Radio reminiscences: The golden years

As radio becomes less and less a part of our lives, a look back at AIR’s best years and its brilliant pioneers

June 19, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Actor Meena Kumari presents the Jaimala programme for the armed forces at AIR, Delhi, 1965.

Actor Meena Kumari presents the Jaimala programme for the armed forces at AIR, Delhi, 1965.

The radio is, unforgivably, becoming a quaint relic. Its considerably reduced circumstances cause in me an ineffable sadness and stir nostalgia. A rich part of our lives seems to be receding irretrievably.

I grew up in an industrial town on the banks of a river, with one English national daily, a vernacular newspaper, and The Illustrated Weekly of India . It was the late 50s and the radio had not yet come into our homes. One June evening, amid the torrential monsoon rain, a man in a khaki raincoat appeared, carrying a large cardboard box. I heard my father ask him if the box had got wet. It was the coming of the radio, thankfully wrapped in a plastic sheet inside the box.

There was palpable excitement that day. Because of the rain, the installation was postponed to the next day. Marconi’s invention had a rectangular body in brown and off-white plastic, with a small light at the top right corner and two knobs for sound control and band selection. It was a Müller; my father merely said the Germans made good radios. The radio was placed on a wall-mounted wooden stand and plugged in. I was fascinated by the fixing of its aerial, a lengthy strip of porous, gauze-like material about three inches wide. It had to be unrolled, fully stretched and firmly tied length-wise. Ours was tied under the eaves of the tiled roof, protecting it against lightning and strong wind.

Even then, constant crackling was a perennial solo accompaniment to all the All India Radio (AIR) broadcasts. Although I didn’t understand much of it then, our father insisted that I listen dutifully. Recognisable voices came on the air — Surajit Sen, Lotika Ratnam and, of course, Melville de Mellow. Nothing historical ever happened without his reassuring and authoritative voice. One evening in late January 1948, he came on air and ominously pronounced, “Stand by for an important announcement!” A short while before, Godse had shot Gandhi. Later, De Mellow gave a seven-hour report on the Mahatma’s funeral. In May 1964, when Jawaharlal Nehru died, it was De Mellow again, leading the commentary. Sen, the first to report on the fall of East Pakistan in 1971, was also hugely popular.

I still recall the radio’s signature tune. It is a most beautiful adagio, about a minute and 50 seconds long, and I first heard it immediately after our radio became operational. The tiny blue light had come on, indicating the set was receiving signal. There was no more pitter-patter of raindrops on leaves, the wind was silent, and in the quiet of the evening the treble notes of the violin rose and then fell from a pleasant crescendo to be muffled by the bass of the viola and the tampura.

AIR’s portable unit, often used to record sound effects far from studios, 1954.

AIR’s portable unit, often used to record sound effects far from studios, 1954.

West meets east

Walter Kaufmann, who composed the tune for AIR, was a Jewish refugee who had fled Nazi Germany and come to Mumbai. From 1936 to 1946, he worked for AIR’s predecessor, the Indian Broadcasting Company, and was its director of music. Though a Western classicist, he based the composition on the Shivaranjani raga. The violin is played by Mehli Mehta, Zubin Mehta’s father.

A few years later, we bought a new radio, another German make. It was larger, with a dark wood cabinet, and had infinitely better reception in short waves. One could listen to music and sports commentaries, but for some reason Vividh Bharati’s reception was patchy. That’s when Radio Ceylon stepped in, with high-quality transmission from across the ocean. Ameen Sayani then rode in on the back of a sea breeze, with his silken voice. We tuned into Aadmi ki Geet for the latest Hindi film songs, and on Wednesday nights, there was Binaca Geetmala , and with it renewed longing for romance in the heavy tropical air. AIR’s response was magnificent. B.V. Keskar as information and broadcasting minister had conceived the National Programme of Music. His goal was to popularise India’s rich heritage of classical music, both vocal and instrumental. The programme was a great hit, and the man who gave it its soul was AIR’s director general, V.K. Narayana Menon, a musicologist with a Ph.D in Yeats’s poetry. As the head of AIR, he brought India’s best artists into its fold.

For me, the best years of the radio were the three decades between the 60s and the 90s. The infatuation that began on a monsoon evening with Kaufmann’s ethereal signature tune took me through countless news bulletins, Hindi film songs, Indian classical concerts and Western classical music. I heard Nehru’s clipped delivery, Rajaji’s precise voice, and Dr. Radhakrishnan’s rousing renditions .

Mahatma Gandhi at AIR, Delhi, after broadcasting a message for Partition refugees, November 1947.

Mahatma Gandhi at AIR, Delhi, after broadcasting a message for Partition refugees, November 1947.

Heroic contest

I can never forget one AIR commentary. It was the famous 1966 Davis Cup match between India and Brazil, played at South Club, Kolkata. The teams were tied 2-2. In the fifth and deciding match, when play stopped on the third evening, Thomaz Koch was leading Ramanathan Krishnan 2-1. Next morning when the match resumed, I was at Lawrence Club, Kochi, sitting by the backwaters. Someone had a transistor. The match began. 15-0, 30-0, 40-0 — Koch took an early 3-0 lead. Then Krishnan fought back, taking the set at 7-5. It was two-all. In the final set, Krishnan played flawless tennis to win 6-2 and India reached the Challenge Round of the Davis Cup. The radio played its part in that heroic match.

The radio was still there when time swept me into my 50s. Father had departed. But whenever I went home on holiday, I would fiddle with the knobs and listen to a broadcast. Until one summer holiday, when I visited and found the radio missing. It had broken down and couldn’t be repaired, so my mother had given it away. By then, Doordarshan had displaced Akashvani in her affections. While radio still does well elsewhere — for example, the BBC in Britain — TV has stifled it here. While there is FM, of course, one misses the high-quality broadcasting from AIR. And those soothing voices bringing us the news, both good and bad.

The writer is a photography and classical music enthusiast.

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.