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AIR’s fete in Retrospect (Parts I-IV)

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AIR’s fete in Retrospect (Parts I-IV)

The Economic Times, August 16, 1987

All India Radio turned 60 on July 23 last, if we take into account the establishment of the Bombay station of AIR. Indeed, this was the first set-up of the network which, today comprises as many as 93 main and 30 Vividh-Bharati stations or channels all over the country.

Come to think of it, we must go back to the year 1921 to trace the genesis of broadcasting in India, when the very first attempt in broadcasting took place on the roof the Times of India building on August 20 that year. It was a privately owned firm that started the pioneering venture. But it was six months later, that is on February 23, that the firm was granted the first transmission licence. A formal broadcasting conference was also held in Bombay on March 7, 1923. What then came to be known as Radio Clubs were established each at Calcutta and Madras in November 1923 and May 1924 respectively.

It would seem that the British Government gradually became aware of the immense potential of this mass medium and, accordingly it invited applications for setting up broadcasting stations in various parts of the huge sub-continent. This was in March 25. This led to the setting up of the Indian Broadcasting Company in March 26. Four months later, the new company started a programme journal under the name and style “The Indian Radio Times”, which later became “The Indian Listener” and, still later, “Akashvani”. Ironically, it was only a few months ago that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting suddenly closed it down in this diamond jubilee year of AIR, on the ground that it was unprofitable proposition.

Although the year 1927 marked the establishment of Bombay station on July 23, 1927, followed by a similar set-up each at Calcutta on August 26 the same year, the company began incurring heavy losses on its operation and maintenance and, as a result, handed over the Bombay station to the government. The government renamed the unit as Indian State Broadcasting Service (ISBS) in 1930. The set-up got its present name, “All India Radio”, in June 1936. Till February 1938, it operated only through medium wave transmission.

It is just as well that AIR Bombay held a three-day programme to mark the completion of 60 years of its inception. Since entertainment and recreation are among the aims of broadcasting, the sponsors thoughtfully decided to begin with celebrations with a concert of vocal and instrumental music. On the second day, 22 veterans, comprising the age group 65-85, who were, in some way, associated with Bombay’s broadcasting set-up in the course of six decades, assembled on a common platform to share their experiences and reminiscences with the invited audience. The final day was earmarked for a symposium on “Broadcasting system : Modern Perspectives”. The participants included leading journalists, authors, and retired AIR technical men from the top bracket.

As mentioned earlier, it was a musical evening in which were featured only two artistes who have been broadcasters from AIR Bombay for more than four decades. Bhimsen Joshi, the leading light of the Kiranan gharana, was the vocalist, while Abdul Halim Jaffar Khan, the sitarist from the old generation, offered the instrumental fare. One could not held feeling that the concert could have been more representative in content and character, if the planners had cared to give some representation to the younger generation. The performing schedules could have been suitably pruned so as to incorporate at least one, if not two, young talented performers. This was, in fact, the pattern adopted by AIR for its daily sessions of the annual Radio Sangeet Sammelan, years ago.

Secondly, while there need be no two opinions about the choice of Bhimsen Joshi who, at 65, still continues to be in his performing prime, one has to confess, sadly though, that the same is not the case with the sitar veteran. Frankly, Halim Jaffer’s performance in recent years have shown him to be just a pale shadow of his former self. His jubilee concert at the AIR fete only served to confirm this observation. True, Bombay, by and large, appears to have a far greater number of vocalists than instrumentalists specially from the older generation. Comparisons can be way out, but a veena veteran like Zia Mohiuddin Dagar would have been a better choice as an exponent of instrumental music.

For representing the younger generation, a vocalist like Padma Talwalkar and in instrumentalist like Kartick Kumar would have ably filled the bill, if the sponsors had really chosen to enlarge the schedule as suggested earlier.

Be that as it may, it must be said that Bhimsen Joshi took his packed audience to dizzy heights of evocation by his unforgettable presentation in Puriya Dhanshree, rendered in khayal, vilambit and drut. By all accounts, it was the maestros one of the most memorable recitals on the public platform in recent months. But the succeeding Marathi stage song and the final Hindi bhajan were just pleasing. One suspects that his choice of a stage-song from Bal Gandharva’s favourite repertoire was prompted by the fact that this was the birth centenary year of the supreme thespian.

In the case of Halim Jaffer, even his choice of Saraswati Malhar as his very opening presentation at the inaugural session of the celebrations sounded not only undiscerning but uncritical, too. It is saddening that he did not favour a truly profound, prayerful melody like Yaman or Puriya for the evening. Saraswati Malhar could, at best, be summed up as a quizzical combination of two melodies that simply do not make for a pleasing coherent musical form. One also sensed deviations from the tonal track. The tail-piece in Pilu went one better in that it was briefer and gave a few vignettes of his old musicianship.


