I mixed my mountain of boiled rice with its steaming lava of sambhar and bit off a fried sardine to concoct the perfect fodder for a hungry palate. The scene was the lunch hour at ‘Hotel Matha’ near the Thiruvananthapuram Engineering College campus and we, meaning students and some professors who jam-packed the dining rooms, were being force-fed the side-dish of regulation radio broadcast. The health programme came sandwiched between the 12.30 pm regional and 12.50 pm Delhi Malayalam news bulletins. By the time Ms Sushama from Delhi started telling us about the goodies lined up in Yashwant Sinha’s Union budget in a voice that sounded like she was in labour pain, I stuffed my face with aviyal and pulissery and topped off the daily carnival with salted buttermilk. This was two decades ago and the price of that sumptuous meal came to a princely Rs 5.
Looking at the enormous amount of television my fifth grader son has experienced already, it amuses me to think that my generation had not even seen a TV set before we were 11. Radio was our first memory of information and entertainment from the skies. The slow fading out of radio from our lives reminds me of that hit song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by music band The Buggles in the ‘70s. This was a lament for the demise of pure musicians as opposed to entertainers though. All India Radio (AIR) also known as Akashavani was an integral part of our growing years. Vividh Bharati was its entertainment channel. Even in our initial TV years the mornings were reserved for radio since stuff came on in telly only in the evenings. How many mornings have we woken to the spiritually elevating chant of Venkatesa Suprabhatham by M.S. Subbalakshmi or the inimitable Jnanappana recital of P. Leela! The most famous Malayali that ever took breath, K. J. Yesudas, owes his fame largely to radio even if the silver screen is where his playback lent life to the exploits of the smooth-chinned Nazirs and Mammoottys. What happened in the outside world was something we read about and heard about and very rarely saw. I remember newsreels preceding feature films in theatres showing black and white footage of Indira Gandhi calling on Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow, India playing Pakistan in a Test, the agricultural revolution, family planning (‘We Two, Ours Two’), etc. FM (Frequency Modulation) radio was not popular in the 80’s and it was all SW (Short Wave). The importance of radio can be gauged from the ‘radio mantapam’ in the premises of the Thiruvananthapuram Museum where the public flocked on evenings for the broadcast blaring out of loud speakers. Interestingly it was intended as a classical European style bandstand by the Travancore kings who built it.
None of us at home knew the sa ri ga ma of music (save to some extent mom who is said to have taken those classes when very young) but we listened to masters like Perumbavoor G. Ravindranath, K.P. Udayabhanu and Kavalam Narayana Panicker dinning into impressionable kids the nuances of classical music as it marked our breakfast time. ‘Amma, “Asatho ma sath gamaya” started!’ my little sister would yell, hinting at the signature song of a programme which took off a mere ten minutes before her school van arrived. Ishta Ganangal brought us songs of listeners’ choice. A laundry list of people and place names painstakingly read out by the announcers took up a chunk of the time. Yet the songs aired there were our sole source for listening as tape recorders were not all that affordable. We did go to movies which on their part were an embarrassment of riches. A cursory look at the list of Malayalam movies released in 1986, the year of my matriculation, show that at least 50 of them are enjoyable even today. And who could have gone to all of them! Forget iPods, I am talking of the days before Walkman, CD man and mobile devices. Some of the hit radio songs were even from movies like Neelakkadamb and Kaattupothth that never saw the light of the day. Complementing Malayalam was Chchaaya Geet in Hindi. Lata Mangeshkar among women and the trio of Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar among men ruled the roost. The lyricists impressed with names like Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultanpuri that sounded so Urdu. Late night was when I listened to them. Sad melodies like Rafi’s ‘Na aadmi ka koi bharosa’ robbed me off sleep and tormented me with thoughts of a dishonest duniya. K.L. Saigal almost had me hitting the bottle before permissible age.
