Back in the golden days of radio, radio jockeys defined the sound of generations, giving voice to everything from soccer matches to live telecasts of National Day parades and radio dramas. Re Somasundaram, a former drama artiste, producer and director, is most commonly recognised as a radio jockey. He shared his thoughts on the art of radio and stage drama, giving us a rare glimpse into the entertainment of yesteryear in a voice familiar to Tamil listeners for 32 years.
Re stepped into the world of radio jockeying in 1979 when he came across a newspaper advertisement for the position put up by the Public Service Commission. At that time, he was working various transient part-time jobs. To his surprise, out of 200 applicants jockeying for the post, Re made it to the final shortlist of 3, before making the cut at the final interview.
Together with the other successful applicant, P.N Balasubramaniam, he commenced his career as a radio jockey on 1 June 1979 with the Indian Services of Radio Television Singapore (RTS) , now known as Oli 96.8FM.
Re at the old National Stadium where the National Day parade was held in 1999. Photo courtesy of Re Somasundaram
Before joining the radio station, Re was a part-time actor whose interest in dramas sparked his desire to become a radio jockey. With his bold vocals and good Tamil enunciation, he was slated to appear on air alongside big stars by producers like Ramaya, P. Krishnan and M K Narayanan.
In the pre-radio days, Re used write his own stage dramas and act in them together with his friends. This put him in good stead when he later became a producer, writing his own scripts and directing his own dramas.
Re starred as the hero in the Singapore Indian Art Society’s (of which he was a founding member) first stage drama, a two and a half hours long show titled “Kalyanamam Kalyanam” (“Marriage is Marriage” in Tamil). By Re’s reckoning, the show was such a success that it was staged six times.
Old Mediacorp Radio Building. Image courtesy of Onedash22
Back in the 1970s, it was difficult to entice people to attend stage dramas as tickets cost between $3 to $5 – a considerable amount in those days – and staging a drama also required full commitment for about six months. However, Re revealed that radio dramas were relatively difficult to put together as well. In fact, he found stage dramas easier because actors were given more time to read their scripts and rehearse, whereas radio dramas had to be produced within a day. The artistes would be given the scripts at 6pm, after which a rehearsal would be conducted at 8pm, and recording would commence just half an hour later.
“So right before the recording, I will inform the artists on their roles and also (place) emphasis on their voice modulation because emotions such as sadness and happiness should be portrayed constantly. Some artists cannot get the modulation right so I will have to teach them,” Re explained as he mimicked crying and laughing.
Back then, the difficulties of booking a studio and editing the recording made it necessary to get everything done within a day. Before the advent of the digital age, which allowed mistakes to be deleted instantaneously, recording was done with spool tapes. This meant that mistakes had to be manually cut out, and the remaining tapes held together with masking tape. Editing was a painstaking process, and if an artist made a mistake during the recording, he or she would have to correct it immediately.
“That is why we would always warn the artists to act out with minimal mistakes before the recording,” he explained. “We would only feature the really good ones on radio.”
While the work was tedious, they felt the rewarding glow of satisfaction for all the hard work they put in when the dramas were broadcasted. To date, Re has produced over 1000 dramas for radio, and has acted in about 500 to 600 himself.
Re at the 20th SEA Games in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, 1999. Photo Courtesy of Re Somasundaram
Among his myriad experiences, live telecasting is Re’s most unforgettable. Along with P. Krishnan and Cecelia Sundaram, he was chosen to do the National Day live telecast for almost 14 years; their ability to converse fluently in Tamil made them a prime choice for the job. This required their timing to be in sync, which called for many rehearsals. Audiences tuning in to the radio would not be watching the parade on television, so they had to be spot-on with descriptions. Re recalled the rush of emotions that the National Day Parade would unleash in them.
“When it came to the fireworks, all our emotions would run wild during live telecast. We would even get chills down our spines, mainly due to patriotism towards our nation,” he shared.
Perhaps it was precisely the candid expression of emotions and modulations in voice that was pivotal in connecting with listeners.
Football was another such event that inspired spontaneity among live commentators. Re joined Palanisamy and Peter in giving live commentary for football matches, and this required them to be versed in football tactics. It was difficult not to get swept up in the excitement of the match.
“We would get over excited and anticipate a goal by shouting ‘GOOOAAL’ over radio even before the ball enters the net,” he explained. “Live commentary was very popular among the audience.”
Re recalled an instance during the 1990s, when Singapore was tied with Pahang at the Malaysia Cup finals at Kuala Lumpur stadium. He, together with Palanisamy, were covering the live commentary for that match, which required them to send every half an hour of commentary to their radio station in Singapore, where it would be edited and sent back to them.
The match was heating up with only 10 minutes left to the end, and Re and Palanisamy were on their toes with anticipation. They were supposed to send in their live commentary at 9.30pm in order to make the 10pm news. However, the station did not send any prompts, and the two of them got so carried away by the match that they forgot to send their commentary over. It was only when they received a call from the station at 10.05pm that they realised their mistake and scrambled to send their recording over.
