Notes from a sonic pilgrimage

RAVIKANT

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A field trip to Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC, erstwhile Radio Ceylon and Colombo Broadcasting Corporation) had been on my research agenda for several years, but it materialized rather unexpectedly as an intimate ethnographic journey, undertaken in the privileged company of veteran radio listeners on their dream come true pilgrimage.

Just before Covid-19 began disrupting our lives and taking away some very good friends, I happened to meet an unusual ex-bureaucrat of the railways, K.L. Pandey, the author of the multi-volume Hindi Cine Raag Encyclopedia, at an informal listeners’ meet at Delhi’s Coffee Home. The moment he spoke about the possibility of a commercially organized theme trip to Sri Lanka with an irresistible sounding clarion call ‘Behno aur bhaiyo: aaiye karate hain safar Radio Ceylon ka’, I expressed my desperate desire to be drafted and my wish was granted.

These ‘sisters and brothers’ (notice the sequence) of Ameen Sayani’s affective Geetmala address for decades, in the last century, were some ten couples from Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra. There was not a single dull moment on this entire trip with vanprasthi elders. They were schoolgoingly exuberant and unselfconsciously musical, breaking into song and dance at the drop of a hat – a word here, a tune there, a thought, a scene or a situation from somewhere, anything to rekindle a musicological piece of memory – using the Karaoke facilities of the bus to the hilt.

I realized that more than their natural linguistic-regional bond, it was the Fevicol of cine aurophilia, to extend Vebhuti Duggal’s phrase, that had brought them together in the first place, and they had been designing and holding innovative musical events catering to their diverse tastes and hobbies to keep the relationship cemented and the network growing.

Of course, there were other secular and sacred stopovers in this cleverly designed pilgrim package: Gayathri Pidam in Nuara Eliya, ‘where Meghnatha, son of Ravana was praying to Lord Shiva’, or ‘Ashok Vatika... where Sita Devi stayed for a long period’, ‘Ramboda, where Hanuman stayed before visiting Ravana[’s] Lanka’, ‘Buddha’s Tooth Relic Temple at Kandy’, the sprawling, lush tea gardens, the incredibly diverse National Botanical Garden in Colombo, and a few rushed hours for shopping herbal products from farm shops. All of this was fun in the routine touristy kind of way, and we made presentations to each other in our free time, but all this was more like ticking the to-do boxes.

So a certain disbelief and urgency in our steps became palpable as soon as we entered the SLBC premises. Hindi announcer, Jyoti Parmar and librarian Subhashini De Silva, were at the reception to welcome us with broad smiles. Our cameras were out in the video mode, not to be stilled or switched off, as there was so much to capture.

 

The RC plaque at the entrance, Mohammad Rafi’s photograph from his visit in the passage, the imposing transmitter towers in the courtyard, the casually assembled radio museum in the corridor, where heavy duty ancient tools of mechanical reproduction and transmission were lined up, along with statues of yesteryears’ radio honchos; wall clocks set to different time zones, signalling how punctuality to the second was the hallmark of broadcasting, and the studios with red lights on, where we were allowed to dance to a couple of live Sinhalese songs anchored by an RJ shielded in a transparent glass chamber.

Back in the museum corridor, amidst fragments of organic history embedded in the rusty equipment, we were treated to a computer play back of a rare Marathi song of Lata Mangeshkar. We felt special, since as researchers we have rarely been treated with such warmth and allowed so much freedom in the agonizingly secretive and bureaucratically cold premises of All India Radio!1

 

Our real excitement could be expressed only in a relatively secluded and intimate space, which was provided by the legendary gramophone Records Library, the archival sanctum sanctorum of listeners – manually cleaned, built and systematically arranged by the first generation of announcers like Vijay Kishore Dube and Gopal Sharma, who resurrected them from a dirty, dusty heap of abandoned rubbish. We jostled with each other to fit in the library, doubling up as the presenters’ workspace. The large rectangular table in the middle proudly showcases wooden, catalogue boxes of dog-eared index cards of songs, with information needed to locate records stacked along all the four walls, floor to ceiling.

Apart from the company assigned number which every record carried, each card contained credits for songs: its mukhda, the film or album title, music director, singer and lyricist, vital details for any announcer. Listeners who were quite often the co-curators of myriad song based programme packages sometimes supplied these details. As evidence of continued crowd sourcing of this kind, another item prominently displayed was a whole bunch of colourful, partly calligraphed, partly stamped, farmaishi letters received by popular programmes of SLBC from different parts of India.

 

A sweet banter ensued between two distinct schools of listeners, soft-spoken and shy like his idol Mohammad Rafi, Ajit Pradhan is a frequent writer of requests without ever demanding his name to be broadcast, whereas Jagannath Basaiye a.k.a. Bandhu, from Gul Mandi, Aurangabad, is both persistent and insistent on hearing not only his own name but those of a whole bunch of friends and family members. ‘And you also complained if we missed out on the names for some reason. You are not a true listener!’