Fairs, places of worship and community gatherings used radio generously but no place has come to symbolize the intellectual intake of radio news better than the barber shop, for long a male preserve. In early ‘90 I was getting a cut at my regular shop in Sreekariam when the radio announced that a Central Minister then visiting nearby Chempazhanthy, extolled the virtues of Sree Narayana Guru with such and such words. ‘What do these creeps know about Guru’ my parochial barber could not hold his ire as I feared a razor attack on my innocent neck, ‘Isn’t he just parroting what somebody has written for him?’ ‘Yessir’, I seconded him for fear of dear life. Cricket commentary was and is superlative on radio. Legendary names like Melville de Mello one only heard about but the ones in the ‘80s were not bad at all. Ravi Chaturvedi in spite of using archaic words like a Munshi who strayed into sports, fitted the bill well. Because of the explicit visuals, most TV commentators hardly took the trouble of describing what they saw, exceptions like Henry Blofeld (with his eye for ear rings), Dr. Narottam Puri and the IIM Ahmedabad product Harsha Bhogle notwithstanding. Suffice it to say I had the radio plugged to my ears as I watched the final of the ’92 cricket World Cup between Pakistan and England on muted TV. The best Malayalam commentary on the radio for me was not of a conventional sport but the Nehru trophy boat race at Aranmula. ‘Aaru vaangum inn aaru vaangum ee aaraamathinte romancham?’ the excited commentator quoted the romantic poet Changampuzha. Radio jockeys or RJs are instrumental in bringing FM radio back in popularity especially in cars and buses. The jerky gestures of their VJ or Video jockey counterparts on TV are better seen on the mute for comic effect. The trend was set for RJs by my college mate Ram Balashanker who anchored Sunday Selections in the early ‘90s. Radio plays were a rage and ‘actors’ like T.P. Radhamani achieved cult status in daily listeners’ minds. I was fortunate to listen to Ramesan Nair’s play Shatabhishekam, a political satire that poked fun at the then Chief Minister K. Karunakaran. No sooner was it aired than Nair was transferred as punishment to Andaman and Nicobar islands. Many of our films are verbose talkathons whose soundtracks are enough to give us the full ‘movie’ experience. Best examples are Priyadarshan’s films, a few of which I experienced first on radio. Kandathum Kaettathum was a much-awaited weekly evening skit. Some of the innumerable catchy ads helped me imbibe worldly wisdom early…such as that the only means to a happy family life is Nirodh. My two cents for AIR was an ad jingle I wrote during Onam ‘97 for a Bangalore ad agency for their client BPL.
One of my favorite newsreaders from Thiruvananthapuram station was Ramachandran with his unique style of narration that evoked curiosity in even dry topics. He is also the reason we tuned in to the account of weird events from around the world, Kauthuka Varthakal. Prathapan read news straight and neat. From Delhi there was the late Venmani Vishnu who played the lead part in Shaji Karun’s film Swaham after his retirement. Poornam Viswanathan who played Renjini’s father in the evergreen hit Chitram was an AIR man. He read Tamil news from Delhi including on the day India became independent. He passed away in ‘08. My ears were glued to a pocket radio on 31st Oct ’84 when suddenly the commentary of the cricket match I was listening to stopped. Reason was that the match was called off following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. The great story teller and film maker P. Padmarjan started his career as a programme announcer with AIR. His wife Radhalakshmi also worked there. His Thrissur station days and the stay at Rama Nilayam provided source material for Thoovanathumpikal. Giving him company during extended smoke breaks was a junior called Venu Nagavally. It was at Pappan’s insistence that Venu ventured into films with the forlorn lover’s part in Ullkkadal. Venu’s father Nagavally R. S. Kurup was a regular in radio plays as were Jagathy N. K. Achary, Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair, Aranmula Ponnamma and Mavelikkara Ponnamma. Malayali girl Rini Simon nee Khanna read English news from Delhi on both AIR and DD. I came to be in awe of Sanskrit after listening, without understanding a thing of course, to news bulletins in this language of the gods where prose and poetry are apparently the same. ‘Iyam Akashavani. Samprathi varthaah shrooyantham. Pravachaka Baladev Anand Sagarah….. asya nava Dillyam pradhana mantrinaam Gandhi mahabhagasya…..Ithi varthaah’ went the news sloka recital. Discerning listeners tuned in to Voice of America (VOA) or British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for a better grip on world news. Fr. Dominic, a priest from my school St. Joseph’s, was deputed to Vatican as director of their Malayalam broadcast. The school’s science club encouraged us to experiment with ham or amateur radio at homes.
The radio has undergone transformations from valve to transistor to digital transmissions to internet radio and podcasts. When Orson Welles broadcast his adaptation of H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds, panicked listeners took to the streets believing that the alien invasion was for real. Radio carried to people Nehru’s ‘Tryst With Destiny’, Churchill’s ‘We Shall Fight On The Beaches’ and Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speeches. Hitler and his propaganda minister Goebbels misused the medium to spread their diabolic agenda. TV has encroached into even rural tea shops where continuously playing Akashavani was once as crucial to business as the pazhampori and sukhiyan showcased in glass almirahs. In an old Malayalam movie called Aalmaram, Adoor Bhasi played a gossip-monger who is (nick)named Radio Bhasi. In the land of a million arguments that is India, radio, without doubt, provided the perfect medium for endless discussions and debates. The charm of the hearing marvel will surely endure.