The Economic Times, August 23, 1987

AIR’s fete in retrospect—II

By Mohan Nadkarni

As mentioned in the previous column, the second day of three-day diamond jubilee celebration, organised by AIR Bombay, was set apart for a marathon presentation that was pure3ly reminiscential in content and character.

However, if the inaugural musical session, as pointed-out, seemed less representative in character, the sponsors of “Smriti Tarang,” as the second day’s show was styled almost went to the other extreme, so as to speak. Because they cast their net rather too wide to include as many as 22 speakers, while the time schedule for its presentation was not intended to go beyond an hour and a half. This meant that each speaker was not expected to narrate his experiences and reminiscences beyond five minutes at the most.

Predictably – and also understandably this – simply could not happen. For, as a speaker after speaker came forward to lead us down memory lane, he turned naturally oblivious of the time factor, so much so that the compere, Professor Vasant Bapat, the noted litterateur, was seen in an unenviable predicament, trying to give polite, cautionary signals to almost all the speakers to indicate that their time was up.

Doing so was a pretty ticklish job, because it was a distinguished assemblage that included musicians, musicologists, talkers, producers, senior technicians and executives and also their staffers – all of whom had been associated with AIR in its chequered but eventful history of 60 years and more. But Professor Bapat, who was also one of the programme, did his job with commendable tact and patience.

To say this is certainly not to ignore or overlook the utterly heart-warming character of the programme. There were, no doubt, moments of listlessness and boredom that marked some of the speeches. These could have been minimised, if not altogether eliminated, if the sponsors had taken care to reduce the number of speakers.

For one thing there could be only one or two speakers to represent the various categories, as broadly outlined above. This would have possibly helped to avoid the kind of repetition witnessed in the various speeches.

At the same time, one also could not help feeling that the inclusion of personalities like the eminent play-wright, M. G. Rangnekar, and the well-known music organiser, Mr Brij Narain, was not necessary. With due regards to them, it must be said that Rangnekar could not somehow put through his narration effectively, while Mr Brij Narain confined his narration to his brief association with All India Radio to the extent that he had managed to enlist the latter’s cooperation in relaying some of the programmes of his Swami Haridas Sammelan in the early years of his organisation. Sur Singar Samsad, when he used to bill some of the all-time greats in Hindustani music for performance on his platform.

Be that as it may, the “Smriti Tarang”show had many distinctive features. In the first place, most of the speeches were enlightening. Some of them were quite touching, while still others were humorous. Secondly, the programme has a unique multi-lingual character. Although the compere himself conducted the proceedings in Marathi, the various speakers preferred to narrate their experiences and reminiscences not only in Marathi but also in Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu and English.

In the process, “Smriti Tarang” acquired the complexion of “Antar-Bharati” and thereby set a fine example to those who are pledged to bring about emotional integration through linguistic unity amid the strife-torn scene we find around in the country today.

Detailed comment on a programme like this is neither feasible nor possible. But it is necessary to refer to a few of the memorable speeches, specially in the music category, inasmuch as music has been the staple food of the national broadcasting media all these years.

Speaking age-wise, the line-up of producers, composers, innovators and musicians was led by Professor, B. R. Deodhar (85), the celebrated scholar-musician. He told us a few anecdotes associated with maestros like Murad Khan and Vazebuva–of how they created awkward situations even while performing as broad-casters in the early days of AIR.

Vamanrao Deshpande (79), a chartered accountant by vocation but a scholar-musician by inclination revived the memories of the unseemly controversy resulting in the countrywide agitation and total boycott of AIR over the latter’s audition policy in 1952.

In a similar vein, V. D. Ambhaikar, the noted composer, Barkat Virani, pioneer of Gujarati ghazal, G. N. Joshi (78) and Shahir Sable, both of whom popularised Marathi bhavgeet and Marathi loksangeet, respectively, spoke feelingly of their gratitude to AIR which had provided them the spring-board to reach the heights of eminence they achieved in later years. So did the renowned Urdu poet, Ali Sadar Jafri (70) and the equally renowned Amin Sayani as a compere of international repute.

Among other speakers were B. Y. Nerukar, former chief engineer of AIR and internationally acknowledged as an authority in his field; Vinod Sharma, former producer of Hindi programmes for children; R. S. Bhole (61), former deputy director-general of AIR; T. D. Waknis (75), former station director; K. H. Kelkar (61) and M. S. Wankar (64), retired station director; and Mrinalini Desai, former producer of Gujarati programmes.

Only two or three of the speakers took time off to express their views on the role of AIR versus TV. While Sharma, for example, was pessimistic about the future of radio and stressed the imperative need for saving it from the “onslaught” of TV, Jafri and some some other speakers were optimistic about radio’s survival as the most potent medium of mass entertainment in the countryside. But none of the speakers ventured to offer concrete suggestions on the ways and means for achieving the desire objective.

