AIR at 80: How it was Mysuru that brought the radio alive in India
The All India Radio (AIR) turned 80 this week. We all know someone in the family or among friends hooked to it. There are several famous persons who continue to maintain their daily schedules based on the various programmes broadcast on AIR.
This sort of loyalty is what has kept AIR afloat for all these decades. Despite the onslaught of other FM channels that fill the airwaves at all times of the day, there is something charming about AIR that keeps radio listeners tuned in. But few people know that the earliest history of the AIR began in a small room in Mysuru.
Mysore State under the Wodeyar rulers flourished with a great emphasis on education, arts and culture. The erstwhile king Nalwadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1884-1940) was a great patron of the arts and of education. Among his many Prime Ministers were luminaries like Deewan Madhava Rao, Mirza Ismail, and Mokshagundam Vishweshwarayya.
The king, himself proficient in several music instruments, patronised several musicians, dancers, writers and poets. Several leading musicians from north India too found patronage in Mysore. His successor Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar was a Carnatic music composer himself and followed a similar pattern in his brief rule till India’s independence.
One of the big institutions they established was the Maharaja’s college in Mysore. Established in 1899 during the reign of king Chamarajendra Wodeyar X, it is one of the oldest universities in the country. In the past, the university boasted of names like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, poet laureate KV Putappa – later famous as Kuvempu, musician Rallapalli Aanatha Krishna Sharma, and CD Narasimhiah among its faculty. The college also has its fair share of famous alumni including senior journalists like HY Sharada Prasad, RK Narayan and cartoonist RK Laxman, and writers Poornachandra Tejaswi and SL Bhyrappa in later years.
Poet laureate KV Putappa – later famous as Kuvempu
It was in this college that MV Gopalaswamy joined as a professor of Psychology and later became the principal of the college. He lived in Vitthala Vihar in Vontikoppal in Yadavagiri area.
And it was here that the earliest ideas of a radio station were put into practice. He set up a small experimental radio with a thirty-watt Philips transmitter. On September 10, 1935 Gopalaswamy and a few of his friends gathered to launch what was India’s first private radio station.
The aim of the station was to promote educational programming with a strong dose of art and culture. The station made history with a performance by legendary Carnatic musician and composer Mysore Vasudevacharya with HV Rama Rao accompanying him on violin and Venkatesh Devar on the Mridangam, which became the first music programme on radio in the country. However this slice of history remained local and unknown for a while.
For half-a-dozen years Gopalaswamy ran the radio station by himself, spending his own private finances to keep it afloat. It was his passion and commitment to the radio that kept him going.
But when the financial pressures mounted, he finally handed over the administration of the station to the Mysore city municipality. In 1942, the Maharaja’s office took it over. But Gopalaswamy continued to serve in the position of director. After retiring in 1943, he appointed as his successor the famous journalist and writer N Kasturi.
Narayana Kasturi (1897-1987) was a prolific writer and journalist. He served as a lecturer in the Maharaja’s college in 1928. At a very early age he came in touch with several spiritual leaders and gurus like Sage Ramana Maharishi of Arunachalam, Meher Baba and Narayana Guru. He later became an ardent devotee and the official biographer of Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi and settled down there for the rest of his life.
While there are various origin stories, the most popular ones give him credit for naming the radio station ‘Aakashavani’. According to the story, while Kasturi was looking for a suitable Indian name for the station with friends, including Gopalaswamy, his mother overheard the conversation and came up with ‘Aakashavani’.
‘Aakashavani’ or ‘sound from the heavens’, received instant approval from everyone there. Kasturi made all efforts to formalize this. And the rest, as they say, is history. The name stayed even after All India Radio formally became a part of the Indian state.
The Mysuru Aakashavani also has several firsts to its credit. It was the first to broadcast all day starting from 5.55 am to 11.05 pm in the State. It was the first to broadcast educational programmes exclusively catering to high school students. It was the first to broadcast Hindi lessons in south India. A programme titled ‘Gana Vihara’ introduced different genres of music to listeners. Almost every artiste, political leader, writer, cultural personality of national or State significance has visited and been featured on the Mysuru station.
As AIR celebrates its eightieth birthday, these humble Mysurean founding fathers have been long forgotten. But it was their toil that made this radio station an enduring reality.
Credit for all images: Krishnmurty, Mysore State Archives, Mysore University
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)