Decades ago, before TV, long before news became entertainment, when IT still meant income tax, when technology and ‘truth’ were somehow considered akin (it was a short electromagnetic leap from Marconi to Melville de Mello...) radio ruled the waves. That was the time when dinner was not served till the master of the house had listened to the 9 o’clock on All India Radio — and if it was the voice of de Mello or Latika Ratnam or Surajit Sen, how could the news be doubted?
For it was the single fount of authority, grave and measured, delivered at fixed times to listeners who dropped everything else to listen to it, and not the present-day 24-hour onslaught of choice where all media say the same thing (and nobody believes them anyway).
Akashvani Mysore of Mysore State made way for All India Radio (AIR) after independence, and Nehru, in the spirit that considered multi-purpose dams to be the temples of new India, believed that AIR must be enlisted to build the nation; so the same elitist fare was served to all, in a bid to ‘refine’ and educate us, before we were rendered philistine by the tyranny of plenty. One would not have thought that there would come a time when the plaintive wail of the AIR signature tune would be rarely heard, or that one could remember so clearly the ‘menu’ offered by AIR 40 years ago.
News was serious business, but always engaging, and news slots distinguished the time of day. Entertainment, as always, was film-based, but was clearly different from news. At a time when news channels and newspapers give equal space and importance to news of grave import (Maoists decimating an army battalion) and trivia (the Sania-Shoaib romance) or report sports news in the metaphor of war (‘Holes in Dhoni tactics sank India’), it is not just nostalgia that makes old timers recall the measured reporting on the Bangladesh War by Melville de Mello, which people waited for all day, for it was only at 9.15, after the news that the bulletin was given. Needs versus wants
With an iron hand, AIR gave us what we ‘needed’ rather than ‘wanted’ — so we had the best of classical music — AIR’s patronage of ‘artistes’ has contributed considerably to keeping our music tradition alive, and an old favourite like ‘Sangeet Sarita’ continues to demonstrate, in all of 15 minutes, how our popular music draws on its roots in the classical tradition.
Film songs came to us, invested with a dignity that the Vividh Bharati announcer gave them, in countdown shows — forerunners of everything there is on today’s television and radio, and a far cry from the hogo-baro familiarity of today’s presenters. However, it must be admitted that it was Radio Ceylon’s ‘Binaca Geet Mala’ hosted by the butterscotch-voiced Ameen Sayani that was always more popular — our own Cibaca-sponsored version was a pale copy.
Yuvavani, with its popular Western music programmes was a late entrant in the 70s; by then our hearts were given to Radio Ceylon, to BBC’s foreign service — one recalls offhand, Dave Lee Travis of The Jolly Good Show (surely it was our colonial will to abasement which made us stick with him as he insulted his listeners!), John Peel and Tommy Vance of Rock Salad, Radio Kuwait, Voice of America and Radio Australia.
But what radio aficionados most lament is what the new media has done to cricket — shrinking it like an undergarment wrung in the washer to its mini-version — from 5 days to 50 overs and now just 20!
Any day, an old Mysore diehard whose left ear has cauliflowered in the heat of a transistor pressed close for days at a stretch to listen to the greats such as Bobby Talyarkhan, Pearson Surita and Berry Sarvadhikari, asserts that he is ready to sacrifice the precision of the third umpire and the concealed mike that registers the telltale thlock of ball on wicket, for the mastery of those commentators who could bring the game alive in a way that the all-seeing camera cannot — Talyarkhan, who apparently could last the whole five-day game without food and water, was at his finest when he pronounced Gundappa Vishwanath a ‘demi-god’ one morning in 1972 when GRV hooked a bowler at Brabourne against Tony Greig’s English side, on his way to a century.
But that was when the game was the preserve of gentlemen, when teams belonged to countries and only horses were bought and sold (and shot to be put out of their misery).
Well, so much for nostalgia. One can argue that the proliferation of media channels or the onslaught of excess is a reflection of the times we live in, that they are the result of a democratic transparency and easy accessibility, that concepts of ‘good taste’ are changing, that it is the media that is the great leveller.
That gained, strangely, with choice has come not more variety, more discriminating taste but endless variations of the same thing — today’s TV channels even have their advertisement slots synchronised, and the scores of FM radio channels play the same kind of music presented by similarly chippy RJs.
If the excess of riches has deadened our palates, our minds too seem to have shrunk as our programmes testify; we demand, like children to be instantly gratified, to be fed in small, tasty, easily digestible bites, which we will consume when we are multi-tasking.
In the name of variety we have a proliferation of the trivial, and giving people a wide choice or approaching all matters with the same sensational broad brush implies that everything is equally valid and important and carries equal priority — from here it is just a step for the media consumer to conclude that nothing really matters but what affects her alone.
The radio today is a symbol perhaps of what we have lost — a shared sense of community, of a people with a common destiny, a goal that we all aspired to together (and the private world of social networking is no substitute). Also lost in the process where everything is upfront and spelt out is the imaginative act of distancing and reconstruction, so necessary to empathise with a fellow human being while keeping your private self intact.