Radio for the Millions. Hindi-Urdu Broadcasting Across Borders

Alonso, Isabel Huacuja
Anzahl Seiten
295 S.
$ 140.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Harald Fischer-Tiné, Lehrstuhl für die Geschichte der Modernen Welt, ETH Zürich

In recent decades, it has become almost a hallmark of critical historical scholarship to challenge existing conventions in terms of periodization, geographical focus or disciplinary specialization. This trend notwithstanding, this reviewer has rarely encountered a single monograph that not only manages to successfully attack and partially dismantle not only one, but several of such conventions, and at the same time also makes for a pleasant and entertaining reading. Exactly this has been the case with the book under review. On the surface, Isabel Huacuja Alonso’s monograph on the political and cultural history of radio programmes in twentieth century South Asia is a contribution to the growing body of research concerned with South Asian media and particularly sound history. And yet, Huacuja Alonso’s 300-pages study is so much more than that, as the author does not merely want to reach the small communities of experts in these fashionable historiographical subfields. Indeed, Huacuja Alonso makes it a point to “remain explicitly in conversation with the broader historiography of the subcontinent”. While doing so, she trespasses several of the well-entrenched boundaries that have pre-structured the bulk of historical writings on twentieth century South Asia. Let me just mention the most important of her eye-opening “transgressions”. For one thing, Huacuja Alonso does not accept the independence and partition of British India as an all-pervading watershed and stretches her period of study from the 1930s to the 1980s. Second, when looking at the postcolonial era, she does not focus on either India or Pakistan, as the overwhelming majority of researchers do, but deals with both countries simultaneously. In the process, the author draws on multiple and multi-sited archives, consulting copious source materials in English, Hindi and Urdu.

Isabel Huacuja Alonso’s focus lies on the development of radio programmes in Hindi and Urdu (as well as the linguistic common ground between the two, known as “Hindustani”) from the arrival of radio technology in South Asia in the early 1930s to the mid-1980s, when television quickly replaced radio as the subcontinent’s most significant mass medium for daily news and entertainment. Wisely, she does not lay claim to presenting a comprehensive chronological survey of the development of Hindi-Urdu broadcasting during this half century, but rather focuses on three transformative “moments” that crucially shaped the history of the medium. The key moments she identifies are: the Second World War, the first decade of India’s independence that was characterized by Nehruvian technophilia, developmentalism and the ubiquity citizenship-training schemes, and last but not least the short Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 and its long aftermath. Each of these moments is treated in-depth in one of the three parts of the book, consisting of two chapters each. Taken together, the case studies allow the author to advance her three main arguments: First, in spite of repeated attempts by the state power (colonial and postcolonial) to instrumentalize the new aural medium to create political loyalties and promote identification with the nation state (or empire), these efforts met only with very mixed success, as the audience of listeners proved to be recalcitrant and eigensinnig. Occasionally, South Asian audiences forced the makers of the state run radio programmes to completely revise their schemes in order to accommodate the wishes of the millions they wanted to reach. As a result, in spite of the protracted efforts of the Indian and Pakistani authorities to create a national radio, addressing and educating the citizens-in-the-making in their (purified) national language, both the shared idiom of Hindustani and a common popular culture continued to flourish for decades after the partition of 1947. The flourishing of this border-crossing culture and the idiom in which it expressed itself, clearly undermined the state-driven efforts on both sides to mould the listeners habits and tastes, while at the same time steering their political allegiances. The considerable societal impact of the radio, and this is Huacuja Alonso’s third seminal insight, was only partly achieved directly through the broadcasts themselves. The Columbia historian points to the close relation between aurality and orality, suggesting that rumours and private conversations about the radio programmes amplified the latter’s resonance considerably, since they reached many more people. This holds particularly true for the 1940s and 1950s, when the number of radio receivers on the Indian subcontinent was still fairly small.

