Prasar Bharati

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Friday, July 8, 2016

Breath of Fresh AIR


At 8.30 pm, Akhil Mittal read out the news, followed by excerpts from the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s speech at a rally in Dehradun. It was sometime in the early 1980s. No one who heard Mittal’s confident baritone would have guessed how much agony he had been in to ensure the tape containing Gandhi’s speech made it to All India Radio (AIR)’s headquarters on Parliament Street in Delhi.

Mittal, along with his crew, had recorded Gandhi’s speech in Dehradun and set off to the AIR station in Najibabad, 150 km away, from where the speech would be sent through hand-cranked dynamo phones. They had barely reached Doiwala, outside Dehradun, when their car broke down. “We quickly got on the Janta Express that was headed to Najibabad, without a ticket and in first class. When the TTE came in, I told him I was from AIR and was carrying the tape of the PM’s speech and that if he made me get off the train, I would lose my job. Then I told him after a pause, ‘You would lose yours too’,” says Mittal, 59, who has been reading the Hindi bulletin at AIR for over 36 years now. He made it just in time.

Before TV and FM radio made a high-decibel entry into our lives, AIR was what people tuned into for their daily dose of entertainment and information. For decades, its most recognisable sound was the dolorous score that announced an upcoming broadcast. It was composed by Walter Kauffman, a Jewish refugee in India, with a single violin played by Mehli Mehta (Zubin Mehta’s father) over a tanpura drone.

In 1936, the Indian State Broadcasting Service was renamed All India Radio and the first radio station was installed by MV Gopalaswamy in Mysore. He also came up with the name, Akaashvani, which has been AIR’s official name since 1956.Around the time India became independent, it had six radio stations — in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Tiruchirappalli and Lucknow. It was one of the largest broadcasting organisations in the world in terms of the number of languages broadcast. At present, there are 415 stations at national, regional and local levels, with programming in 23 languages and 146 dialects.

Before television brought news from all corners of the world into our drawing rooms, it was AIR that brought the world to India. “Everyone wanted to be heard through AIR. When Che Guevara came to India in 1959, he was interviewed on AIR. All Indian politicians and ministers wanted to be heard through this medium,” says Jawhar Sircar, Prasar Bharati CEO.

A new nation, diverse as it was, needed a new language and Hindustani was the chosen one. Veteran radio broadcaster Ameen Sayani, whose mother, Kulsum Sayani, played a significant role in the freedom movement, recalls the conversation she had with Mahatma Gandhi. “He said he wanted Hindustani — a blend of Hindi and Urdu, with no difficult words — to become the lingua franca of India. After Independence, it was a matter of pride to speak in Hindustani. More so, if you did it on AIR,” says 83-year-old Sayani. He failed his first Hindustani audition at AIR in Mumbai because of a “strong Gujarati and English accent in the spoken Hindustani”. He worked hard on getting his pronunciation right, got the job and went on to become one of Indian radio’s most popular voices.


Forwarded By: Alokesh Gupta ,alokeshgupta@gmail.com

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