Multiple television and radio channels may have redefined news and entertainment but there is no taking away credit from All India Radio for its pioneering efforts and belief in social responsibility, says DEEPA GANESH as the Bangalore station turns 50
It almost seems like it was not part of this life. The time when as kids we woke up to the instrumental version of "Vande Mataram" and all morning activities revolved around the schedule of All India Radio (AIR) programmes. Brushing, bathing, homework, breakfast... everything kept pace with Geetharadhane, Gaana Vihara, Sangeetha Patha, Pradesha Samachara and even Krishi Ranga. We loved listening to all those words - rasayanika gobbara, reshme chaaki, tali... - opening the unknown world of terminologies to us city-bred kids, a new world in our imagination. How I loved the word banuli for its evocative quality (a voice from heaven that was ever so down to earth!). The Samskrita Varthe, for some reason, tickled us no end.At 7.30 a.m., armed with paper and pen, we tuned into Vividh Bharathi and diligently wrote down every word that was said in Sangeet Saritha. At night, we would quickly finish dinner to catch the national programme of music or the national play.Whether it was MSIL Geethegalu, Hakkiya Balaga or the national integration songs we were on time to listen to them. AIR was quietly shaping our perceptions, widening our cultural horizons and introducing Kannada language dialects to us. Time has flown. AIR has turned 50 and it's a changed scenario. Gone are the days when radio meant AIR. Globalisation and satellite television shook up AIR, enough to give other private stations a run for their money with its own FM channel. AIR realises that competition is tough but is confident that no other channel has its kind of advantage as far as the main station is concerned.
"True, we have gained a lot more visibility because of our FM channels. We want to connect with youngsters and shed our staid image," explains S.S. Hiremath, Station Director. As for competition, "They are mere entertainment channels and nobody has our kind of dedication. We have done so much on the avian flu ever since it broke out. Will the others do it?" AIR moved to Bangalore from Mysore on November 2, 1955. For such a monumental public broadcast service, it almost seems impossible to believe that its beginnings were in the humble premises of M.V. Gopalaswamy, a professor of psychology in Mysore, in 1935. Armed with a ham set, he turned it into a public interest endeavour by inviting the best of litterateurs, musicians and speakers to his house to broadcast on the tiny network. So, technically, the station has a history of over 70 years. Recalling those days, the great poet and storyteller G.P. Rajarathnam, in his article Akashavaniyalli Naanu, said he was indebted to Gopalaswamy who gave him his start by getting him to recite poems and narrate stories for children. It was writers such as Na. Kasturi and A.N. Moorthy Rao who gave the enterprise a shape. Sadly, nobody remembers it was Na. Kasturi who called All India Radio by the poetic name Akashavani. The popularity of this very local network prompted the local municipality to take it over first, and then the Government before it moved to Bangalore. Though 50 years is not a long time in history, for AIR it has been a long journey. In these years, it has reached out to remote corners of the State, has responded to problems of the society and used its powers with responsibility. For instance, in 1961, during the Indo-Chinese war, AIR was flooded with letters and calls from its audience anxious to keep up with the latest happenings. It increased its broadcast time and hooked on to Delhi for frequent relay of national news bulletins.Environmentalists admit that AIR has been instrumental in the country's Green Revolution. Programmes such as Raitarige Salahe, Kutumba Yojane were a big hit with the rural masses. It was no easy task telling the unlettered that children were not a godsend, reasoning with them that even Rama had just two!In an article on Krishiranga, G.R. Gundappa recalls a touching experiencerelating its popular quiz. When on fieldwork, a woman in Periyapatna fell at his feet and said: "I won the quiz and you gave me a calf. I now have four cows which generate 30 litres of milk every day. My family and I are indebted to AIR for life."AIR's science programmes Nisarga Sampada and Sasya Sanjeevini, which taught science through songs, plays and stories became such a phenomenon that the State Government brought out the entire series in cassette form and distributed it to 5,000 schools. It was translated into 18 languages and broadcast from various stations across the country. In fact, the BBC even sent a team to make a study of this series. And commendably, AIR campaigned on its women's programmes against sexual abuse, dowry and atrocities against women.
In an equally committed fashion, AIR has served the cultural arena too, embracing into its fold artistes, with all their eccentricities. It is part of AIR folklore how the legendary sugama sangeeta singer Kalinga Rao turned up for the recording at his own sweet time. Flute maestro T.R. Mahalingam walked out of the studios for a drink in the middle of a live National Programme of Music while T.S. Tatacharya, on violin support, had to fill in the remaining airtime. Though AIR authorities were furious, Director General Narayana Menon, famous for his rapport with artistes, called Mali over and advised him to be a little more temperate. That he didn't is a different story.Times have changed and today's artistes aren't as colourful, thanks to marketing and packaging.As for AIR, "We have changed. Particularly with Prasar Bharathi. We have to re-orient ourselves to the new economy and the Marketing Department is a recent inclusion to AIR. But with all this we haven't changed the basic structure. We continue to be faithful to our loyalists," says Mr. Hiremath.It is probably this unwavering, resolute concern for a people that once made G.P. Rajarathnam say: "Akashavani is the most vital part of my life. I have lived and evolved because of it. It has earned for me the love and affection of millions of people whom I have never seen." Though one cannot claim Rajarathnam's stature, I share his sentiments. But for AIR, mine would have been a cocooned existence.
Voice of the people
There are surely thousands who want to say how grateful they are to AIR. It was probably visionaries like A.M. Natesh, former Station Director, who made the medium so special for an entire community. The driving philosophy, as he clearly spelt it out, was: "Beggars and snake charmers alike, radio should respond to everybody's lifestyle, should have a place for all opinions." Shimoga Subbanna, leading sugama sangeeta singer, has been performing for AIR Bangalore for the last 43 years. He has been listening to it from much before. "It was the only medium that took culture to people. To this day, when I go to AIR, I feel like I'm going to a temple." According to him, the arrival of AIR heralded a cultural revolution in a community where the arts were for a long time confined to aristocracy. A.S. Murthy, the theatreperson endearingly known as Eeranna, the character he played in his radical, path-breaking talk show Ondu Maatu, says AIR never made him feel like a school dropout. "I was too poor to study, but my constant interaction with people like V. Seetharamaiah, Rajarathnam, Kuvempu, Niranjana... helped my faculties blossom," says the voracious orator, who was associated with AIR from its Mysore days. For him, AIR is refreshing, for having retained its core concerns even with the print media going the glamour way.