This April, the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations tweeted: “Get ready for a historic moment as the 100th episode of PM Modi’s ‘Mann Ki Baat’ is set to go live on April 30th in Trusteeship Council Chamber at @UN HQ!” Mann Ki Baat is the monthly radio programme of the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, where he expresses his views on current events and shares his Hindu nationalist thought. Broadcast on All India Radio, it is a centrepiece of Modi’s communication strategy, presented as his way of reaching out directly to the common Indian citizen. That Modi has persisted with his radio broadcasts since shortly after he took power in 2014 is testament to the lasting reach and power of what is today often seen as an outmoded medium (though Mann Ki Baat also goes out as a podcast for those more online-inclined). The show’s 100th episode was broadcast globally, with even organs of Indian diplomacy roped in to make an event of it. The tweet by the Permanent Mission of India put on display not just radio’s still-enormous communication potential, but also how nation-states and political leaders aim to retain control over it, even in the digital era, for use towards their ideological and strategic goals. With the anniversary episode and the tweet, Modi was looking to go global with a tool otherwise largely confined to his listenership within the borders of India.
Control over radio, as well as transnational listenership of the medium, is of course not a preserve of the present – much research and many books have captured the histories of these phenomena from various angles. Take, for instance, the scholar Anandita Bajpai’s Cordial Cold War (2021), which looks at Cold War affiliations through the lens of sonic cultures in India and Germany. Or consider the remarks from 1994 by Krishna Chandra Sharma, a former director general of All India Radio, quoted in a 2008 paper by the researcher Alasdair Pinkerton: “The relationship between the BBC and Indian listeners has been one of love and hate. Love for the professional competence and hate as it represented the voice of a colonial empire. Even during the post-freedom period, more often than not a bias against India was discernible in BBC broadcasts in our conflicts with Pakistan, particularly on the Kashmir issue.”
The historian Isabel Huacuja Alonso’s Radio for the Millions: Hindi-Urdu Broadcasting Across Borders is a new addition to the list of scholarly works on the geopolitics of radio in Southasia. Airwaves naturally disobey manmade borders, and this same defiance of nation-state divisions prevails in some degree in entire swathes of people bound by common connections to transnational radio. Of course, radio can also be used for pointedly nationalistic goals, as Modi has often deployed it in his broadcasts pushing India-centric and Hindu national agendas, but Huacuja Alonso’s book presents a politico-cultural life of a part of Southasia that still displays this disobedience. Weaving together “earwitnessed” radio histories, Huacuja Alonso studies the golden age of the medium, charting half a century of Hindi and Urdu radio listenership in Southasia from the 1930s to the 1980s. This is set against the backdrop of the Second World War, movements for freedom from oppressive rule and the brutal experiences of Partition, while highlighting instances of continuity and connectedness in the oral and aural lives of Southasian people.
Radio for the Millions deftly takes us through these radio histories, written in a fairly linear fashion but infused with narratives and people-centric vignettes. One of the first ideas the book introduces us to is that of transnational radio publics. Recounting stories of the usage of radio broadcasting by the Axis powers in the Second World War and of British imperial broadcasting in the Subcontinent, Huacuja Alonso sets the stage for us to navigate the unbounded nature of radio broadcasting, often overriding prevailing political landscapes to make and re-make transnational publics over the decades. This transnationalism is central to Huacuja Alonso’s inquiry into Hindi-Urdu radio broadcasting and listenership, embedding fluidity into otherwise rigid conceptualisations of territorialised audiences and their preferences. For instance, Huacuja Alonso talks about how Axis radio became an overnight sensation in India right at the outbreak of the Second World War, much to the chagrin of British officials. “Colonial officers’ concern with the spread of rumors ‘directly traceable to radio broadcasts’ suggests that radio’s power in wartime India lay not so much in its ability to ‘broadcast’ information,” Huacuja Alonso writes, “but rather in its ability to trigger discussion about that information.”
Airwaves naturally disobey manmade borders, and this same defiance of nation-state divisions prevails in entire swathes of people bound by common connections to transnational radio.
