Remembering A ‘Man of the People’
Exactly three months ago, on 25 July, Rajendran Rajamahendran, who was one of the most influential individuals in the business field in Sri Lanka, and later in the field of Media and communication, passed away, leaving a vacuum in all whose lives he had touched. In politics, Media, and commerce he was known as Kili Maharaja. His name was synonymous with the Sirasa Media Network. At the time of his demise, Rajamahendran was 78 years. He was born on 19 May 1943. It was Rajamahendran who was in the forefront of the field of communication in Sri Lanka as well as in commerce during the past 60 years. He was a revolutionary in this regard.
Unlike the Maharajas of India who spread their power based on hundreds of thousands of farming folk, there was a ‘Maharaja’ within this amazing man who stood up on behalf of people and their needs. The Capital Maharaja Group goes as far back as the colonial era. In 1930, two friends, one from Moolai in Jaffna, Subramaniam Mahadevan and the other from Kokkuvil, Sinnathamby Mahadevan arrived in Colombo in search of jobs.
They got jobs in two associated American companies named L.D. Seymous and Dodge and Seymour. With the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, the owners of these two companies sold their shares to these two ambitious young men and returned to their country. This was the first-ever recorded ‘management buyout’ of shares in Sri Lanka. They changed the name to ‘L.D. Seymous Company Mahadevan Limited’ and commenced producing Union Carbide and Eveready Batteries. The Dodge and Seymour Company name was changed to Rajendrans Limited.
They represented Parker Pens, Quink Ink, ColgatePalmolive, Yale products, Champion Spark Plugs and Thermos Flasks. Maharaja Distributors (ICL) commenced business in 1940 as a subsidiary company of Mahadevan Limited. They were local representatives for a number of goods. When Mahadevan passed away in 1957, he did not have any children. S. Rajendran became the owner of both companies. In 1957, S. Rajendran introduced to Sri Lanka for the first time the use of PVC water pipes. It was Rajendran who launched the first S-lon pipes factory and the Parker Quink Ink Factory in 1958.
In 1962, he began producing ICL cosmetics and in 1963 he commenced factories manufacturing cutex, lipstick and nail polish. In 1964, he began producing Forhans and Orafoam Toothpastes. Founder of the Maharaja Group of Companies Sinnathamby Rajendran passed away in 1966. Rajendran Rajamahendran, his son became the owner of the Group from then. The Maharaja Organisation was established on 1 April 1966 with the amalgamation of Mahadevans Limited, Rajendrans Limited and Maharaja Distributors. From then, the Maharaja Organisation developed by leaps and bounds.
Among the services of the Maharaja Organisation was export of raw materials, furniture and they were the first and leading gem and jewellery exporters as well. In 1970, they owned the Allerton Tea Plantation Company as well. When there was a shortage of sugar, they began producing sugarcane jaggery. Maharaja also started importing Renault, Lancia and Cagiva motorcycles. In 1977, President J.R. Jayewardene launched the Greater Colombo Economic Commission and its first investment project which was Prima Wheat Flour Factory in Trincomalee was set up by the Maharaja Organisation. It was in 1978 that the Capital Maharaja Group got involved in technology and set up a system of computers of IBM 36.
The late Rajamahendran was a visionary leader. He foresaw the opportunities in information technology, joined Forex (DSP) of India and set up a brokerage firm. Also, in 1978, he acquired the Hettiarachchi Company and entered the TMOL rubber manufacturing business. By then, the Maharaja Group was the owner of a large number of companies. The racist fires of the notorious Black July in 1983 turned many businesses into ashes. Only two businesses and buildings escaped the carnage. The two businesses were A.F. Jones and the Maharaja Investment Company.
While the smoke from the fires of Black July was still rising in the skies of Colombo on 27 July 1983, Rajamahendran summoned his Board of Directors to the A.F. Jones building on Dawson Street and decided that they would rise again! When the present headquarters at Dawson Street was established, the stimulus and enthusiasm required to commence work, the late Rajamahendran had already put ‘Black July’ on the back burner and instilled into every employee to move on.
He succeeded in bringing back normalcy by May 1985. In 1985, in partnership with the New Zealand Dairy Board, Anchor Milk Powder was introduced to the local market and at that time it was the largest single market. TMOL Tuffline Packaging Company was also launched during the same year. With the purchase of Harrisons and Crossfield group of companies in 1989, Maharaja entered the production and sale of local tea.
