The last letter-writer of Jhumri Telaiya
Every town has a story it says well. Jhumri Telaiya in Jharkhand has three of them. One of them is about a man who ‘lived’ inside a radio. The other is about the man who pulled him out, and made him famous. The third story is the one I am just about to tell.
Jagannath Sahu’s old radio with a pull-out aerial can be sombre, chirrupy, lively, gay. It is whatever he wants it to be with the turn of the knob. So he picks it up and takes it to the balcony of his two-storeyed house in Jhumri Telaiya, Jharkhand, that overlooks houses similar to his -- exposed brick-walls, unfinished staircases, and cheek-by-jowl balconies conducive to neighbourliness, or, at least, gossip.
He balances the radio on a ledge as a neighbour asks him what is going on. He turns towards us a little self-consciously and turns the radio knob. But he catches the wrong station, the wrong sort of voice and the wrong era.
Watch: The Jhumri Telaiya love story with radio
“Ek bahuti sad raja tha aur ek sad rani thi and unki life mein excitement aa gaya jab raja ki ex beech mein aa gaya…. (There was a sad king, a sad queen and their life becomes exciting when the king’s ex enters the scene) ,” says the announcer to publicise a new TV serial, in the ‘FM Voice’ of private radio stations, mixing tongues, ratcheting up pace, and going deliberately off-kilter to strike an easy familiarity with the audience. But Jagannath Sahu, a 66-year-old flour merchant, who is probably the last letter-writer to All India Radio’s music programmes from Jhumri Telaiya, will not put up with this. He has flown with the current and also against it, but somewhere he has to draw the line.
A flour merchant in a mica town, Sahu says that when almost every hand in Jhumri Telaiya was linked to mica, he decided to open a flour mill. “But all this chatter from the radio,I can’t listen to,” he says pointedly to his grandchild standing nearby fiddling with his phone. “Not a radio listener, that one,” mutters Sahu.
Class fashions culture. Culture shapes identity. The story of the unbroken musical taste of a certain generation in Jhumri Telaiya is inextricably tied with its economic history. With the laying of the railroad in Koderma (Jhumri Telaiya is in the Koderma district of erstwhile south Bihar, now Jharkhand.), the British discovered vast mica deposits in the 1890s. Chaturam and Horilram (CH) Bhadani, owners of 980 mines, were the Mica kings who turned this place in the boondocks into a boomtown in the ’50s. Entire trains would be booked to send mica from CH mines to the docks in and around Calcutta to go to Japan. Jhumri Telaiya set its clock to the siren sounding from CH factories. Jawaharlal Nehru called Chaturam ‘Nagarseth’. Chaturam’s family got Suraiya all the way from Bombay for a Jhumri Telaiya concert. Post-’80s, with the government pushing for deep mines, which meant expensive extraction of mica and the discovery of mica substitutes, many family businesses went kaput.
Music and mica
The experience of great wealth and its dissipation seems to have triggered an existential crisis, and made this small town -- still original, still enterprising -- a derivative place. When Rameshwarprasad Barnwal, a scion of another mining family took a shot at sending a postcard to Radio Ceylon and had his name mentioned in Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala, its legendary programme of Hindi film songs in the ’50s, everyone had to have theirs too. In 1957, when All India Radio began its own broadcast of old Hindi film songs (of the ’50s to the ’70s) on Vividh Bharti Service (VBS), the whole town seemed to be in the grip of an examination fever, as it were, using up inkpots and paper by the dozen. This continued till the ’80s.
“The family had already earned more money than could be spent and so my great-grandfather saw it as a sign of success that he had a son who had time to sit at home and write 20 letters each day,” says Praveen Barnwal, Rameshwarprasad’s grandson, who runs a chain of schools. Jagannath Sahu, who has restricted himself to 10, feels his letters re-boot the town’s connection with India’s radio history.
“More people know of Jhumri Telaiya than Jharkhand. And all because of Barnwal’s letters to Ameenji and later Vividh Bharti,” says Sahu. And now due to the letters he sends? Sahu writes to Man Chahey Geet and Aap kee Farmayish hosted by his favourite announcers Shehnaz Akhtari and Mamta Singh on VBS. “With the whole of India listening, how would it sound if a person from Jhumri Telaiya chooses a bad song,” he asks. “In fact, it has to be a solid one.” He seems to prefer songs where Lata Mangeshkar is hitting a full-timbre soprano or a mezzo from films set in the ’50s. Sahu’s choice of songs may or may not make him a minority, but his choice of technology will. Looking at him is like looking at the end of a tribe.
Barnwal’s competitors were his neighbours. According to local lore, the postman was often bribed not to post Barnwal’s letters so that others would get the chance to have their names read on radio. There seems no one left for Sahu to compete with. What he does not know yet, is his name may not be heard of any more – unless he changes the way he listens to radio. By 2017, AIR will have achieved “complete FM-isation”, say officials. The reason Sahu has recently been having problems connecting to the channels he sends postcards to is because they are already on FM, which is proving difficult to pick with a medium-wave set.
According to the AIR data, the listenership of its primary channels is down to 39.2% from 48%; VBS listnership has also dipped. Therefore, it perhaps needs a Jagannath Sahu more than Sahu needs it. AIR sources say the medium-wave set-up is expensive. An FM transmitter, smaller in size, can be perched atop a tower. Why won’t the Jagannath Sahus understand this and listen to radio on a smartphone instead?
Vinay Lal, a member of the CH clan, and the owner of one of the oldest radio shops in Jhumri Telaiya, says mobile towers are also finishing off the radio business. “In a town hemmed in by hillocks and mobile towers, radio signals, especially medium wave, are difficult to catch. This town used to be full of medium-wave radios but I haven’t sold a single set in the past eight years.”
According to a former AIR official, even as the market is moving away from medium-wave radios, “AIR still keeps quite a few medium-wave stations alive. But how many are listening?”
“We have to cater to the information, education and entertainment needs of all sections of society irrespective of gender, language or size of the community,” says deputy Director-General (Programme) Rajeev Kumar Shukla. “The number of programmes for a community of 100 will, of course, not be the same for a community of 100 crore, but we shall do programmes for both. The topographical differences of the country also means that different technology is being used for radio everywhere.”
In towns and municipalities smaller or as big as Jhumri Telaiya, AIR is still a big deal. Manisha Jain, programme executive, VBS, Mumbai, says, “Nowadays if there are 10 letters from Yavatmal (the town in Maharashtra that matched Jhumri Telaiya for maximum number of song requests in the ’80s), from Jhumri Telaiya there is one. And Amravati is now topping Yavatmal.”
Jhumri Telaiya’s new generation has newer demands and newer ambitions. They do downloads over phone and laptops. They listen to music on MP3 players. If they can YouTube a song, it’s as good as owning it. Frequent power cuts in the area may often dent these plans but listening to AIR isn’t priority. “AIR’s primary channels has no hit programmes”, claims Ramji Seth, a Class X student.
“The presentation of most of the AIR programmes is dry and they are still carrying on with Udyog Patrika or Sugam Sangeet, which my grandfather would also listen to. I don’t mind folk music but most of them are repeats,” says Praveen Barnwal. Why doesn’t he pick a pen and shoot off a letter like his grandfather did some 50 years ago?
Barnwal says the family has had enough of letter-writing to last many generations. “We are from a business family, we have to give time to business,” he says getting up to show us to the door. “We have to run our schools. Choosing your words, writing letters, you know, is a really long process.”
“I’ve sent 150 more letters since we met,” says Sahu calling up one evening.
“What will you be doing now?’”I ask at the end of the conversation.
“Writing the next one.”