During the war, Berlin broadcast in Hindustani and found many earwitnesses in India. Central to these broadcasts was the idea that the Axis powers supported Indian independence, and the programming spanned news bulletins on current global events and exposés on the evils of British imperialism. Presenters spoke to Indian listeners as members of the resistance, with the promise that they could become “part of a revolutionary anticolonial community on the airwaves” simply by tuning in. Indian students in German universities were recruited as scriptwriters and translators, with the newsreaders often presenting themselves as exiled anticolonial activists. Hindustani was often used to suggest an inclusive language that was neither “Hindu Hindi” nor “Muslim Urdu.” As Huacuja Alonso puts it, “More than a language, Hindustani was an ideology and linguistic commitment to an anticommunal agenda. Moreover, Hindustani was a ‘utopian symbol’ not only because it was free of religious affiliations but also because it promised to be a lingua franca that would connect speakers of other regional languages without threatening regional tongues and identities.”
Huacuja Alonso then showcases All India Radio’s response to these efforts. AIR received fresh funds and personnel, including the renowned Urdu writer and broadcaster Patras Bukhari, who was made and remained the head of AIR through the Second World War, Independence and Partition. In May 1940, AIR introduced Berlin Ki Khabren (Berlin News), which aired from stations in Delhi, Bombay, Lahore and Lucknow. This Hindustani-language programme discussed news events and pointed out biases and fallacies in German broadcasts. But there were debates regarding the effectiveness of such counter-propaganda programmes, as they inadvertently pushed Indian listeners to tune in to enemy airwaves. There was also the Central News Organisation, a centralised radio news body set up by Lionel Fielden, the director of AIR from 1935 to 1940. It was tasked with selecting, editing and translating news into various languages of the Subcontinent, with bulletins in Hindustani and English, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Pashto.
Radio for the Millions seeks to move away from histories that focus solely on Mohandas Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, and instead showcase how affinities for the Axis powers and sympathy for fascism also shaped anticolonial struggles in the Subcontinent. The Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose’s effective usage of radio to bring home his anti-colonial messages from shifting locales in Europe and Southeast Asia makes for interesting narration, underscoring not only the role of radio in his life but also the life of war-engulfed Southasia at the time. In doing so, Huacuja Alonso centres Southasian experiences in the Second World War in a bid to go beyond a Eurocentric focus. “Although both Bose and, more generally, South Asia are largely absent from global histories of World War II, Bose is actually one of the most intriguing wartime characters,” Huacuja Alonso writes. “Hoping to overthrow the British colonial yoke, Bose made a problematic strategic alliance with the Axis powers, outing not only the colonial administration in India, but also Gandhi’s pacifist anticolonial campaign.” Bose promoted the idea of simply listening to Axis radio broadcasts as a form of defiance against the British colonial government, making listeners feel a part of a revolutionary community. Still, he also espoused listening to the AIR and the BBC – which he mockingly referred to as “Anti-India Radio” and “Bluff and Bluster Corporation” – to find out and understand the colonial government’s intentions and strategies.
Subhas Chandra Bose’s ties to Nazism and fascism were stronger than historians have acknowledged, and a detailed study of radio can help revise the previously accepted narratives of his life.
Later, Bose’s associates in Berlin took an active role in the Quit India Movement of 1942. Bose’s radio station Azad Hind (Free India), which aired first from Germany and then from Singapore, Myanmar and Japan, spawned two new radio stations, Radio Waziristan and the Berlin-based Congress Radio, which aired updates about the Quit India movement and “was intentionally incendiary”. (Another station called Congress Radio was started in Bombay, also during the Quit India movement, as detailed in the scholar Usha Thakkar’s 2021 book Congress Radio: Usha Mehta and the Underground Radio Station of 1942.) These were a type of counterfeit radio station where the broadcasters concealed their true locations and claimed they were broadcasting from India, and they became British radio’s most prominent competitors. Huacuja Alonso also notes that Bose’s ties to Nazism and fascism were stronger than historians have acknowledged, and a detailed study of radio can help revise the previously accepted narratives of his life.
