Historian of sound media and South Asia, Isabel Huacuja Alonso’s book ‘Radio For The Millions’ gets its title from a conversation with former radio announcer Ameen Sayani.

Ninety-year-old Sayani told Alonso more recently that all the talk that surrounded his program in the 1950s ensured that popular Hindustani music reached millions soon after Independence.

Remember Sayani of Radio Ceylon’s Binaca 'Geetmala' fame? The then 20-year-old Sayani was the iconic host of 'Geetmala', or a garland of songs, at Radio Ceylon that was known as the king of the airwaves. In the book, the author takes readers decades back to times when the 'Geetmala' show began under humble circumstances but went on to rule the airwaves till the late 1980s.

'Geetmala' had first aired in 1952 and was an instant hit, receiving an average of 65,000 letters a week from listeners. 'Geetmala' was Radio Ceylon’s most enduring program precisely because of the attractive way the radio had engaged with audiences in between advertisements for a toothpaste brand.

The book traces the history of radio broadcasting in Hindi and in Urdu in North India and Pakistan, focusing on the late colonial and early post-independence era. It is a study of the contribution of radio in the creation of the Indo-Pak border between 1920 and 1980 and the role of the media, specifically sound media, in the making and unmaking of borders in South Asia.

The story about radio broadcasting in India during the final decade of British rule and the early years of independent India and Pakistan is about inadequate technology, sparse audiences and broadcast authorities who seemed at times to drive away listeners.

The author deals with the period from the late 1930s when mostly reluctant British officials had treated the new technology with a combination of apathy and suspicion, as trivial or dangerous, until the late 1970s and early 80s. This is before state-run television became popular, surrendered to private and commercial competition, only to be nearly overtaken by the internet and social media.

Academic studies of the historic development of the radio are rare and that is one reason why this book is precious. It is thrilling to note that despite efforts made by the state to contain and control the airwaves, radio broadcasting reached out to millions of listeners in South Asia soaring above boundaries of political authority.

Along with the way listeners had turned away from AIR in the early decades of independence to tune in to Radio Ceylon, the author includes the story of the way Subhas Chandra Bose had used radio to undermine British imperialism.

The book is a fascinating story of the history of radio in South Asia. One of the most interesting chapters is about the Ceylon-based former military radio station that ended up broadcasting in Hindustani for audiences in India and Pakistan, conquering the airwaves and millions of hearts instantly.

The rise to fame of Radio Ceylon is linked to the story of All India Radio’s (AIR) reform efforts. The diatribe against Hindi film songs by the then minister of information and broadcasting Balakrishna Vishwanath Keskar had alienated AIR audiences.

It was the inclusion of listeners as active participants at Radio Ceylon that made it one of the most popular music programs in the region. In doing so Radio Ceylon was able to also forge a transnational aural filmi culture that actively contested the state borders of 1947 and promoted shared culture across national borders.

When Keskar became minister in 1952, he wanted to purify the taste of listeners and the role of the radio. He wanted to elevate the standard of programs by broadcasting only classical music.

Keskar had a doctorate in international relations from Paris but he was a classical music enthusiast having been trained in Indian classical music. He had liked the idea of fusing classical north Indian music with Carnatic music.

As minister, Keskar forbade the playing of popular music from films on AIR. His order to the AIR stations was to stop broadcasting Hindi film songs in the wake of independence. How the secular government of the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru allowed Keskar to try and orchestrate a soundscape for the Indian nation through the medium of radio is questionable.

The book lists AIR’s social uplift programs of the early 1950s and 1960s and attempts to redefine Indian citizenship in the first decade of independence. Keskar had filled broadcasting hours with classical music programs and invited musicians trained at renowned academies to AIR’s studios to perform and to record for the pleasure of elite listeners.

However, to have done so was almost suicidal in an era when the very popular music of Naushad, SD Burman, Shankar-Jaikishan, Muhammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar had ruled over the heart of millions of music lovers. Later in 1957, AIR had tried to make-up to listeners with the launch of the Vividh Bharati station that provided light entertainment.

Frustrated by AIR’s programs, listeners in India had turned their dials to Radio Ceylon. Why Ceylon, is the question? The origins of this station is traced to a military transmitter brought to Ceylon during World War II by the British Army.

Too heavy to move the transmitter after the war was over, it was used as a center of Hindi film-song programs in the 1950s. The station not only made this music widely available on the radio but also influenced the way listeners experienced film songs, encouraging them to decouple songs from films and develop personal relationships with singers, most importantly integrating film songs into their daily life.

In a chapter, the author talks of the transnational collaborative nature of Radio Ceylon, highlighting the way songs and voices had circulated beyond national borders from Ceylon to India and Pakistan where Radio Ceylon was widely popular.

Despite the effort of British, Indian, and Pakistani politicians to usurp the medium for state purposes, radio largely escaped their grasp. Radio had remained one place where Hindi and Urdu had complimented each other without any display of rivalry.

With respect to Hindi-Urdu broadcasts, a great effort was made to establish a unified Hindustani in the face of opposition from those advocating the promotion of one language over the other.

As listeners they were one community undivided by religion, caste or gender as they remained glued to the radio as one family. This is the power of radio to unite populations within and across borders.

Radio for the Millions
Author Isabel Huacuja Alonso
Published by Columbia University Press, New York, 2023