Radios of yore - an obituary
The other day while listening to a programme on the fm of Radio Mirchi my mind travelled back long years to 1948 when we got the first radio in our house. My late second brother got a first division in his intermediate examination. The examinations were held then by the Ajmer Board of Secondary education to which a number colleges in Rajputana, United Provinces, Central India, etc were affiliated. With thousands of candidates competing, getting a first division in those days in any board or university examination was no ordinary matter. Elated by the distinction achieved by him, my father went and bought a radio as a gift for him – a small one, of five valves made by Phillips of Holland. Its price was Rs. 350/-, an amount that was more than my father’s monthly salary.
Radios were a, sort of, rarity those days, more so in a small town like Gwalior where we grew up. Not many people owned one. I remember our entire family walked quite a distance to a Bengali family’s house to listen to the broadcast of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose from Singapore. This must have been around 1942 when I was a small kid. Amid a lot of disturbing noises like those of lightning and thunder I just heard somebody speaking out. But I remember the radio which was a boxy type, something like the one that Tom tunes in to in Walt Disney’s “Tom & Jerry” cartoons.
One could easily make out who all had radios in the town. The tell-tale sign was a pair of bamboo poles sticking up into the skies from the terrace, joined by a wire that came down to a lower floor and entered the house through an available inlet. These were the antennas that one had to have to receive broadcasts and were also indicative of the family’s financial wellbeing. Radios being uncommon, one would find them, maybe, on top of one or two houses in a locality. Consumerism was far, far away. While salaries were low, the prices were constantly rising. Even in those early post-independence days Nehru would frequently harangue people about tackling the “monster of rising prices”. Were he to re-appear today and check out the prices, he wouldn’t know where to hide.
Although there were only very few broadcasting stations in the country – mostly in metro and other bigger towns – one could roam all over the world with the receiving set. The air waves were free and, unlike the TV or fm transmissions, one could tap them to tune in to the fare offered by any station in the world that one fancied. It all depended on the power and capability of the set one possessed.
Our five-valve, three-band radio, one medium and two short-wave bands (many of the current generation may not have heard of these bands, fed on fm as they are), had limited capabilities. Yet we could tune in to, apart from Indian stations, distant broadcasts from, say, Radio Australia, on 16 or 19 metre bands to listen to the running commentaries on cricket test matches played there. Likewise, when cricket was on in England we would tune in to BBC, again, on the 19 metre band. I clearly remember the disastrous second Indian innings at Headingley, Leeds in the summer of 1952. India lost four wickets for no runs on the board, the new young speedster Freddie Truman knocking off three of his four wickets in the innings in the first two or three overs. The din that the Indian debacle raised at distant Headingley was carried over the air-waves to us through the radio.
Even the news bulletins broadcast at night were worth listening to. Among the English newscasters was the legendary Melville De Mello with his impeccable English delivered in his deep baritone. He was the one who gave non-stop running commentary from a moving van for around hours while accompanying the funeral cortege of Mahatma Gandhi. He was also handpicked by the British Government for broadcasting running commentary on Queen Elizabeth’s coronation procession in 1952. It’s such a pity that his 95-year old widow has had to fight for her measly pension.
The medium wave-band broadcasting those days was of low power hence the weak signals of distant stations like Cuttack or Patna would only be faintly audible. The short wave broadcasts, capable as they are of reaching any part of the earth, were clearer and largely devoid of atmospheric disturbances. Good for receiving musical programmes, we would tune in on short-wave to the Delhi station for various musical programmes. Most of the ustaads (maestros) of Indian classical vocal or instrumental music were given breaks by the government-owned All India Radio (AIR).
For us the most attractive programmes used to be of Hindi (non-film) songs of Pankaj Mullick, Talat Mahmood, Jagmohan, Hemant Kumar as also the weekly programme of film songs “Aapki farmaish”. We would even tune in to Radio Pakistan, Dhaka to listen to Firoza Begum sing Tagore songs, a favourite of my father those days. Around the early 1950s Radio Ceylon literally gate-crashed into the Hindi film-music listening audience. The broadcasts available right through the day, they remained a great favourite for a very large section of the people who were light music enthusiasts until AIR’s Vividh Bharati, a film-songs based programme commercialised on the pattern of Radio Ceylon, gave it a run for its money. By then, of course, Radio Ceylon’s disc jockeys (DJs) Amin Sayani and, later, Sheila Tiwari had become household names in India.
Western music has virtually disappeared from the Indian airwaves. In our times we could tune in to Delhi to listen to chamber and dance music, a programme of Western orchestras, and “A date with you” anchored by Ms Preminda Premchand every Friday night. She played on demand popular Western light vocal and instrumental music. Bing Crosby, Jo Stafford, Patty Page, Nat King Cole, Perry Como etc., the trumpet of Eddie Calvert and the numbers of Billy Vaughn and his orchestra were favourites of most of us. Radio Ceylon, too, used to broadcast Western light music and its DJ, Greg, was very popular in India.
Because of the growing clutter of broadcasting stations on short waves at 16, 25, 31 and 41 metre bands radios with band-spreads for accurate tuning of closely spaced frequencies became available. We acquired in mid-fifties an 8-band radio with a more powerful speaker. The music flowing out of it was sheer pleasure. Much later, the tuner-amplifiers with fm band made their appearance with a bank of 10 press-button tuning knobs, detached speakers and stereophonic sound system. I was sold one by Philips in Chandigarh in 1975 in beautiful rosewood-finish with the assurance that stereo broadcasts were to commence soon. AIR, with the monopoly that it had, however, took around 10 years to bring fm broadcasts on stream and, that too, for very limited hours. Nonetheless, even in mono state the big powerful speakers produced delectable sound of music.
In the meantime, advances in technology radically changed the scene and democratised the radio, taking them even to the villages. Invention of transistors made it cheap and portable – shorn of the heavy and fragile valves and powered by dry battery cells. In the early sixties the Mall of Mussourie lost its quietude, with tourists walking around with battery-powered transistor radios slung from their shoulders, film music blaring out of them. These also became powerful means of dissemination of information to the remotest corners of the country where electricity had not reached.
Though millions are still in use, their popularity waned with miniaturisation and advent of portable cassette players. Nonetheless, in the later avatar of bulky radiograms that combined a valve radio and a gramophone, radios used to feature in much smaller early two-in-ones or three-in-ones which even had a cassette deck. Then, in the ‘80s radio lost out to the TV that combined audio and video broadcasts. Admittedly, a mere audio receiver could have had no chance of survival in front of a medium that could also receive live and vibrant pictures.
Fm broadcasts came along in the early nineties and soon the government broke its monopoly over the radio waves. Privatisation of fm broadcasts enabled controlled increase in the number of broadcasters. Arrival of cheap radio-enabled cell phones has kept fm broadcasters busy but today what one gets is mostly a mix of loud music and gibberish. Doing even better, smart phones have gone ahead and put in the pockets of people not only a radio but also a television and a computer with internet connectivity.
No wonder radios of yore in beautiful shiny wooden cabinets with their illuminated dials capable of tuning on to any station in the world have had to make a quiet, unobtrusive exit from Indian homes. Young India hasn’t seen them; those who are curious can find them only in museums.
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