Owing to the limited number of radio stations in India at the time and the colonial government’s censorship of printed media, Bose also used the medium of radio strategically to encourage word-of-mouth discussion about his broadcasts. For instance, after Axis radio announcers began reporting on the devastating famine in Bengal as early as 1942, in August 1943 Bose broadcast an offer to send rice to Bengal, his home province. The British administration had made efforts to contain news of the famine for fear that it would encourage hoarding, but also to hide its own culpability.
Radio listenership can act as connective tissue, welding together communities that have been artificially dismemberment by rigid border regimes.
While radio became synonymous with transnational publics during the Second World War and the Independence movement in colonial India, contemporary India has seen efforts to foist radio upon it as a means of promoting a unified national identity. For instance, in 2022, protestors in Tamil Nadu, offended at efforts to impose Hindi on the whole country through the National Education Policy, also took exception to broadcasts on All India Radio. S Ramadoss, the leader of the Tamil Nadu-based political party Pattali Makkal Katchi, was quoted as saying, “Bringing uniform radio programs in India, which is diverse in terms of language and culture, is against the country’s principle of unity in diversity.”
Connected to the idea of transnational publics is the idea of continuity, especially of communities in Southasia. In Indian Migration and Empire, the sociologist Radhika Mongia talks about the “logics of constraint” that animate state practices around migration the world over. This is visible in rigid regimes that seek to control mobility across borders. Against this backdrop, radio listenership can act as connective tissue, welding together communities that have been artificially dismemberment – as, for instance, with Partition in 1947, or through the other forced territorial partitions and rigid border regimes that have proliferated in Southasia since.
This was most visible to me when I conducted fieldwork for my doctorate in Nepal. The people of the Tarai-Madhesh region of Nepal, bordering India, shared fascinating instances of crossborder radio listenership and broadcasting. One interlocutor recounted how local leaders often used radio stations in adjoining areas across the India–Nepal border to broadcast their messages and manifestos to the Indian side. Elsewhere in the Subcontinent, in another example of cross-border radio connections, two private Indian FM channels collaborated with radio stations in Pakistan in 2012 to promote an Indo-Pakistani singing talent show called Sur Kshetra. More recently, in 2020, AIR Srinagar set up a station near the Line of Control in India-administered Kashmir to relay programmes in the Pahari and Gujari languages to people in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Radio Ceylon embraced Hindustani in its broadcasts, sidestepping the linguistic policies and politics of both the Indian and Pakistani governments, which privileged Hindi and Urdu respectively.
Radio for the Millions takes us through the popularity of Radio Ceylon’s broadcasting in India and Pakistan – an example of radio’s use for something far from state propaganda. Radio Ceylon, the first radio station in Asia, was a successful commercial radio station based in Sri Lanka in the decades following the independence of India and Pakistan. Huacuja Alonso recounts an instance from 2007, when Ameen Sayani, an iconic Radio Ceylon presenter from India, visited Pakistan for the first time. Fans of Radio Ceylon thronged to an auditorium in Karachi to listen to, reminisce about and cheer Sayani as he played clips from his old and immensely popular programmes on Radio Ceylon. Huacuja Alonso generously presents newspaper clippings that testify to how Radio Ceylon’s programming served as a balm and a thread, bringing together communities of listeners even across hostile borders. Reports in the Pakistan press celebrated Sayani as an eminent voice of the Pakistani soundscape. The Urdu-language newspaper Daily Express, for example, wrote that Sayani “ties India and Pakistan together.”
Radio Ceylon embraced Hindustani in its broadcasts, sidestepping the linguistic policies and politics of both the Indian and Pakistani governments, which privileged Hindi and Urdu respectively. Even then, listeners did not necessarily need to understand the language broadcasters spoke to enjoy the music they aired or grasp the gist of announcers’ commentary. However, Huacuja Alonso also points out, Radio Ceylon was a money-making enterprise, broadcasting a commercial form of music that stifled other, less profitable forms of musical expression.