It was in 1991 that the Capital Maharaja Organisation entered the communication sector by partnering with Singapore Telecom to set up the MTV channel. The new company was known as TMOL. They were the local agents for Royal Jordanian Airlines and Northwest Airlines and cargo. This was also the year that they joined India’s largest advertising agency Rediffusion T.M.D.L. and opened its offices in Colombo. In 1993, MBC Network, FM Radio Channel was launched. In 1994 through TMOL partnering with Telekom Malaysia, Dialog began operations in Sri Lanka and GSM Technology was introduced to Sri Lanka.
Rajamahendran was appointed Chairman and Managing Director of TMOL in 2001. They succeeded in bringing the Media of this country to a heady start. The shadow behind all this was none other than Rajamahendran. MBC Network Company and MTV Channel (private) company are affiliated companies in the Media division of the Maharaja Organisation. The MBC Network Private Company which is dedicated to radio broadcasting, has five broadcasting centres - Sirasa FM, Shakthi FM, YFM and Legends FM. They own three television channels.
They are Sirasa, Shakthi and TV1. During the past few years there were a number of other companies which joined the Maharaja Organisation. Every one of them turned out to be successful businesses. Rajamahendran’s image is reflected in the Media of this country, through the Sirasa Media which became the voice for the voiceless. The founder of the Gammadda concept for ‘the forgotten people’ of this country was none other than Rajamahendran. Today, villages, hamlets and schoolchildren have found a slot in Gammadda and it is in the forefront of solving their issues where government institutions have turned a blind eye. Rajamahendran had a heart of gold that was sensitive to the masses.
His close associates say that he was deeply moved by the 2004 tsunami. The day after the tsunami, he spoke to his employees and said, “We must halt all our programmes and dedicate ourselves to the welfare of the people.” The ‘Sirasa Sahana Yaathra’ programme was launched on that day. He was so saddened that he was not at rest until the suffering of the people abated. He had a keen eye when working in the Media to which he was so dedicated.
He did not fear to air the common people’s struggles and had no trepidation that he would be sidelined once the shortcomings were exposed. He did not permit his Media institutions to patronise the government in power and took it in his stride to portray the woes of the people. He believed that there was nothing to hide as far as the people were concerned. Some governments disliked Sirasa so much that it was like poison to them. These forces set up claymore mines and detonated them destroying their offices.
Politicians came with thugs and pelted stones at Sirasa. Rajamahendran did not bow down. He kept a steady smile and carried on regardless because to him, it was the people who mattered. From then on Sirasa’s popularity rose and in later years, these same politicians came crawling back to Sirasa to air their grievances. Rajamahendran had the ability to create high calibre Media personnel. He was ready to take the responsibility and urged journalists in his Institution to fearlessly express their views. Whenever there was a clash, he took it on himself to be personally present.
He wanted Media personnel who had a backbone and who did not fear reprisals to be a part of his Media network. Despite his age, he worked from 4:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m. continuously. Rajamahendran was said to be so up-to-date with the news, that many are of the view that he was one-of-a-kind. His knowledge was extensive. As for sports, he put in great effort to raise the standard of cricket by reporting news that would enable sportsmen and those in charge to gain from it. In the aesthetic sense, he had a deep understanding of cinema and literature.
He was the man who encouraged journalists to go out in the open and cover incidents where the public were tear gassed on certain instances or batoncharged. Even when there was a fire he insisted that journalists should go to the scene and film the true picture, so that a live picture could be relayed to viewers. As a result, many Police Officers were exposed for their actions and were brought to book. Unknown to many, he has a vast collection of artistic creations.
He owned many famous paintings. His collection of books are invaluable. Rajamahendran who always worked for the downtrodden left this world without bidding a final goodbye making them shed tears of grief. His death has left an indelible mark on everyone who came into contact with him and even those who did not know him will feel a tinge of sadness because he was a colossus in the Media firmament. Rajamahendran went out the way he lived, for here was a man who was simple and humble and who never wanted any popularity. We think that those whom he helped to build up will follow in his fearless track. Rajamahendran was a revolutionary in the electronic Media firmament in this country and has carved a niche that will be difficult to replicate.