Before the days of television, radio was the prime and perhaps the only, source of domestic entertainment. Many old timers still cherish and recall the days, when the All India Radio used to broadcast a coherent mix of news, soothing music, drama, cricket commentaries and gripping topical talks.
Set up on the lines of the BBC, broadcasting in India began in June 1923 by the Bombay Presidency Radio Club, along with other radio clubs. According to an agreement on 23 July 1927, the private Indian Broadcasting Company Ltd (IBC) was authorized to operate two radio stations, in Bombay and Calcutta. The Bombay station began on 23 July 1927 and the Calcutta station started operation from a building named Temple Chamber, opposite the high court and started to broadcast from 26 August 1927. Subsequently, they moved to another building located on no 1 Garstin Place. However, as the private broadcasting Company went into liquidation on 1 March 1930, the reigns of the broadcasting network went into the hands of the Imperial Government, resulting in the formation of the Indian State Broadcasting Service (ISBS) on 1 April 1930 on an experimental basis for two years and then permanently from May 1932. Afterwards, it went on to become All India Radio on 8 June 1936, under the control of the Government of India and Lionel Fielden was engaged as the first controller of Broadcasting in India. Lionel Fielden, a senior BBC producer, spent five years in India and in 1939 he banned the harmonium, as he felt it was not suitable to the tonal inflections of Indian classical music. However, much later, in the month of April 1980, that restriction was withdrawn. In those days, musical and dialogue programmes, termed as European and Indian, were broadcast every evening for three to four hours.
The signature tune of AIR, which is soft, soothing and freshening like the morning air, was composed by Walter Kaufmann, a Czech national, who was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and worked at AIR as the director of music from 1936 to 1946. He composed the enchanting tune with the combination of Violin, Viola, Cello and Tanpura and was ably assisted by the noted Indian orchestra conductor Mehli Mehta, who played the violin in it. The tune is of 8 seconds duration, repeated with intervals of 10 seconds in between.
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While the first station director of All India Radio, Calcutta was CC Wallick of the BBC, Nripendra Nath Majumdar was the producer of the Indian programmes and Rai Chand Boral, a well known musician in those days, was one of his assistants. Birendra Krishna Bhadra, associated with AIR for several decades, was the producer of the drama section. He also used to present ‘Birupaksher Aasor’ every Sunday at 1.00 pm, to the delight of the commoners. But the crowning glory of his career was his legendary performance in ‘Mahishasura Mardini’, the special annual programme in the morning of Mahalaya, where he chanted the Slokas of Sri Sri Chandi with exemplary devoted emotion and modulation of voice.
Mahishasura Mardini was first introduced in 1937.Bani Kumar (nee, Baidyanath Bhattacharya) wrote the script, Pankaj Kumar Mullick composed the music and Birendra Krishna Bhadra, in his magical voice recited the Stotras with devotional melody, which creates a nostalgic atmosphere even today. Since its inception, the programme is aired every year at day-break on Mahalaya. In fact, it has become a catalyst to bring back the old memories and creates sudden goose bumps.
Like all the other programmes, initially this special programme was also broadcast live. Much later, a live show of the programme was recorded in the 1960s and since then the same recording is played every year in place of the live programme. Mahishasura Mardini has gained so much popularity with time that, when an alternate version titled ‘Durga Durgatiharini’ was aired on the morning of Mahalaya in 1976, it was rejected by the public and proved to be a grand failure, despite the participation of Uttam Kumar and Lata Mangeskar. By popular demand, the original version was reinstated to the delight of the mass.
Pankaj Kumar Mallik, reputed singer of yesteryears, started his career with his first song aired from the Calcutta station of All India Radio in 1927. From 1930, the blind singer Krishna Chandra De started to teach music in ‘Sangeet Shikshar Aasor’, which was later aptly conducted by Pankaj Kumar Mullick for quite a long time. While Indira Debi used to host the ‘Shishu Mahal’ for the kids, ‘Galpodadur Aasor’ was conducted for the young adults. Sudhir Sarkar used to conduct ‘Palli Mangaler Aasor’ for the rural audience, while ‘Mahila Mahal’ was conducted by Bela De for the housewives. ‘Anurodher Aasor’, aired on Saturdays and Sundays, was a fascinating programme for the lovers of light music and Friday evening was reserved for the attractive radio plays.
In 1949, All India Radio, Calcutta presented a new announcer, Bulbul Sarkar, who was a granddaughter of Pandit Shivnath Sasthi. Within a short time, the young lady became popular among the children as auntie Bulbul in 'Calling all Children’. Later she also produced many popular programmes on Western Music, like 'Musical Bandbox’, ‘Lunch Time Variety' and 'Classical Music at Your Request', which were appreciated by many.
Apart from that, great Indian classical musicians like Ustad Keramatullah Khan, Jnan Prakash Ghosh, VG Jog and Ustad Mohammad Sagiruddin Khan were all connected with All India Radio. AIR also arranged Akhil Bharatiya Karyakram on Saturday nights and Radio Sangeet Sammelan to the delight of the lovers of Indian classical music.
A house magazine, named Betar Jagat used to be published by AIR since 1929, containing the lists of the forthcoming radio programmes, along with short stories, other articles and photographs of the radio artists. It continued till 1985.
All of these unprecedented happenings originated from the unimpressive and small building located at 1, Garstin Place, which gradually turned into the cultural hub of the City. However, the building had a lot of uncanny stories around it and was considered by many as a haunted place. Initially, the AIR office would occupy the second and third floors of the building, while the first floor belonged to a European wine merchant.
It was said that the ghost of the European wine merchant used to visit and roam around the building and sometimes used to play piano in the dead of the night. Nevertheless, the Calcutta station of All India Radio left the place and shifted to its massive Eden Garden building on September 15, 1958. Unfortunately, a legend of the golden past was lost, when the old and dilapidated building on Garstin Place, which witnessed the earliest, as well as the most glorious days of the Calcutta station of AIR, was unceremoniously pulled down in January 1997, to make space for a new and modern structure.