Radio for the Millions takes up the idea of language as a means of shared meaning-making, but also as a conduit for sonic intimacies. In language’s variances, multiplicity and pluralities lies its ability to contain memories of bygone eras and memoirs of liminal voices, to retain its flexibility and malleability, and to sustain and enrich itself through the centuries. To constrict and standardise a language is to concede this ability. Going back to colonial efforts at negating Hindustani, and also efforts at dividing Hindi and Urdu broadcasting into separate constituencies, Huacuja Alonso has readers encounter and understand the imperatives that drove the partitioning of people and also of shared cultures at the end of colonial rule.
Huacuja Alonso also presents independent India’s efforts at standardising language for radio broadcasting by cultivating a Sanskritised and chaste form of Hindi, and also the use of a narrow conceptualisation of music for play on radio programmes, set in place by B V Keskar, the country’s minister for information and broadcasting from 1952 to 1962. The focus of this vision was classical music, and Keskar ordered AIR stations to stop broadcasting Hindi film songs altogether. Part of his efforts was the National Programme for Music, an hour-long radio programme featuring the country’s top Hindustani and Carnatic musicians, broadcast on weekend nights at peak listening time. All of this was in congruence with Keskar’s vision for AIR as a monopoly broadcaster of the central government, with a key role in integrating India’s culture. From his attempt to revive Indian classical music traditions through radio emerged the now common but narrow conception of “Hindustani in the North and Carnatic music in the South of India”.
That Narendra Modi has persisted with his radio broadcasts since he took power in 2014 is testament to the lasting reach and power of what is today seen as an outmoded medium.
Language remained a hotly contested topic at All India Radio. Keskar’s communalism was evident in AIR’s approach to language, where he hewed to the policies of Vallabhbhai Patel – one of India’s most communalist leaders at the time, who was home minister and minister of information and broadcasting from 1946 in the interim government formed to aid the transition to independent rule, and also in the first independent government that followed.. Huacuja Alonso argues that Patel’s most influential broadcasting policy was eliminating Hindustani broadcasting in favour of separate Hindi and Urdu programmes, which ensured “AIR’s linguistic partitioning preceded the subcontinent’s partition.” Keskar, who became the minister of information and broadcasting a couple of years after Patel’s death, carried forward his predecessor’s initiative to promote Sanskritised Hindi as a national language through radio, as well as to use classical music to promote seemingly elite sensibilities among the masses. News was relayed in Hindi and embellished with Sanskrit terminology, which departed from the colloquial Persian- and Arabic-origin words and phrases in common use. Undergirding this was an imagination of AIR’s audiences as hapless and uncultured masses that needed to be prodded and trained into not just ostensibly more cultivated linguistic and musical sensibilities, but also into new identities in post-Partition India.
As a corollary, Keskar was vehemently opposed to the film music freely broadcast on Radio Ceylon, harking back to the “ideology of Hindustani” that embraced linguistic plurality without imposing standardisation of language. Plenty of archival documents claim that Partition effectively “killed” Hindustani. In contrast, radio sources show that Hindustani thrived on the airwaves at the very time that governments and some scholars declared it dead. This shared language of the masses continued to hold sway via Radio Ceylon’s programming, based firmly around film songs. For instance, listeners were deeply invested in film-song competitions, as well as in Binaca Geetmala (the latter word translates to “garland of songs”), a countdown show of Hindi film songs broadcast every week for four decades. The show was hosted by Sayani, who introduced listeners to the popular ranking system sangit siṛhi (musical ladder). One listener, Anil Bhargava, diligently recorded all the songs featured during the show’s forty-plus years on air. Based on these notes, he later wrote a book called Binaca Geetmala Ka Surila Safar (Binaca Geetmala’s melodious journey). But even Hindustani broadcasting came with problematic baggage – in its own way, the language could be deeply hegemonic. Huacuja Alonso writes, “South Asia is a richly linguistic [sic] diverse region, home to several hundred languages, and the search for a North Indian lingua franca inevitably stifled regional tongues.”
