Long before Arnab Goswami screamed his opinion on Republic TV, long before cricketers such as Dhoni and Tendulkar touted myriad products on TV, long before another mother-in-law and daughter-in-law duo sparred on yet another teary soap-opera spinoff and if you can dare imagine, long before the dirge that served as Doordarshan’s signature tune ushered in the day’s program with an air of melancholy, there was a dignified, comforting, refined companion in every Indian house – the radio.
Serving as a window to the outside world, the radio occupied a pride of place in Indian households. Our radio sat atop our Godrej almirah (steel cupboard), yet another prized Indian household staple. An antenna was strung across the hall and the radio was our companion throughout the day. Two broadcasting stations dominated the airwaves, Radio Ceylon and All India Radio.
Radio Ceylon as the name indicates was broadcast from Sri Lanka. Established in the 1920s, it became popular in India in the 1950s when it started broadcasting popular Hindi songs. “Binaca Geetmala”, (Garland of songs) sponsored by the toothpaste brand Binaca) was immensely popular. Compered by Ameen Sayani, it was a countdown of popular Hindi songs and it had a long run, I remember listening to its later incarnation “Cibaca Geetmala” in the 1970s and 1980s.
All India Radio (AIR), also known as Akashvani (Voice from the Heavens) was established in the 1930s. Hindi songs were banned on AIR in the early 1950s and Radio Ceylon quickly stepped in to fill the void by playing popular Hindi songs. The all-knowing government mandarins probably felt that radio was not meant for frivolous music but for education and classical music. Realizing the loss in sponsorship revenue as well as listenership, in the late 1950s, AIR established “Vividh Bharati” (Diverse Indian) to combat Radio Ceylon. It quickly grew in popularity with a diverse set of programs. The Posts & Telegraph department initially charged an annual license fee for a radio. We had one of these licenses lying around at home. A blue booklet whose cover had a sketch of a broadcasting tower with concentric radio waves emanating from it.
Our day started at 7 am with devotional songs on Vividh Bharati and switched to Radio Ceylon at 7:30 am. This was the “Purani Filmon Ka Sangeet” (Songs from Old Movies) program. This thirty-minute program played some fantastic gems. It was an ideal way to get the day started. I would be getting ready for school and if KL Saigal’s song came on, it meant I was late for my bus and I would have to hurry to the bus stop. Each day, one of Saigal’s songs was played at roughly 7:57 am and would end at 8 am marking the end of the program. On the first of each month, the program would start off with the Kishore Kumar classic “Khush hai Zamana, aaj pehli tareek hai” (The world is happy since it is the first of the month). This lovely song is an ode to the first of each month which incidentally is also payday and chronicles what various people would do with their salaries.
After that, it was time to switch to Vividh Bharati’s “Bhoole Bisre Geet” (Forgotten Songs) to listen to old Hindi songs once again. This ended at 8:30 am and for the next hour, newer Hindi songs were played. My mother would turn off the radio roughly at 9:30 am. The radio would then stay silent until the afternoon when it was time for “Man Chahey Geet” (Songs that the mind desires) at 1 pm. This was a request program where listeners could send in their requests. Jhumri Thelaiya, a small mining town in Jharkhand rose into prominence and people’s consciousness since a majority of requests for songs on Radio Ceylon and Vividh Bharati originated from this small town.
At 2:30 pm, it was time for “Geet” or private songs. This program was dedicated to non-filmi songs, a small genre of Hindi songs that were privately recorded and not part of a movie. This was where I listened to classics penned by a little known lyricist called Madhukar Rajasthani. These songs were sung by Talat Mahmood, Mohammed Rafi, Manna Day, Hemant Kumar and Mukesh, stalwarts and legends of the Hindi music world. At 3 pm, it was time for “Lok Sangeet” or folk tunes. We did not enjoy this music and we would turn off the radio.
