H.M: a gentle human being, ornament of the media

Sunil Sarath Perera
Translated by Malinda Seneviratne

Yet another exceptional human being passed away last week. He was known to the entire country by his initials. He was, simply, "H.M". H.M’s death veritably shook the entire media world. H. M. Gunasekera's journey, which began in the Medagampattu Korale in the Uva-Wellasa, ended in the Borella Kanatte. It was an eventful journey which was characterised by a certain vision and dedication, and one which was infused with meaning. Even as the years etched his physical frame with time’s weary signature, his eloquence never abated. His intense eyes and winsome smile will live with us forever.

The image of the successful media person is rarely found in books on the subject. It is much easier to recognise this individual through H.M’s personage. A successful media personality has to be endowed with certain attributes. Among these, knowledge, wisdom, a critical eye, language skill, integrity and familiarity with modern technology are paramount. H.M. was abundantly blessed with these. I believe his own words reflect his vision and his wisdom.

"Media freedom is not an idea that resides outside values, national responsibility and humanity. By developing a self-governing structure within each particular media institution so that such things flourish, a situation can be created where the media is made impervious to outside interference. The persuit of material gain or popularity, on the other hand, can only bring discredit to the particular media person as well as to the institution for which he/she works."

After gaining independence the radio played a major role in the matter of nation building. This, I believe, is something which deserves study. H.M. Gunasekera Karunaratne Abeysekera Prabha Ranatunge Nanda Jayamanna Sarath Wimalaweera among others who joined the pioneer radio announcers D.M. Colombage and Thevis Guruge, expended immense energy to sow the seeds of a vision where freedom was the first and foremost objective. (Although M.D. Gunapala was hired as an announcer, his services were later directed to the tape-storage unit).

H.M. Gunasekera was an accomplished announcer. In fact he joined the broadcasting filed as an announcer. He had that rare ability to present in the simplest form that which was most complex and deep. He could win the attention of the listener with the very first words he spoke. Deciding beforehand how to start a story and how to end it no doubt explains this.

One of the most striking qualities that H.M. brought into his work was his knowledge of research-based communications. This is even evident in presentation he did while working for the Sandeshaya programme of the BBC. An example would be the numerous discussions with Sri Lankans living in the UK which he organised. On one occasion he interviewed Leonard Woolf, the author of Beddegama, who was very old at that time. I have with me a photograph taken of H.M. in conversation with Woolf. Prof. Wimal Dissanayake, who is not a world renown authority on mass communication, once told me that he learnt that it was from H.M. that he obtained the practical knowledge on the subject.

In our conversations, H.M. has time and again stressed the importance of electronic media as well as research. In fact H.M. was wont to experiment and explore the contours of his field when he was Assistant Director of the Training Institute of the Broadcasting Corporation (1968) and as the Director of the training unit of Rupavahini (1987). Even today, the handbook for training people in the media, jointly produced with Stewart Wevell, is still regarded as an authoratative work. H.M. went on to produce another book which included information pertaining to the print and electronic media in the region when he was appointed as the Media Instructor of the Frederick Ebert Institute.

"Developmental mass communication" is a subject that has drawn wide attention over the past three decades or so, especially within the media sector. H.M’s innovations, his experimentations in creating a communications framework suitable for us to foster national development remain important landmarks in the field. It was around 1972 that a development unit was started in the SLBC. Oswald Thilakeratne was the acting Director of this unit. H.M. was appointed as the Assistant Director. There was also a set of producers who were taken aboard. Cyril Rajapakse, Bertie Galahitiyawa, Palitha Perera, D.S. Dayaratne, and Jinasena Yakupitiya were the first set of producers. They were later joined by Lucian Bulathsinhala and Bandula Withanage.

This team produced a number of development programmes which quickly became very popular because of the balance achieved between development and entertainment. It was also significant that special shows were arranged in rural areas since the kind of development that the programmes promoted was village-centred.

I had the opportunity to participate in a recording that took place in a livestock farm in Somawathie Villuva. We took a boat up the Mahaweli to do the recording. Even today a certain sense of fear envelops me when I recall the adventure of our boat going out of control due to strong currents. It was H.M. who guided and encouraged this particular programme.

H.M’s contribution to television, after it was introduced to this country, is also remarkable. In 1981 he was appointed as the Director of Programmes of ITN. He always wanted to develop a television station that was marked by a national ethos. He got the opportunity to engage in this project in a more concerted way when he was appointed the Deputy Director General, Rupavahini, in 1983. During this time, he invited me to the Rupavahini station. When I went there I found him in a scatily furnished room. There was only a desk and a chair and H.M. had already started work. H.M. Gunasekera, the man, was clearly evident in that room.

I once had to go to the main control room of the Rupavahini Corporation. My attention was promptly drawn to the visuals of the Israel-Palestine Accord. Knowing well the historic significance of the moment and the importance of relaying the images arriving from the White House immediately, I went to obtain help from Edwin Ariyadasa and H.M in order to write the Sinhala descriptions. It was his maturity and quick mind that enabled H.M, without any preparation whatsoever, to do the needful in the few minutes that it took Mr. Ariyadasa to get there. He quickly gave an expert run down of the main protagonists and the history of the conflict.

The Udarata Menike Environmental Excursion was an educational programme of the Environment Ministry, where several railway carraiges were transformed into mobile classrooms in a train that went from Colombo to Kandy. It was H.M. that directed this programme. It was an occasion when not just the students but even I benefitted from the wealth of experience that H.M. had gathered as a teacher and as a media person.

H.M. Gunasekera is a communicator who strived relentlessly to raise the sensibilities of the nation to another level. "Irida Sangrahaya" is a programme which comes to mind at this point. He would explicate a Tagore poem and discussed the musical qualities of a western song with consummate ease and as always in the simplest of terms. It was through Irida Sangrahaya that Suchitra Mitra’s "Atna Chalo" song and Amaradeva’s "Chando ma bilinde numba nadang" arrived and settle down in our undying memories.

Later, I attempted to turn "Atna Chalo" into a comprehensive life-work for Rupavahini with the assistance of H.M, and the late Ravilal Wimaladharma. H.L. had a great lover for Tagore and Bengali music.

H.M. Gunasekera was a practical media person. He was never hesitant in moving with the changing times. And yet he always remained a person who respected tradition. This was perhaps the secret of his success. He understood how to protect and nurture tradition and cultural identity in the face of a modernising world. He has often poetically expressed his vision through the Irida Sangrahaya thus:

"Open the doors and windows of your house to the winds that come from all directions, but never allow any object in your house to be carried away in these winds."

Dear H.M, may you once again be born among us, in this blessed land.