This Master's Voice

For the children of Batticaloa living amidst mine blasts and gun shots, the voice of this story teller seems to be the only means to keep them vibrant and alive to their culture. MurugaverlMahasenan speaks to "master" Sivalingam:

Master Sivalingam

As Ratnam Sivalingam and I walked along the eerie streets of Batticaloa town, everyone literally everyone who passed by, especially children, smiled and waved at him.

Swarming around the storyteller

When we reached the school verandah where he teaches, children swarmed around him demanding a story then and there.

The grown ups in the town respect him and pass by with a smile of recognition. The little ones just love him. They come to him as if they had a right over him, and they also feel, it seemed, that it is his duty to tell them a story.

"Tell us a story," the children demanded, when we went to meet the school principal.

"Finish your exams first," he replied with affection.

"We have finished our exams today," they all shouted in chorus.

"Then I will tell you stories from tomorrow ," he replied.

"When are you going to tell us the next story, uncle?" seemed to be the question that every child asked as we walked towards the Batticaloa public library, where we were to have the interview.

This small-made 65-year-old man dressed in a white national dress popularly known as "master" Sivalingam, doesn't seem to be real. He seems to be a character out of a fairy tale. Known to everybody, loved by everybody, in a small town where everything is not what it seems to be. It is popularity of its own kind, not like that of film stars or cricket stars. It is very personal.

Then we went to the library auditorium where we sat and talked. I didn't ask any questions, I just allowed him to tell me whatever came into his mind.

"I was born into a family where all the members took up teaching. My father N. Ratnam was a famous teacher in Manjaththoduvai.

"So you see it was a family of teachers. Both my brothers are teachers. And teachers commanded a lot of respect those days. So what happened? People started to call me 'Master' (since I came from a family of teachers) even before I had completed my secondary education, when I was still a student," he laughed.

Master Sivalingam is a story teller. He became famous as a story teller for children through the radio programme for children.

Perhaps he must be the only officially appointed story teller in the whole island. Today he tells stories at the Batticaloa Public library in the evenings for kids. He also tells stories at 25 other community centres and primary schools in and around Batticaloa town. Above all he was famous for his stories on radio and now on Rupavahini.

He still gratefully remembers the former Batticaloa GA Benedict Thasisius who had encouraged him and appointed him as Story Teller at the Batticaloa public library. He also teaches literature in schools.

He says he enjoys the job.

I asked him how much he is paid for all the teaching and "story telling".

"About Rs. 2500 a month," he said.

Born in 1933 Mr. Sivalingam had his education at Sivananda Vidyalayam in Batticaloa. After his secondary education he joined Chinthamani-Thinapathi as a sub editor in the late 60s and worked there for 17 years till the 1983 pogrom. He was also in charge of the childrenÕs page of Chinthamani .

Working at the newspaper also gave him the opportunity to write. He became very popular among the little readers in no time.

It was during this period that he got his real break, when he was introduced to the ChildrenÕs weekly Magazine programme of the Tamil Service of the SLBC.

"I was known for my mimicry well before that, even during my school days, in the locality," Mr. Sivalingam said.

"There was this school function where Kundrakkudy Adihal came from India. This was when I was only about 14 years old and I imitated his speech. He was delighted and blessed me."

"I was involved in Villuppaddu and drama too. Started in 1960 and by 1967 I had staged about 100 of them and during the last 30 years I have staged more than 125."

"I was honoured by the Batticaloa community which conferred on me the title Villisai Mannan."

He has been honoured everywhere he went. No wonder his honorary titles seem to be endless. Because he is a multi talented artiste-Bow songster (villisai), actor, story narrator, writer and orator and a real master in all of them.

"But I consider above all these the real happiness that appears on the children's faces when they see me and when they listen to my stories as the most valuable," he said.

He entertains kids in an area where electricity is irregular, life is precarious and anything can happen to anybody at anytime, where people live in constant fear. His voice seems to be the only solace for children. His stories are loud and clear amidst the shell blasts and gunfire.

His entrance to the mass media too was an interesting incident. When he went for the audition at the SLBC the Director gave him a sarcastic look as if to say what can this fragile looking little man do?

"But the moment he heard my mimicry he wanted me to sign a contract," he reminisced.

But he is not just a mimicry artiste. I think he is probably the most loved radio host as well as the most loved and famous story teller we ever had. His talent for narrating stories to children with all the sound effects-all made with his voice and sometimes with the aid of discarded coconut shells-is unsurpassable.

When TV was introduced to the country he was invited to tell stories for children.

"Television is not like other media Its power is tremendous and it gives you room for facial expressions too. I really enjoy it," he says.

Up till now he has presented more than 25 programmes on Rupavahini. "Even now every month I go to Colombo for recording," he says.

"You know I realised the power of this medium when this incident took place," he continued with another anecdote.

"When the Government forces recaptured the Batticaloa area we were issued with a special identity card. While I was waiting in the queue to register my name-my son too was with me- suddenly an officer-a Sinhalese-who was also engaged in issuing the cards came running to me. He seemed to be highly excited. In broken Tamil he said:

"Sir, I see you on Rupavahini. You tell stories to children no. I no understand Tamil but I love to watch it. I understand the story. We in our family all watch it. You not stand here. Come."

"And he took me bypassing all the others to the counter."

Mr. Sivalingam is also a children's writer. Last year his book Anbu Thantha Parisu won the Sahithya Academy prize for children's literature. Another book Payankara Iravukal is due this month.

A journalist, former Editor of Chinthamani/Thinapathi and Editor of Chudamani S. Sivanayagam said Mr. Sivalingam was a genius.

He has been telling stories for three generations. In Batticaloa people of all ages can be seen listening to his narrations spellbound. Children, mothers and grandparents. They all love his stories.

Another point is that he takes stories from great epics like Ramayanam and Mahabaratham. "Personally he is also a great friend to everybody," Mr. Sivanayakam concluded.

Before I left for Batticaloa I met another senior journalist who had worked with him at Independent Newspapers.

"He himself becomes a small child when he starts to tell a story," he recollected.

It seemed to become true. Towards the end of our little chat he offered to do some of his old performances exclusively for me, all alone in the library auditorium. What astonished me is that he still remembers word to word all that he had memorised in the 60s

"All this talent is God's gift, I personally believe that He gave me this skill," he said winding up our chat.

As we walked out of the library it was noon and the kindergartens were just over. And it was a pleasant sight to see the children swarming around him for stories because he is one of the rare people who keep alive this ancient Eastern tradition.