Mozart for the Classes, Weather for the Masses: Life Inside Kolkata’s Akashvani Studio

Music

Mozart for the Classes, Weather for the Masses: Life Inside Kolkata’s Akashvani Studio

Illustration: Sanira Mediratta

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ne of the most endearing sequences in Stranger Things 3 involves science camp returnee Dustin, his faraway girlfriend, and a gadget he refers to as “the Cadillac of ham radios”. As he waits for her voice to come alive at a crucial junction of the narrative, every second is loaded with suspense, until that triumphant moment when she comes on air after days of radio silence. That familiar crackle gave some of us who grew up in the ’80s a rush of nostalgia, especially those of us who began our careers as radio presenters in the hallowed portals of Akashvani Bhavan in the last of its glory days as the unchallenged broadcaster for the masses.

Sometime in the late ’90s, when FM channels were yet to change the way we consume radio, I began my first job as a part-time presenter for Yuva Bharati, the AIR’s “youthful” section. The youngest music that we had access to for these shows was at least two decades old. And we had the onerous task of playing this to an audience that was prepping for Y2K.

So how old was Akashvani? Well, it began as a private broadcasting company with radio stations in Mumbai and Kolkata in August 1927. Eventually the government took over and it was Rabindranath Tagore who rechristened it Akashvani, “the voice from the sky”. In its time, it hosted Nobel laureates, world-famous singers, performers, authors, activists and even live broadcasts of classical concerts. Legendary theatre persons gathered to record “Shruti Natak” or audio dramas.

The youngest music that we had access to for these shows was at least two decades old.

The Akashvani Bhavan Kolkata building was built in 1958, in a style it shares with most sarkari buildings in New Delhi. By the time it began to let young people take over some precious air time on its newly launched FM channel, it already had the feel of a retro bunker from a sci-fi movie set. There were labyrinthine corridors lined with cupboards stacked with LPs and EPs, which were produced even before our parents were born. Imagine the finest and rarest jazz albums, classic rock and blues, country, pop, soul, and folk music in scratchy LPs that produced the juiciest analogue music when played. It was all there.

There were massive BBC books that were meant to guide young presenters on how to pronounce Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, what constitutes a “movement” in classical music, and who is a soprano. There were more than a dozen studios, fitted with German consoles and turntables that were supposed to play spools — those silken brown tapes of music wound around a disc. The studio ACs were set to a frigid temperature, designed to insulate you from the world. Once you were inside, and the heavily padded doors gently shut you in, into your own time capsule, floating in dark space. Nothing like the zany office spaces and vibrant studios of Tumhari Sulu, or a place that could contain the infectious energy of say, a Malishka. This was the Akashvani, where you had to gather all your gravitas and wrap it around your 20-year-old self, so that people take you seriously.

Past memories of those heady days came back when recently President Kovind tweeted his condolences over the death of a legendary AIR voice — Barun Haldar.

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Imagine this. You are all alone in a studio, headphones on, not a soul in sight or within earshot. You have been given a script in a strange, coded language. Your eyes are on the Swiss watch on the wall, and as the hands move to the anointed time, you begin to read out weather warnings to fisherfolk who are probably tuned in to a radio set on a boat that has ventured out into the Sundarbans under a dark, moonless sky. There would be the rare classical music segment, preserved for late night transmissions, when Chopin played on an LP, lulling you to sleep. Suddenly you wake up with a start — you were supposed to introduce the next movement and you hurriedly push the “faders” (sliders to control audio volume) up to do the needful. All the time wondering, “Is anybody out there?”

It was only during the dial-in live shows that we knew exactly who was listening to us. Most of the time, it was the same set of loyal fans, who would want to talk to us, and be heard. It did not matter what music you played or what was the theme for the day. It was simply the assurance of radio chatter that drew listeners and a lonely presenter in a freezing studio to ride the waves together.

I vividly remember a very senior staff presenter, who would simply walk in with a book and start reading in a voice that was soaked in rum and perfect for endless evenings in a rocking chair. He would play music only when he needed to take a sip of water. On one occasion, we watched in complete bewilderment as he read out from Anna Karenina for an hour-long musical programme. He was a legend who received dozens of fan mails every week, from those in love with his boozy voice, his immaculate diction, and his posh taste in literature. What I found most remarkable was this took place in a time when the earliest private FM radio stations were beginning to play Shah Rukh Khan songs and chatting up college students to discuss dates and dressing up.

AIR, at the time, was all about the voices. Of celebrated singers, theatre persons, news casters, and presenters.

AIR did try to adapt to the changing tastes of the listener, who preferred to watch cable or was forced to tune in to the radio to survive a traffic jam. Without much success. Today, the gentleman who would read Anna Karenina to a retired school teacher somewhere in the Anglo-Indian neighbourhood of Bow Barracks, would find himself tuned out. Instead, there is Karan Johar talking about Sonam Kapoor’s wedding look, as ladies on the treadmill listen with rapt attention.

Past memories of those heady days came back when recently President Kovind tweeted his condolences over the death of a legendary AIR voice — Barun Haldar. I remember all the stories that we heard about the immense fan following he commanded for his unique timbre. I was in awe of the way he modulated his voice during the 9 pm news bulletin, bringing every word alive without the jingle jangle of visuals, tickers or theme music.

AIR, at the time, was all about the voices. Of celebrated singers, theatre persons, news casters, and presenters. The radio voice held its own without embellishments of distracting images or sound effects, reaching out to everyone, from the housewife tuning in to listen to her favourite play, to that student studying late into the night. A voice could make you fall in love. A voice could inspire your imagination to delightfully run riot. Because faces fade with time. But the voices in your head linger.

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