All India Radio, the celestial voice that binds India together

ByJawhar Sircar
Jun 07, 2016 10:51 PM IST

80 years on, All India Radio maintains India’s delicate plural equilibrium with its 418 stations, making it the world’s largest multi-lingual public network

“I quarrel so frightfully with all the secretaries and deputy secretaries”, rued Lionel Fielden, the first Controller of Broadcasting, as he started the operations of All India Radio on this very day, exactly 80 years ago. One wonders if matters have improved since then, despite an occasional non-hegemonic bureaucrat who pops up as a saviour. But it is not as if radio in India began on this day, because several enterprising Indians had actually started toying with the new instrument within just a few months of January 1922, when the British established the BBC. The early commercial ventures, however, floundered and the Crown had to take over the fledgling industry in April 1930 but the tempo picked a year later when Lord Reith, the first director general of BBC, sent Fielden over to Delhi.

All India Radio’s English newsreader, Lotika Ratnam, December 11, 1969.(Rane Prakash/HT File)
All India Radio’s English newsreader, Lotika Ratnam, December 11, 1969.(Rane Prakash/HT File)

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The viceroy’s mandarins had allotted a princely sum of Rs 2.5 lakh and came up with several ‘sensible objections’, but these hardly deterred Fielden, as he went about setting up radio stations in Delhi, Bombay, Lucknow, Madras, Calcutta and Dhaka. His passion ruffled many feathers and the British bureaucracy had to shell out nearly ten times the budgeted amount. Obviously, the empire preferred a more reasonable and pliant officer, but Cambridge and Lord Reith had instilled sterling qualities in Lionel Fielden. He had the guts to invite Verrier Elwin, the bête noire of viceroys who had pronounced anti-imperial views, to speak on the radio on ‘Empire Day’. These are a part of the legend of radio in colonial India, and many bemoan its constant mellowing down even under more democratic regimes. All India Radio’s (AIR’s) charge was shuttled from one department to the other, until a new department of information and broadcasting was created in 1946, which meant that AIR’s parent was a decade younger than itself.

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Radio’s primary focus was news and Charles Barnes, the first news editor, started the central news organisation in August 1937. When World War II broke out two years later, the viceroy’s government understood the supreme importance of radio for propaganda and counter-propaganda. This led to the creation of AIR’s external broadcast division and by 1945 AIR had news bulletins in several foreign languages in addition to the Indian ones. An interesting feature of AIR was that ‘regional language’ bulletins were prepared centrally in English, in Delhi, and then translated into different languages. This practice continues till today. The empire took no risks with local variations of the national narrative and neither could the new nation that was born in an ocean of blood, out of 14 British-India provinces and from 565 princely states. Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged radio’s real worth and on November 12, 1947, he came over to AIR’s new studio on Parliament Street to make a passionate appeal to the angry refugees.

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Though India inherited just six radio stations from the British, it realised the importance of this medium for knitting a diverse nation together. The government ramped up AIR’s pace of expansion: From six to 25 stations in just five years, which shot up to 86 in less than 25 years. At present, All India Radio is a part of Prasar Bharati and it has 418 stations, including FM ones, which makes it the world’s largest multi-lingual public network. However, unlike the home service of the BBC, India has to cater to numerous competing ethnic and linguistic aspirations. Akashvani, thus, speaks in as many as 146 tongues, while its news services division broadcasts in 91 languages and dialects every day.

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Nehru’s information minister, BV Keskar, had very staunch views on what music should be broadcast; he only permitted classical music, which reflected a sanitised version of India’s musical tradition. Young India, however, differed and preferred popular Hindi film songs, but Keskar would have none of that. Radio Ceylon’s Binaca Geetmala thus found a gap and captured the imagination of this infant nation, with Ameen Sayani’s seductive packaging of Hindi songs. After five years of dogged resistance, the government finally gave in, and in 1957, AIR started its version of film music and programmes on Vividh Bharati. It became immensely popular despite the hot government breath down its neck. Programmes like Hawa Mahal, Chhaya Geet, Sangeet Sarita, Sargam and Farmaish Geet enthralled Indians in every corner of the country. We appeared to have finally risen above linguistic barriers to create a new supra-national identity that was articulated through emotive verses, sentimental lyrics and captivating music. Bollywood Hindustani spread all over through the radio and this helped in winning over those Indians who had severe ideological objections to the ramming through of orthodox Sanskritic Hindi.

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The wars of 1962, 1965 and 1971 united millions of voices and opinions and, here again, AIR played a unique role in stimulating new patriotic fervour through news, commentaries and Jaimala songs. Iconic commentators such as Jasdev Singh and Melville de Mellow instilled national pride through poetic renditions of national celebrations like Independence Day and Republic Day, while the sports commentaries of Pearson Surita, Suresh Saraiya, AFS Talyarkhan, Ravi Chaturvedi, Anand Rao and Berry Sarbadhikari pumped high adrenalin into generations of listeners. Then, there were legends like Surajit Sen and his sister, Lotika Ratnam, as well as Devaki Nandan Pandey and Vinod Kashyap who enlivened news and mesmerised the nation. There is hardly a single famous artiste in India who did not begin her career in AIR and maestros such as Ravi Shankar joined AIR and set up Vadya Vrinda, the national orchestra. Despite the challenge from private FM operators, the old warhorse still gallops on, transmitting, for instance, in 30 different languages and dialects for just 30 lakh people in Manipur, so that India’s delicate plural equilibrium remains stable.

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Let us note that the Kolkatans claim that it was Tagore who named AIR as Akashvani in 1938, but at least for once, they are wrong. Mysore had started a radio station a year earlier, as Akashvani, ‘the celestial voice’ that helped bind India together.

Jawhar Sircar is CEO of Prasar Bharti

The views expressed are personal

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