Quite clearly, it was the radio jockey’s informally opportune moment to give back an earful, face to face, to the ‘two-second-fame seekers’ like Bandhuji. In response, lo and behold, poor Bandhuji is actually crying tearfully with sheer happiness, wallowing in the memories of good years he has spent listening to wonderful songs, recounting how these sisters indulged his truant behaviour, and how satiated he felt being here at last.

 

We wanted to touch, hold and feel some unseen records and we were readily obliged, but with a clear instruction that they be kept right back into their original slots. A special request by Pandeyji for a Saigal record from Mohabbat ke Aansoo could not be located, even though the listeners remembered it having been played from the station. Jyoti Parmar clarified that it could have been from a personal collection of a particular presenter. The listeners then asked the announcers to re-enact their introductory pieces of announcement and once again Parmar’s flawless and fluent performance drew spontaneous applause.

Subhashini De Silva told us that inspired by the success of some stellar radio memoirs published in Hindi, she was researching to write a social history thesis on Asian Broadcasting from SLBC, and wanted help from us. We promised her both material and memories. They were asked to narrate their journeys so far: how did they come in and how they were trained and mentored by their senior colleagues. We inquired if they had preserved recordings from the past, and if so, what was the vintage. Sadly, SLBC, very much like AIR, did not record or archive their playback programmes or even old letters sent by listeners by the sack-loads.

To write the history of our audible past, historians have to turn to printed newsletters produced by listeners or their letters to film or music magazines. We narrated an anecdote from Gopal Sharma’s memoirs, Awaz ki Duniya ke Dosto: Sharma noted with obvious pride that in his entire career he held the record of not breaking a single gramophone record. Parmar concurred that they were trained to prevent records from falling to the ground by bringing their feet in between, and she too was a proud member of ‘the club of unbroken records’.

Before leaving, some of us presented the gifts we had brought or carried from other listeners. Nand Kishoreji, 85, had sent his self-published Hindi book, Ateet ke Sitare, on the film stars long forgotten, and Bandhuji had come armed with several DVDs of his favourite songs, and a handy pocket-booklet cataloguing 1001 evergreen songs: hamesha jawan geet! The booklet has on its cover the photographs of thirteen singers from ‘the golden age’ and its preface informs us that he had audiotaped this compilation in 1975 and had subsequently transferred it on to a compact disk and was happy to share his source of pleasure. Why should he be a selfish recipient of this common bounty?

 

Believing that music must not be sold, it is best distributed, he had also brought with him a 16-gigabyte pen drive containing recordings of his recent, call-in request conversations with announcers at radio stations in Maharashtra. Like the personalised request letters on display at the table – his own generic printed card bears the BJP lotus as a water mark – the pen drive too was properly customised with his name and address embossed on its surface. Bandhuji also read out his favourite listening moments from the clippings of Hindi and Marathi newspapers over the years. A tireless singer in the bus but otherwise reticent Pradeep Desai was dragged into the spotlight and introduced as the organiser of musical events, as the author of a book on Vasant Desai, together with the fact that he knew Khayyam Saheb personally.

 

Some of us were keen on recording our bytes, but broadcasting such recordings was not a part of the SLBC policy anymore. However, our effusive testimonial, collectively signed, was duly recorded on the visitor’s register, and in exchange, we got the presenters’ autographs and countless photo-ops with them. We also left some free advice on how the radio station could monetize their popular broadcasting heritage towards raising some hefty funds. As we approached the exit, we got a photo-op with the Director General, SLBC, to whom we relayed a longstanding listeners’ request for extending the broadcast time for Hindi film songs. He assured us that he would look into the matter but the listeners are still waiting for the good news. A couple of more enthusiastic ones continue to post recording of programmes on YouTube.

The account so far is not radically different from other travelogues written by listeners’ undertaking such pilgrimage right through the heydays of SLBC beginning in the 1960s. As historians we are fortunate to have found the traces of these journeys in a variety of print formats in Listeners’ Bulletin, ephemeral little magazines2 published by listeners’ clubs, and broadcasters’ autobiographies.

One such trace is left by an RC listener since 1957, Madhusudan Dutt from Rajkot, Gujarat, who happened to visit the station in 1979 and again in November 2005.3 He made history: not only was his arrival announced in advance, but a thirty-minute interview with him was broadcast live, which reminded me of Nur Jahan’s dramatic arrival and historic interview conducted by Manohar Mahajan, enthusiastically reported by Indian newspapers and magazines, and narrated wistfully by the broadcaster in his own memoirs.4 The photographs published in Listeners’ Bulletin from Dutt’s trip are generic, for example, the ones with Padmini Parreira and Jyoti Parmar in the Record Library; Dutt holding a gramophone record as a trophy are reminiscent of the warm, almost familial relationship that developed between listeners’ and broadcasters.