Another memorable aspect of the show were the feeling reference that came from a majority of the speakers to the qualities of the head and heart of pioneering station directors like Zulfikar Bukhari and Victor Paranjoti, who were at the helm of affairs of AIR Bombay in its crucial years of progress before independence.

It may be recalled that Bukhari was compelled to leave India for Pakistan almost immediately after Partition in the wake of the great political change and the communal bitterness it caused in the minds of even great Indian leaders like Sardar Patel.

Paranjoti, on the other hand, quit AIR in disgust and desperation over some of its policies in the post-freedom years.

It was an irony that gifted music executives and producers like the late Anandrao Dholekar and also D.Ame’l (A. Dinaker Rao), K. D. Dixit and Mangesh Padgaonkar, the leading Marathi poet, who are still in our midst, did not come in for mention even once in the narrations of the concerned speakers. All these are stalwarts in their own right and had dedicated themselves to the building up of various wings of AIR in those early years.

The programme began on a sublime note with Ravindra Sathe, the young popular singer, giving soulful renditions of Marathi and Sanskrit invocations to Lord Ganesh and Goddess Saraswati.

The Economic Times, August 30, 1987

AIR’s fete in retrospect—III

By Mohan Nadkarni

The success of a broadcasting system likes in its capacity to create in the listeners, in ever-growing numbers, a desire to understand, appreciate and enjoy what it offers them.

Has All India Radio, which emerged with the promise as the most potent medium of disseminating information, education and entertainment 60 years ago, really succeeded in its objectives? Has it been objective in its approach? Has it kept itself in step with the changing trends in the different aspects of living and thinking? How does it face the challenge from television and various other channels of mass media?

These and other related questions formed part of the marathon symposium on “Broadcasting System: Modern Perspectives,” which was organised by AIR Bombay on the concluding day of its three-day celebrations of 60 years of broadcasting in India last month.

Mr Iqbal Masud, noted TV and film critic, was the moderator of the symposium. The other participants were Mr B. Y. Nerurkar, telecommunications expert of international repute and former chief engineer in the broadcasting organization of India; Mr M. V. Kamath, distinguished journalist and political commentator; Mrs Vimla Patil, also a noted journalist and editor of “Femina”; and Mr Kartar Singh Duggal, former deputy director-general of AIR and presently a prolific writer.

Mr Nerurkar, with whom the proceedings began, briefly traced the history of world broadcasting, giving, inter alia, a masterly summation of the technological changes that have come over the system during the last 60 years. Super-conductivity at normal temperature and synthesis of various technologies marked a great leap forward in the onward march. But the irony, he said, was that this advancement was going far ahead of man’s capacity.

In his reappraisal, in the Indian conditions of radio’s role as an instrument of motivation to share a common destiny Mr Nerukar emphasised that India was a country that was beset with a variety of complex, socio-economic problems like poverty, over-population, religious fundamentalism and the like. The role of media in general and radio in particular should be to prevent any kind of disorientation in the process of promoting the nation’s progress.

In elaborating his point, however, Mr Nerukar somehow did not come to grips with the basic question whether AIR had played its due role in the right direction. He only expressed the opinion that government should be the pace-setter in that direction. He was optimistic of the newly emerging “information order” that bade fair to influence socio-economic inter-dependance all over the world and that India would not remain immune to it.

Stressing the need for a national communications policy Mr Nerukar communications policy Mr Nerukar referred to the formidable challenge faced by radio from television. While he described the cumulative influence of different media on broadcasting as “most disturbing”, he averred that radio, in time to come, will reassert itself as the most intimate medium of communication with the masses. He was confident that television and radio will eventually lead a life of peaceful co-existence.

Mr M. V. Kamath, who spoke on National Communications Policy, emphatically maintained that India did not have such a policy as yet, though it was so vital to any democratic set-up. Whatever attempts that appeared to have been made in evolving the policy were too feeble. This was because the country’s government exercised total control not only on radio and television but also on cinema – through its censors machinery.

Mr Kamath explained how, without a coherent national communication policy, government has managed to do many things. Government knew that once such a policy was adopted, it would have to stick to it, and be responsive to public opinion. While government does expect confrontation with the press, it has the power to curb press freedom in many ways.

As Mr Masud aptly remarked, Mr Kamath’s observations on the press freedom and bondage in the media were not only incisive but also provided enough ammunition or a healthy debate.

The Economic Times, September 6, 1987

AIR’s fete in retrospect—IV

By Mohan Nadkarni

“Radio’s role in Emancipation of Women” was the subject of Ms Vimla Patil’s speech at the symposium organised by AIR Bombay as part of the observance of its diamond jubilee celebrations.

