Wednesday, October 22, 2014


It was during a three-week holiday in Bengaluru with my son that I realised how addicted I was: four days in the Garden city, and I had already started missing my daily fix of Anantapuri FM.

The first thing that I do after our morning constitutional while in Trivandrum is to reach for the radio. Quite often, AIR would not have opened shop by then; or its signature tune might have just started wafting in. And my edition of the Marconi Machine remains on as long as we are at home. The radio is switched off only when we go out or at 11 in the night when Kabban Mirza (or Nimmy or whoever) closes the station with the ‘aap ki farmaaish’ programme wishing the listeners a ‘shubh raatri’, ‘shabba khair’ or ‘khudaa haafiz’. (I might go to sleep at 9:30, but the radio does so only at its designated time!)

The radio has been a habit with me for several decades. One of the purchases of mine from my first salary was a transistor radio. It worked fine in Trivandrum which has a radio station, but in the mofussil areas I was posted in, the signals were weak; unless one had nimble fingers that turned the tuning knob accurately, the radio would stay dumb or just emit static noises.

The first radio in my life was a huge Grundig which belonged to my grandmother. It had a perforated board on its hind through which one could sight valves (For the benefit of the pre-transistor generation, these were like glass bulbs with elements). When the radio was switched on, the valves slowly acquired a glow and after a long wait of about ninety seconds, the speaker would come alive with a crackle and static, and, if one was lucky, human voice or strains of instrumental music. 

It worked on a cuboidal 12 volts battery pack made by Estrela (or Eveready?) As it was quite expensive, an inventive uncle of mine reduced the recurring cost by making a contraption that could accommodate eight 1.5 volts A-size cells (the ubiquitous cylindrical ones) which was a good substitute.

Of abiding interest to us kids was its ‘magic eye’, the small translucent plastic part on the face of the radio. It acquired a pale green glow when the radio had been tuned to of the few stations it could access. As my grandma (not many others were allowed to touch it) turned the tuner-knob gently, ever-so-gently, the static noise would fade and the magic eye, so far asleep, would acquire a soft glow. As she zeroed in on the station, the intensity of the static would fall, to be overpowered by human voice or instrumental music, often in subdued tones. When the glow of the magic eye was at the greenest best, that was when we knew she was bang on.

The  radio station nearest to Kannur, in North Malabar, where I spent most of my boyhood was in Kozhikode, a good sixty miles away. The signals were often not as strong as one would like them to be and at times, the magic eye would not glow at all, spreading gloom all around. 

The heroes of MW were giants in the literary firmament and theatre like P Bhaskaran, Thikkodian, Uroob, et al who had a significant role in shaping the aesthetic sensibilities of a few generations. Trivandrum station had the likes of P Gangadharan Nair and T P Radhamony whose voices enthralled the listeners as much as the voice of their son Nanda Kumar​ does today. 

Newsreaders Ramachandran and Rani (For quite some time, I had thought her name, thanks to her nasal accent, was Nani!) read Malayalam news from the nation’s capital. How can one forget the 'pravaachaka: Baladevaanandasaagarah' of the 'yam aakaashavaani. samprati vaartaaha shrooyantaam'!

On the English news scene, there were several stalwarts: Melville DeMello, Surojit Sen and Barun Haldar to update us on the goings on in the country in their baritones. Complementing (and competing with) them were the sweet voices of Lotika Ratnam and Sphurti Sinha. 

As a teenager, I used to listen to the BBC. Country Music USA from 7:00 to 7:30 am on the VoA as a delight. I can never forget the sign-off line - ‘If you see someone without a smile, give him one of yours’ – but sadly, I cannot recall the name of the compere.

The Tamil Service of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) was quite popular in the whole of South India. An hour-long Malayalam programme anchored by a compere called, I think, Sarojini Shivalingam, used to be aired in the evenings. The highlight of SLBC was the Binaca Geet Mala at 8:00 om on Wednesdays compered by the inimitable Ameen Sayani closely followed by Aaj ke kalaakaar and Ek aur Anek. He would pack ten songs from new films into a fun-filled one-hour programme.  The top songs of the year would be ranked according to the popularity they were able to rustle up.

This monopoly of SLBC was broken when Vividh Bharati was launched. They offered several bouquets of Hindi film songs. Places like Jhumritalaiya and Rajnandgaon, hitherto unknown to the rest of India, became popular because of the listeners’ choice programmes. Requests for songs were received from ‘Yavatmal se Ramesh Bijapurkar, unki Shreemati Aarti, beta Bittoo, bitiya Sonali aur unke dher saare dost’. I have a secret doubt that some of these names   were made up by the comperes themselves – as in ‘Kandivli Mumbai se Kishore Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Nutan aur Mukesh’, but who are we to deny some variety and fun to the Akashvani staff?

Perhaps as a matter of concession to South India, Vividh Bharati, most of whose programmes were in Hindi, broadcast fifteen minutes each of Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada songs from 4:30 to 5:30 pm, with the five-minute news bulletin at 5:00 pm eating into the quota for one of the languages. Vividh Bharati was fair and rotated the sequence every month, so that if it was Tamil that had only ten minutes last, it would me Malayalam this month, Telugu the next and Kannada after that. I also discovered that this pattern of rotation extended beyond this: Vividh Bharati had twenty or thirty sets of four songs each in the four languages and these would be played in sequences – so much so that a regular listener, having heard a song, could predict what the next song would be!

Transistor radios brought in a revolution of sorts. Portability was a selling point with them. One could see men walking around or riding bicycles and listening to the radio. A lion's share of the credit for the popularity of cricket in India should, in my view, go to the transistor radio. The way cricket lovers strained their ears to listen to the live commentary needs to be seen to be believed. As one moved away from the ‘range’ of the radio station, one had to turn the antenna, the radio, or oneself in a direction that would enhance the quality of reception.

FM and mobile phones have changed all that. Now music is on tap, as it were. You can store more music in a tiny device than you can listen to in your lifetime. This easy availability has, I am afraid, taken away some of the charm of the music one coaxed out of grandmother’s old Grundig.


pranavamravi said...

I too remember "The Breakfast show " of VoA. It was hosted by Pat Gates

premraj.c said...

Down memory lane... yes, sir, I was also a radio fan and these strange places like Jumritalaiya & Rajnandgaon really had lot of admirers of Hindi film songs.Birganj, Nepal was another place frequently mentioned in Vividh Bharati farmashiyon list.
I especially remember the Jayamala programme broadcast in the eveningm for fauji bayion.A celebrity from Hindi film world used to host this Jayamala programmes intended for soldiers. I don't remember exactly when MURPHY RADIO disappeared from the market.
Thanks for bringing back memories of my youth.