Among the many ideas that Huacuja Alonso draws together and mobilises is that of resonance. This is most reflected in the portions on war, rumour, gossip and radio programming in Radio for the Millions. For instance, Subhas Chandra Bose’s messages on the radio about his many manoeuvres and travels in the face of British attempts to constrict him provoked gossip and rumour-mongering, a facet of radio’s wider resonance as described by Huacuja Alonso. Similarly, the many conversations around radio programming, as with the vocal criticism of AIR over its policy of broadcasting only certain kinds of music, are shown as examples of resonance and how listeners “talk” about radio. This is showcased further in the way audiences engaged in conversations on Radio Ceylon’s broadcasts of Hindi film music. From street-side tea shops and college canteens to the privacy of their homes, listeners often engaged in banter around the ranking of film songs on Radio Ceylon shows.
The power of music, as well as of oral aural media generally, evidenced by their affective and sentimental dimensions, is something Huacuja Alonso refers to several times, especially with instances like the broadcasting of Binaca Geetmala and how its popularity held people together across borders. The programme reached peak popularity between the mid-1950s and the 1970s, and had a central role in making Hindi film songs the leading popular music of Southasia. Huacuja Alonso recounts a conversation with Ameen Sayani where he attributes the success of the show to “the talk” that surrounded his programme, which ensured that the music aired reached “millions”. The public conversation around Sayani’s programme was categorically much like that surrounding Bose’s broadcasts and his competitor’s responses.
While we stare at the formidable task of democratising media and expression, it bears to remember Huacuja Alonso’s message that “South Asian radio history is South Asian history.”
The book also presents instances of radio audiences listening to the visual – for instance, in the ways film songs were presented by radio stations, and imagined and visualised by listeners. One example of this was Drišya Aur Git (Scene and Song), a programme on Radio Ceylon that got listeners to write in about the film scenes preceding particular songs, which the host read out, with interjections of their own commentary, before playing the songs in question. This allowed those who could not watch the films the songs were drawn from to at least visualise parts of them, and those who did get to watch the films to recount the movie-going experience. Through these programmes, Radio Ceylon contributed to what the ethnomusicologist Anna Morcom refers to as the “double lives” of Hindi film songs, with their potential to circulate outside the cinema halls while remaining attached to their original films. In her narration of the aural appeal of these radio programmes and the songs used to advertise the associated films, Huacuja Alonso successfully gets her readers to visualise and imagine listening to some of these songs through prose, only deepening their affective appeal.
Ears and eyes
As it unravels histories of airwaves transcending man-made borders in the Subcontinent, Radio for the Millions itself occupies an elusive space transcending disciplinary boundaries. Huacuja Alonso is conscious of and highlights the interdisciplinary nature of her research, which brings into productive conversation disciplines that are otherwise siloed. Huacuja Alonso draws on Southasian historiography, media studies, politics and global affairs, and more. Similarly, the research is methodologically eclectic, drawing on archival work, historiography, audience studies, and content and textual analyses. The book makes an important contribution, especially in unearthing and resurrecting liminal voices, which make up what I would call a kind of archaeology of Southasian media.
Huacuja Alonso gently nudges us back to the present moment in illustrating the popularity of podcasts. This allows us to reflect on the current state of media in Southasia, and the ability of the region’s communities and citizenry to actively shape it. The nosedive of quality and credibility in news television in the region in recent times, especially in India, is a spectacle that I have witnessed with much dismay. Newer forms of popular DIY media that draw on the potential of the internet as a space for creativity and openness, where alternatives to older and increasingly discredited media are taking shape, are also being marred by the efforts of states and corporations alike to regulate, govern and monetise them. The biggest threats to the media in Southasia are once again coming from actors who see media audiences as hapless masses who need to be goaded and governed, this time often in service of divisive religious propaganda and the profits of big corporations.
In discussing whether new forms of audio media can break free from state ideologies as effectively as radio once did, Huacuja Alonso ends on a cautious yet hopeful note: “Some of the most powerful challenges to state projects on the radio came at the precise time when imperial and independent governments had tightened their hold over the medium.” While we stare at the formidable task of democratising media and expression in Southasia, it bears to remember Huacuja Alonso’s message that “the study of media forms, and in particular sound media, is fundamental to the study of history,” and that “South Asian radio history is South Asian history.”