Briefly surveying AIR’s attempts in the field since its inception 60 years ago. Mrs Patil observed that literacy among women was abysmally low. Even as late as the year 1980, there were only 18 per cent literate women in the country. Those were the times when there was no freedom of thought among the women-folk, much less any awareness of national identity. It was her view that it was AIR which played a very significant part in making the illiterate man as well as woman gradually aware of what was going on in the country, which with special reference to the growing tempo of the struggle for achieving political freedom.

Even after the attainment of the independence, Mrs. Patil said, the growth of literacy continued to be slow. But AIR’s “spoken word” programmes, highlighting the role of women in social, cultural and other aspects of day-to-day life, contributed a great deal towards helping her to discover her own identity and her place in the community at large. Such programmes helped, in their own way, to “educate” even unlettered women even from the countryside. While conceding that such programmes could not provide lasting solutions to the many and varied problems of women, Mrs Patil pointed out such AIR features at least served to provide forum for exchange of ideas and encourage debate on issues of common interest.

Striking a note of optimism, Mrs Patil expressed the hope that AIR would play a greater role in the cause of women’s education and welfare.

Opinions are bound to differ over some of the points made by Mrs Patil in her otherwise interesting speech. In the first place, it is rather difficult to agree with her observation in regard to AIR’s role in creating an awakening among women vis-à-vis their own rights and duties and the freedom struggle in the pre-independence days.

With hardly seven or eight broadcasting stations located at far flung place in the vast sub-continent, with most of them operating through only medium-wave transmitters, radio programmes simply could not have reached the countryside. Besides, unlike today, there was no network of listening centers where villagers could gather at community forums and enjoy the delights of shared listening. More importantly, the radio organization before independence, as much as it is today, was controlled by the government, and it was the alien government which could hardly be expected to inform, much less educate and enlighten, the teeming million about the freedom struggle!

The second point, where one felt Mrs Patil looked not so well informed, was when she praised AIR for having taken steps for preserving vintage music of great women musicians of the time. To substantiate her points, she mentioned the names of Kesarbai Kerkar and Mogubai Kurdikar. The fact is that while Kesarbai had placed a total taboo on AIR, Mogubai, while she occasionally condescended to sing for AIR, never allowed her music to be recorded for prosperity!

To say this is certainly not to suggest that AIR may have recording of several other great women musicians in its repertory. But how many of these have really been preserved in good condition for the benefit of prosperity is anybody’s guess.

Come to think of it, it was the last speaker, Mr K. S. Dugal, who possibly emerged as the most powerful champion of broadcasting, as the most powerful medium of information, education and entertainment even today – in the face of the challenges posed by television and cinema. Broadcasting, he said, was the art of making imaginative use of sound, despite all its limitations. Therein lay the artistic strength of its weaknesses, as he put it so tersely, yet so expressively. Radio message, no doubt, ran through a narrow channel but it carried a powerful depth. There was a strange element of silence at the heart of radio communication. In a way, it provided unspoken communication between the medium and its listeners.

Elaborating his point, Mr Dugal asserted that there were a majority of cricket fans who preferred to listen to radio commentaries rather than enjoying a sports event on television. This was equally true of the film music heard from Vividh Bharati on the one hand and featured TV programmes like “Chhaya Geet” or “Chitrahar”, on the other.

Mr Dugal sounded critical of the kind of panic and demoralisation seen on the part of radio programme-makers on the supposed ascendancy of television on the entertainment scene. He pointed out that Western countries like America had also passed through a similar phase when television made its first appearance in the West several decades ago. The tide had now turned, over the recent years, and broadcasting had now found its original status restored. Likewise, the television boom in India was bound to be a passing phase and it will not be long before broadcasting would come into its own, like in the west.

It was the considered view of Mr Dugal that the dire need today was the required vision, initiative and confidence on the part of programme planners and programme makers working in the AIR organisations. Equally important was the need for freedom to experiment, innovate and exchange ideas with listeners. He rightly ended his speech with an emphatic note that such a reorientation in approach was impossible as long as the mass media organisation continued to be under governmental control.

Summing up the proceedings, Mr Iqbal Masud agreed with Mr Dugal that television’s sway over the cultural scene was a passing phase. But he also pointed out that technologically speaking, radio in India had a long way to go. There was need for a complete re-appraisal of the very concept of programme planning and transmission, keeping in view of the composition of its listeners.

Citing the example of Voice of America, he advocated the introduction of stereo service and computer facilities to invest broadcasting with greater impact. He reminded the audience that while a large section of Indian listeners might have been illiterate, but they certainly were not uneducated. AIR should not only encourage debate but also welcome and respond to constructive criticism and change its policies to make the network truly representatives of listeners’ hopes and aspirations. But, like Mr Dugal, he asserted that all this was not possible as long as radio, as also television, continued to be under state control.


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