The opening part of the book focuses on the Second World War, which, according to Huacuja Alonso, decisively catalysed the transformation of the radio into an important mass medium in South Asia. The first chapter looks at the propaganda stations that were launched by the axis powers from 1940 onwards in order to provide “alternative facts” about the situation at the various war theatres. The colonial authorities in the subcontinent were particularly concerned that the amateurish news might undermine the morale of South Asians by presenting the fascist axis regimes as reliable allies in the fight against British imperialism (pp. 36–38). In this broader context, the second chapter looks specifically at Subhas Chandra Bose and his regular radio presence. As Huacuja Alonso persuasively argues the Netaji’s news broadcasts were a crucial element in his rise to the status of a charismatic pan-Indian leader and a war hero. As the chapter amply documents, from 1942 onwards, Bose’s speeches on Azad Hind Radio were eagerly followed and commented upon by South Asians of various social backgrounds and political affiliations.

Part 2 shifts from news to music and is arguably the highlight of the entire book. Chapter 3 zooms in on the Nehruvian administration’s attempt to use the radio as a pedagogical tool to inculcate the values of the newly independent nation into the Indian “citizen-listeners” (p. 98). In the early 1950s, the popular film music as well as certain Western and Islamic forms of musical entertainment were largely banned from the waves of All India Radio (AIR). Instead, the listeners were exposed to high doses of the newly constructed “classical” Indian music predominantly based on Hindu musical traditions, which were allegedly much better suited to boost their patriotism and increase their moral fibre. The contrapuntal Chapter 4 shows that Indian “citizen-listeners” were not as docile, as Nehru’s minister of broadcasting had hoped. From 1952 they increasingly boycotted AIR and (together with many music lovers from Pakistan) rather tuned into the filmi (film) music shows offered by the Commercial station Radio Ceylon from 1952 onwards. The number of AIR listeners dwindled so dramatically, that the AIR supremo had to backpaddle and in 1955 filmi sangit (Indian film music) and western music were brought back on air (p. 138).

The third and final part of Radio for the Millions looks at the role of Urdu programmes during the intensification of Indo-Pakistani hostility from 1965 onwards. In Chapter 5 Huacuja Alonso analyses how the radio was used by the Pakistani government as an effective tool to whip up a jingoist war-enthusiasm in the Pakistani population and foster the fighting spirit of the troops through melodramatic radio plays and the frequent airplay of patriotic war-themed songs by popular female singers like Nur Jehan (pp. 150–164). However, before long, this media campaign backfired on Ayub Khan and his government, as many listeners, “galvanized by the radio broadcasts” (p. 167), were utterly disappointed, when Pakistan’s president agreed to enter in peace negotiations to avoid an even more devastating defeat. While Indo-Pakistani relations remained at an all-time low during the two decades that followed, the AIR’s newly created Urdu service (the focus of Chapter 6) not only reached the targeted group of listeners in Pakistan during that time. Unexpectedly, it also found a large audience of Urdu speakers all over India. With its nostalgic focus on Urdu poetry, pre-partition film music and the romantic memories connected therewith, which were shared in thousands of letters sent to the radio presenters from Indian and Pakistani fans, AIR’s Urdu service had the unintended side-effect of creating a cross-border community of Urdu lovers instead of acting as mouthpiece of the Indian government as per the original design.

By way of conclusion, I can only reiterate that Isabel Huaca Alonso has written a book to be cherished. Thanks to her ambitious research design and meticulous empirical work – especially the use of virtually untapped sources from more than a dozen archives in India Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United States and the United Kingdom must be acknowledged ─, Radio for the Millions is an original and truly fascinating work. It deserves a wide readership, because it not only produces fascinating insights on a number of novel topics of particular interest for sound/media historians and ethnomusicologists it also throws a fascinating new light on several outwardly familiar areas that are normally covered by the “mainstream” of South Asian historiography. Thus, for instance, the seemingly well-known story of the standardization and nationalization of Hindi and Urdu, for example, has to be significantly modified, if one takes the aural sources presented in this stimulating study into account.

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