It would be switched on at 6:30 pm again and now it was the local AIR station playing Kannada songs. Songs that were sung by P.B. Sreenivas, Sowcar Janaki and Dr. Rajkumar. Lovely songs from the 1970s and 1980s. In fact, my knowledge and choice of Kannada songs are stuck in a time warp of this era, reflecting the period during which I listened to the radio. At 7:05 pm, it was time for “Jaimala” (Victory garland) which was a request program for the armed forces. It was wonderful to listen to the names of far-flung places on the Indian frontier from which soldiers sent in their request. In my mind’s eye, I imagined our brave soldiers on the Himalayan frontiers, settling into their tents with the radio playing the songs that they requested.
The Hindi news was at 8:45 pm. I remember my dad listening to it especially when the budget was announced. I am pretty sure there was an English version of the news but I may be wrong. I think it was “Hawa Mahal” (Palace of Winds) at 9:30 pm and it was followed by “Chaya Geet” at 10 pm. Based on a theme, such as romance, the compere who is today known as the RJ would select a theme and then play songs based on a theme. I would drift off to sleep roughly at 10:15 pm, so I rarely heard the entire program.
While this was the normal routine, there were other programs too. The standout, of course, was the “Fauji Jaimala” program. Compered by a famous person, usually, somebody connected to the Film or Sports world, this program was dedicated to the armed forces. It would be telecast on Saturday at 7:05 pm and followed again on Sunday at 3 pm. Here the comperes would speak about themselves and play their favorite songs. They would start off by addressing the armed forces. I remember programs hosted by Sunil Gavaskar, Naushad, Amitabh Bachchan and OP Nayyar amongst others. Naushad played Saigal’s famous lullaby “Soja Rajkumari” and remarked that as Saigal sang this lullaby, he himself went off to sleep forever. The other program was the one dedicated to English songs and was broadcast on Vividh Bharati at noon on Sundays. The station had a limited set of records and the songs were repeated after every few weeks!
The normal routine was interrupted whenever India played a test match. It was time for commentary! I remember listening to matches broadcast at all hours from England, West Indies or Australia. These matches were brought to life by Suresh Saraiya, Anant Setalvad, Vijay Merchant, Dicky Rutnagar, Shanta Rangaswamy and other commentators. The legendary commentator Bobby Talyarkhan had retired in the early 1970s and I never heard him on the radio though I did watch an interview with him on TV years later. A radio commentator has to paint a picture for the listener via his words. The field placement was described as the bowler started at the top of his runup followed by the delivery, description of the stroke and the number of runs taken. It was hard to visualize forward short leg, silly mid-off, deep square leg, third man and other fielding positions. My dad brought home a sheet of paper that had the fielding positions marked out and I followed it as the commentator described the field positions. I remember listening to the commentary on the final day of the 1979 test match at the Oval when chasing an improbable 438 to win, India made it to 429 for the loss of 8 wickets. Riding on Gavaskar’s 221, India fell agonizingly short. Kapil Dev, the one person who could have hastened India to victory was out for 0. Syed Kirmani had been dropped for the test, Bharath Reddy replacing him. I remember going to bed in tears, unfairly blaming Bharath Reddy for not managing to take us to victory. There was an educational aspect to the radio commentary. Like many others, I learned to count in Hindi upto a hundred by following the runs scored on Hindi cricket commentary.
On my recent visit home, I went through my father’s photograph albums. Buried amongst the pictures of yesteryears were a couple of pictures that brought home to me the place of the radio in people’s lives. There was one of his brother tuning the radio with his cousin close by. Another one with my year-old brother perched on my cousin’s lap with our Murphy radio in the background. Adorning the wall of our bedroom here in the US is an old picture of my wife, who all of 3 years, is posing with the radio in her house. The radio was a set-piece around which pictures were taken! In fact, the radio and record player formed a team and radiograms were constructed to house them. My dad’s uncle had a radiogram constructed to house his Nordmende radio and Garrard record player. This magnificent piece was gifted to us in the late eighties and I took care of it until I left for the US. Incidentally, my dad recalls in the early forties, his paternal uncle who was a doctor in what was then the British Indian Army was on the front for about 5 years. His family heard from him via a solitary message through a radio program meant for the armed forces.
