned and become helpless and have to carry on meaningless lives.

A. Really! (With amazement)

Q. So, then, when you go back to Sri Lanka, and sit in front of the microphone, you have the whole world, so to speak, in hour hands as a broadcaster. Don’t you think it would help many who are saddling with the idea of seeking greener pastures here if you can utilise your privileges as a media person to get the message across to the public at large ? In my mind , then you will be doing a yeoman service to those who are ignorant of the true situaltion and conditions here, and what they are up against after coming to this ‘land of hope and glory!..

A. Thank you very much. Tilak, I am very pleased to hear your outspoken words. Don’t worry when you come to Sri Lanka I shall certainly endeavour to arrange an interview for you with the SLBC, so that people can listen to your feelings and ideas as a man of experience in living in England. Ends.