Re during the filming of the SMP interview with his son Karthik. Image courtesy of Onedash22
“We told the truth that we got excited over the match and missed the news timing. They gave us a warning for us not to repeat this mistake again,” he said. “That was another unforgettable incident.”
With his coverage of popular events, he was called to do live reports for the Southeast Asian (SEA) games together with Peter. Being involved in giving live updates for the SEA games twice has taken him to Jakarta and Brunei. The work itself was demanding – they would spend the whole day interviewing and hanging around athletes from other nations – but, because of their interest in sports, they never found their work taxing.
While he enjoyed his work, he singled out the main reason he wanted to join the radio station – to interview cinema stars, which gave him access to his idols on a much more personal level. Describing it as a dream come true, he has interviewed the likes of TM Soundarajan, T Rajendran, Suganya and KJ Jesudas.
Re shared a particularly poignant experience when he interviewed T Rajendran, a Kollywood (Tamil cinema industry) multi-hyphenate famed for his ‘80s Tamil blockbusters and songs. Characteristically, his movies frequently involve a common role of a younger sister in distress. When Re asked him about his sister, T Rajendran started tearing up with emotion; his sister, whom he was very attached to, had run away from home before, and the memory was still tender. Apart from his wife and mother, he treated all women as he did his sister.
“He got so lost in the moment that he started singing and hitting beats on the table while being on air! All I asked him was why he gave much of importance to his sister and also to sister roles in his movies. I got slightly disheartened that I hurt him but at the same time, I was delighted that I could bring this out for the audience to listen to,” he shared.
Additionally, audience involvement in radio shows was popular at the time, and Re would open up the line for the audience and fans to call in to speak to him.
“So those who called in, started consoling T Rajendran! That show was going on for almost one hour,” he said.
Apart from greater personal connection, audience participation also meant that more specific interests could be addressed. An interview with T M Soundarajan brought greater insight into stage craft and recording.
Re with the chief news editor at the radio auditorium, 6 June 1988. He had been moved to the news team on Oli 96.8FM. Image courtesy of Re Somasundaram
“One particular question was ‘Why does he sing differently on stage compared to recordings with many different variations?’” he recounted. “T M Soundarajan’s answer was very simple: “What is the point of me singing a song on stage as how it is in the recording? You might as well play the recording without me on stage!””
While Re has gotten up close and personal with stars, he remains in awe of their talents and has deep respect for their dedication to their craft.
“Those artists are so gifted, almost like God sent them just to serve through music. They have mind blowing vocals and give different texture to different actors for the songs they feature in,” he praised.
Re at a children’s storytelling competition by Oli 96.8FM at the Tamil Newsroom, 3 March 1994. He was one of the judges. Image courtesy of Re Somasundaram
His passion for the arts and for developing artists is apparent in his long, ongoing involvement in the arts – he is currently directing three 30-minute shows to be screened at the Tamil Language Festival, as well as mentoring young artists. Not one to slow down, he became President of the Indian Arts Society after he retired; his full-time involvement in the society had given him many opportunities to direct dramas. Members included top artists like Gunaseelan and David Bala, who blossomed while being a part of the society.
“I have taught them acting before, and now David Bala has passed on and Gunaseelan is doing very well in the industry,” Re said.
Re’s intuitive knack for spotting talent charted a path for Mathiazhagan, a popular artist in the local industry who looks to Re as a father figure. Re was a pivotal figure in encouraging Mathiazhagan during his acting journey, having taken note of him at a stage drama when he was in Secondary Three.
Re at the Brunei Sports Stadium, doing a live report for the SEA games on 9 September 1999. Image courtesy of Re Somasundaram
“I told him that he has all it takes to be a top artist in acting. Till now he always remembers those moments and shares it with me. With all my experiences, I cultivated the interest to nurture and grow young talents. Even now I am still doing that,” he said.
Perhaps true to his radio jockey roots and his reverential love for the Tamil language, he helps current artists not only with their acting but their command of Tamil and voice modulation.
“Tamil language is not as simple as it seems. The beauty of our language lies in the pronunciation and voice modulation,” he said.
The drama industry has evolved significantly from three decades ago. Re recalled how difficult it was to get a show running when he was a young. Interestingly, it was tough to get female artists, because women back then did not often open up to acting in dramas. Therefore, male artists would disguise themselves as females to act in female roles. Television has changed that.
“Nowadays, television plays a big part in this industry having both male and female artists. In that context, I would love to rope in these young artists into stage and television dramas and build upon our arts foundation in Singapore,” he explained.
With the advent of social media, and advancements in technology that makes the promotion of productions easy and accessible, Re is hopeful that a future in media looks bright for artists of the future.
“I think it is a good path for youngsters because as technology booms, we need to keep up with it and it is not right to always dwell on the past.”
Perhaps the golden age of stage dramas in the 1950s and ‘60s, and radio dramas in their heyday, has come and gone, but artistry can only get better in the spirit of pioneering artists like Re, with their unquenchable passion and dedication to their craft.
Written by: LY Kang
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