Karunaratne Abeysekera was one of Sri Lanka’s greatest broadcasters and lyricists. He was extremely close to Vernon Corea – their friendship had a unique broadcasting chemistry – they shared ideas with each other – they thought alike and came up with amazing broadcasting opportunities at Radio Ceylon. They both had a sense of humour and loved to joke with each other.
Vernon’s son wrote about the broadcasting legacy left by Karunaratne Abeysekera in an article in the Daily News in Sri Lanka.
Karunaratne Abeysekera of Radio Ceylon:
The legacy still lives on
by Ivan Corea
When he entered the room, you could not help but notice him – his hair groomed back with ‘Brylcreem’ (his hair always had that shiny wet look), the thin moustache and sharp cheek bones, the immaculate smart bush shirt – you were in the presence of Karunaratne Abeysekera, the pioneer Sinhala broadcaster of Radio Ceylon.
Karunaratne Abeysekera or ‘Karu’ was born on June 3, 1930 in the village of Ratmale near Matara. He was educated at Nalanda Maha Vidyalaya in Colombo. The young Karu as a teenager displayed such creativity and vibrant talent, that he was invited to join the popular ‘Lama Pitiya’ (the children’s programme presented by ‘Siri Aiya’) over the airwaves of Radio Ceylon at the age of 15 years.
This was the making of the teenage broadcaster. He grew in popularity and listeners appreciated his wit, his sharp mind, his way with words – he was truly a master of the Sinhala language. He joined the Panel of Announcers of Radio Ceylon in 1950.
In 1958, he was sent to London to get himself trained with the British Broadcasting Corporation at the age of 28. The 1950s and 1960s was the golden era of Radio Ceylon – the oldest and finest radio station in South Asia. Radio Ceylon was the ‘King of the Airwaves’ and Karunaratne Abeysekera enjoyed iconic status as an announcer and presenter of radio programmes.
Millions turned into Radio Ceylon. Karu was also heard on many radio jingles. He was the voice of Sinhala radio in the 1960s and 1970s from the days of Radio Ceylon, the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation and current Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC).
But radio was not the only facet of the life of this multi-talented man. He was lyricist, poet, dialogue writer, compere of hundreds of events and he even wrote stories for children. Several children’s books have been published. Karunaratne Abeysekera wrote over 2,000 lyrics – a national record for a Sri Lankan lyricist.
His compositions are still being covered by musicians in Sri Lanka and they have been sung to audiences as far and wide as London, Los Angeles, Melbourne – Mignonne Fernando and ‘The Jetliners’ sang ‘Mangala Mohotha’ to international audiences – it is now one of the most requested wedding songs in the island.
He won the prestigious Sarasaviya Awards for his lyrics on two occasions for his stunning compositions.
Karunaratne Abeysekera has the distinction of creating history in the world of radio by being the first ever Sinhala cricket commentator over the airwaves of Radio Ceylon. He commentated on matches played by Ceylon against visiting English, Indian and Australian sides from the 1950s – 1970s. He also commentated on the well-known school cricket matches like the annual Royal-Thomian cricket match, the oldest unbroken cricket match in South Asia.
Karunaratne Abeysekera had to devise cricket terminology to describe cricketing actions of batsmen and bowlers – this was unchartered territory in terms of Sinhala language – his words to describe various aspects of cricket are used to this day, by present day Sinhala cricket commentators.
I have vivid memories of Karunaratne Abeysekera who was a frequent visitor to our home when we lived in Maha Nuge Gardens in Colombo in the 1960s and 1970s. Karu and my father, Vernon Corea, were very close friends – it was hugely productive broadcasting relationship and they collaborated with each other on various projects – both broadcasters were men of ideas and when met it was creative explosion.
“Vernon! I’ve got an idea,” he would say, striding into our home in that confident style of his. They would stay together – late into night, thrashing out their ideas – the end product would be a radio programme, a script, a radio jingle or a show in English and in Sinhala.
The Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation has named Studio 5 to remember the giant of Sinhala broadcasting.
Sri Lanka lost a broadcasting genius when Karunaratne Abeysekera died in 1983 but his legacy, his lyrics, his words live on.