 

The story of such affectionate listening to cinema on radio in the subcontinent goes back to the 1930s, especially after the colonial expansion of broadcasting network under the leadership of Lionel Fielden, a liberal Indophile. His outstanding Report on Broadcasting along with the advance programme schedules published in the AIR bulletin, The Indian Listener, bear testimony to the rising popularity and regular broadcast of film songs till 1952. This phenomenally unique intermediality between commercial cinema and public radio was sought to be rudely disrupted by a B.V. Keskar, the longest serving Information and Broadcasting Minister of independent India, who put a highbrow ‘ban’ on broadcasting film songs for five years (1952-57), right in the foundational period of what would later be labeled as ‘the golden age of Hindi film music’.

AIR’s loss in revenue was RC’s gain in aural brand-stardom, and even though it is technically far from correct, in certain popular histories of broadcasting, Keskar came to be ironically and acerbically recalled as ‘the father of Radio Ceylon’. A people put on starvation diet of film songs reacted by insisting on buying only such radios that played RC, until AIR mended its ways to set up Vividh Bharti in 1957, but it took another sweet decade to go commercial. The rest is familiar history in present continuous.

 

Even in the age of Alexa, YouTube, and all-purpose mobiles streaming playback at a vocal command, songs old and new continue to dominate the ether 24x7, and farmaishes still flow in unimaginable numbers, though not as many from Jhumri Telaiya. We now have an entire FM channel dedicated to Kishore Kumar, and endless anecdotal and archival programmes with multiple seasons and re-runs, although ‘Chhaya Geet’, ‘Jaimala’, ‘Aj ke Fankar’ and several other vintage shows still continue.

But how did this history sound at the moment of its own departure and nation’s arrival? As a key byproduct, the historical accident also created a superstar in ‘radio dost’ Ameen Sayani whose Geetmala became a rage: a weekly musical thriller with year-end marathon finishes, year after year, for decades. The chart-buster had listeners addicted, betting on their favourites, getting elated at wins and deflated at wrong ones, and in general, keeping track of all the songs played, with such consistency that Sayani began gratefully acknowledging the committed listeners for their regular contributions and occasional fact-checks, a habit he has not abandoned while re-presenting Geetmala’s serial jubilee packages on HMV tapes, CDs or Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Caravan’s ‘Geetmala’s ki Chhaon mein’. One such dedicated listener, Anil Bhargav, has aptly captured this particular moment of sonic history:

‘Geetmala was not merely a regular broadcast of the most popular songs of the week or the year, but it also gave you the exact ranking of the songs in the popularity chart… It is an invaluable, information-rich document of Hindi film music for 41 unbroken years... At a time when radio was the most important medium for listening to film songs, and when advertising was not so hegemonic, this programme sounded less like one designed to sell a particular product, and more like a platform committed to film music. It grew in historical importance with the passage of time. Such programmes are born but rarely... The younger generation can barely speculate about its massive popularity but a whole generation remained emotionally and loyally attached to it.’5

A meticulous record-keeper of the programme, Bhargav’s assiduous documentation was first serialized in LB and later compiled as a book along with fellow-listeners’ memoirs. Anjali Bhargav recalls a popular rhyme from those days, ‘A for Ameen Sayani, B for Binaca and C for Ceylon.’

 

What made Sayani’s programme so popular? Gifted with a deep baritone voice that could smoothly mount the highs and descend the lows of the far away Short Waves, he spent his innovative energy in localizing a western idea of chartbuster into an easily graspable ‘hit parade’, and dressed it up in Hindustani, the mixed lingo of films. Musical chart was re-envisioned as sangeet seerhi, ranking as paaydaan, top as choti, debutant songs as those that gave a dastak, comeback songs as punah-praveshi geet, hit songs as those blessed with dhoop, sunshine of fame or shohrat ki chamak, and runners up numbers as chhaon ke geet, songs in the shadow.

 

A guessing and betting game, an ongoing suspense and thrill, was very much built in the design, but he treated each episode as a long interminable dastaan constituted by happy and sad endings – celebrating the rise and empathizing with the fall of every song, and trumpeting its summit triumph, with bugle blows. The songs that were forced to make an exit after making a long successful run, to make way for new ones, were given a dignified farewell with a crown and title as memento: they were called sartaaj geet.

Each song had a behind the sonic, on-screen story, about which Sayani had firsthand information – little nuggets that could conveniently but carefully be woven in the silsila or chain of songs.6 The gaps between songs were sutured with a highly economical but appropriately worded thread, connecting one emotion to the next, jumping from one sonic heart-burn to the next heartbreak, from sanyog to viyog and hasya to veebhatsa as a personally-felt experience. An elongated lilt and a warm drawl in ‘aaaiiiiiye’, ‘aa jaaaiye’ welcomed the listener inside a home whose host was not in a hurry for a commercial break. In fact, even the toothpaste jingle was threaded and naturalized in the garland of songs.