As I browsed through the pictures, I reflected on the fact that the advent of the tape-recorder into our house in 1985 spelled the death-knell of the radio. I could now listen to songs of my choice, especially English songs that could not be heard on the radio. It was the television though that was the final nail in the coffin. This brash newcomer with visuals consigned the old trusted friend to the dustbin of history. Our radio, a “Murphy” as my dad would proudly inform people was unceremoniously dispatched to the loft and it has stayed there for about 25 years now.
Last week, while on a visit to India, I brought the radio down from the loft. I dusted it and placed it on the coffee table in our living room. It brought back a flood of memories. Of hurried school mornings, of lazy summer afternoons and of study holidays during exams when the radio was a constant companion. Of nights when the lights were off and we would turn on the radio. It would take a little time for the radio to warm up, the lights from the valves would flicker on and as they became steady, they would filter out of the vents provided at the back of the radio for cooling and paint a pattern on the wall behind. The static of distant stations as we tuned the radio. Of occasional afternoons when it was my job to clean the radio. I would unplug it, take it outside and unscrew the back. A lizard would usually have taken residence and I would have to shoo it off. The valves provided warmth in the cold. On the rare occasion when eggs were deposited on the inside, I would have to scrape them off. When the interior was dusted clean, I would screw the back on and then place the radio back on the Godrej almirah.
Pocket Transistors were popular for a while especially with cricket fans who could listen to the match commentary while they were on the move. We had a transistor radio at home. However it took 4 batteries and it was a novelty that was seldom used.
I missed the golden era of the radio in the US. I do listen to NPR every day, but it is on the car radio. The importance of the radio was brought home to me when I bought a book called “We Interrupt This Broadcast”. This book comes with a companion CD which contains broadcasts of historic events such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the D-day invasion of Normandy, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the Apollo moon landings. When I moved to South Florida in the mid-nineties, I would visit a store called Faith Farm that sold a lot of used furniture among other items. My focus was on the LPs but I would come across a gaggle of radio sets, enclosed in ornate housings. These were no doubt owned by retirees and were probably donated either by them or their children when they passed on. I was tempted to buy one of them but I never did, somewhat to my regret now.
As I dusted our old Murphy radio, I unscrewed its back to peer inside for old times sake. To my good fortune, there was no lizard lurking in there. I replaced the back and hopefully plugged the radio and turned it on. The radio did not come to life. I made a video call to my wife and showed her the radio sitting in the middle of the living room in Bangalore. “I hope you are not planning on bringing that back with you?” she asked suspiciously. I replied that the thought had crossed my mind but it was not feasible. I did bring back a souvenir though, the “Saregama Carvaan”, a tribute to the radio. A flash drive that holds 5000 Hindi songs housed in a retro body.
As the radio went back to its place in the loft, I wondered what attraction it held for me. When I was younger, it was just a means for me to listen to my favorite songs. These songs are freely available now and I don’t need a radio to listen to them. I think the attraction stems from the memories of my childhood. Of a carefree life, Saturday evenings reading a James Herriot while the aromas of my mother’s cooking wafted in from the kitchen. Of a young boy listening intently to cricket commentary on the radio with his older brother who would explain the subtle nuances of the game. The thrill of listening to a favorite song which was requested by other listeners. A kinship forged with strangers based on individual memories of a song. Of my dad who would reminisce of his days in Hubli and Bombay when an old favorite came on. Of my mother who sang along to songs on the radio. She would impart bits of trivia to us such as the English original of a Hindi song that was currently playing on the radio. She, along with my father, imparted a strong love of music to me and my brother. Memories that I hold dear and will long remember. The radio was a childhood friend, we just went our separate ways but the shared memories linger.
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