Humour, humility and suggestive understatement were essential ingredients of his style – talking to the audience in a non-patronizing, even flattering manner, urging and nudging them, as if they were not just listening but present right there, talking back all the time; showing how he cared for their opinion, how they were responsible for the main drama of which he was a mere sutradhar. Above all, he added to a medium already widely acknowledged as intimate, a trifle extra bit of intimacy with his signature ‘behno aur bhaiyo’ address.7 A Vivekanandi touch, indeed, which was hardly ever allowed to be tainted by unfamilial filmi gossip that might inconvenience the close-knit bond of a family listening to the radio sitting by the clichéd hearth.

 

In retrospect, by following a routine of sending farmaishi postcards to radio stations, listeners made history for themselves and immortalized their small towns and mohallas by catapulting them into the global sonic map. They solved puzzles, answered trivia questions, functioned as radio critics, and indeed played a creative role in co-designing countless infotainment programmes such as Vakya Geetanjali or Radio Patrika. For this they needed to develop a large database of complete lyrics and music credits. A part of the supply came from the colourful, multilingual publicity booklets launched by producers and distributors and locally produced cheap chaupatiya song folios sold outside cinema halls, and as swarlipi notational transliterations in bhasha film magazines.

 

All of this, assiduously collected by them, did not still qualify as comprehensive enough to secure wins or mentions in tough radio competitions. So those who could afford bought gramophone records of various eras and makes, and supplemented that by memorizing songs by repeated listening in cinema halls, on television or on radio, or by transcribing their lyrics to paper. By the 1960s, the listeners were aware of their numerical strength as a community, but in order to transcend ephemerality inherent in aural, even if recurrent, iteration, they also started publishing little magazines devoted to listening. The longest lasting such collective endeavor was LB, which also became a platform for the making and selling of the six volumes Hindi Film Geet Kosh, the biggest database of information on Hindi films and songs. Several other collections dedicated to individual singers such as Saigal or Talat Mahmood followed.

While we record this journey of the radio listener – from being a single-star fan to a general fan of film and non-film music and a collector of ancillary artifacts like literary works adapted into films, we must also take note of years of labour they put in in preserving and archiving objects considered lowbrow by most educational institutions. All archivists know that the battle of preservation is about fighting technological obsolesce and constant renewal of forms and formats and a wide circulation of artifacts. ‘Anand marte nahin carries conviction only if we remember that Rajesh Khanna’s theatrical dialogue was recorded in the eponymous film in advance, to be played as memory... till the tape would last.

 

Footnotes:

1. One possible reason why broadcasting history in South Asia has conventionally remained a preserve of retired bureaucrats writing dull histories based on annual reports of the I&B Ministry.

2. Published by radio listeners’ clubs in small and big towns all over India, these magazines were more in the nature of newsletters and thus ‘little’ in terms of size, circulation and objective. Certain corporate brands inserted themselves in the sonic circuit also by encouraging listeners to form clubs. Through its monthly magazine, listeners were promised a unique experience of pursuing one’s hobbies, making pen-friends, building networks with people of similar interests and getting assistance in choosing glamorous careers. See for example, the advertisement for ‘Fortune Radio Listeners’ Club’, Madhuri, 16 October 1970, p. 10.

3. Har Mandir Singh ‘Hamraz’ (ed.), Listeners’ Bulletin 35(126), January 2005.

4. Yaadein Radio Ceylon Ki. Vangmay Prakashan, Jaipur, 2010.

5. Anil Bhargava, ‘Bhumika’, Geetmala Ka Sureela Safar. Vangmay Prakashan, Jaipur, 2007, pp. 14-15.

6. Sayani has been an industry insider: He worked as a publicist for several films, lent his voice to several others, made his appearance in at least three, and frequently compered live musical programmes, award ceremonies including the first Miss India event. He also recorded thousands of advertising jingles for radio spots. See: www.ameensayani.com. Interestingly, Sunil Dutt also made a successful career transition from RC to Hindi films.

7. See Andrew Crisell, Understanding Radio. Routledge, London and New York, 1994 (2nd edition), p. 11. Bridget Griffen-Foley has demonstrated similar broadcasting strategies for early 20th century commercial radio in Australia. She says that presenters often appeared in the garb of ‘Uncles and Aunts’. See ‘Modernity, Intimacy and Early Australian Commercial Radio’ in Joy Damousi and Desley Deacon (eds.), Talking and Listening in the Age of Modernity: Essays on the History of Sound. ANU E Press, pp. 123-132.

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