Last week, staff writers Meeral Tashfeen and Claire De La Roche trekked through the depths of EC for a speaker panel to celebrate Isabel Huacuja Alonso’s recent work, Radio for the Millions: Hindu-Urdu Broadcasting Across Borders.
Upon first sight, radio is not thought of as a tool of protest used to counter abuse or persecution. Yet, Isabel Huacuja Alonso’s new book, Radio for the Millions, reveals this hidden power, showing us how radio’s role in popular culture was used to resist the systematic period of oppression that characterized the Partition of India in 1947. The work of numerous radio broadcasters, including Ameen Sayani, contested the colonial administration of both the Indian and Pakistani authorities. Ultimately, Alonso’s book demonstrates how radio was instrumental in transcending the boundaries between India and Pakistan, with the contentious politics of language playing a key role in the masking and unmasking of the subcontinent.
Alonso began by introducing the concept of “radio resonance,” which broadens what it means to be a listener of radio. People are not simply passive receivers of news and information, but play active roles in spurring discussions, rumor, and gossip. To Alonso, “to talk was to listen.”
Dolores Inès Casillas, professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at UCSB, then spoke on her personal takeaways from reading Alonso’s inaugural book, highlighting radio’s role in statemaking and unstatemaking projects through its targeting of the disenfranchised listener. Quoting the Buggles in stating that “video killed the radio star,” Casillas also observed that radio listening has increasingly become neglected in favor of other forms of listening, such as podcasts, Spotify, and Pandora. Yet radio’s impact need not be encapsulated by the number of listeners it attracts, but rather by the depth of overall engagement and conversation it sparks. Casillas discussed the “effective bonds” created by radio, inciting people to talk about politics during get-togethers and granting us greater insight into the national consciousness of the time. In similar fashion to today’s TikTok trends, radio’s message spreads across populations, resonating over time as it passes through ears and mouths.
Tied to this discussion is radio’s role as a political tool; Casillas cited radio’s involvement with war reportage, and its ability to spread either information or misinformation about ongoing events. Thus, radio can act as an accomplice or instrument of war, or a source of ideological ambivalence. Casillas also pointed out radio’s increasing effort to engage listeners, directly asking people to confront the questions of “where are you, and what is your voice?” This is part of an ongoing narrative to focus, not on what has happened, but what is happening in the moment.
Casillas wrapped up her examination by contending that radio owes its survival to listener engagement: listeners will use radio for communal interests despite state or government control, reflecting a free-flowing exchange that’s formed as listeners work to shape what is disseminated. Casillas makes it clear that radio is often messy: people are heard talking over each other and the pauses that occur between sections might go on for too long. Yet, there is a beauty behind its imperfect nature, as it teaches us to listen and appreciate the cadences and rhythms of language as a media form is stripped back to nothing more than the human voice.
Alonso and Casillas were also joined by Debashree Mukherjee, an assistant professor in the MESAAS department at Columbia. She began her address by highlighting the difficulties involved in recording the history of sound, using the example of the Bollywood Oonche Log (1965) to highlight its ephemeral quality. Oral communication and history are often viewed with less importance, and thus can be under archived and preserved. To Mukherjee, the difficulty involved in defining the human voice is what makes Alonso’s book even more groundbreaking. Through its sourcing of listener letters, fan diaries, and film magazines, Radio for the Millions is a work founded upon previously overlooked archives of history and information. This was a point Alonso highlighted in reflecting upon Radio for the Millions, citing the value of searching beyond imperial archives toward unconventional sources and untold stories, making use of original interviews with broadcasters and listeners’ letters.
In drawing from a wide variety of areas to gather material, Alonso noted the value of interdisciplinary research which, through a vulnerable process of opening oneself up to criticism from other fields, enriches the narrative one sets out to tell. Through her sources, Alonso successfully achieves a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the period, successfully highlighting the sonic strategies for state-making and challenges to South Asian nationalism that took place across three key moments of social and political transition: the Second World War, the Indian Partition, and the Indo-Pakistani War.
Mukherjee also brought up the example of iconic Indian actress Noor Jehan, who was a key example of the fluctuating meaning of radio, as she represented a pre-Partition nostalgic vision of a united Hindustan. This led into a conversation on the relationship between cinema and radio: clips were played that revealed how film characters would listen to radio on-screen, while radio also made use of songs from films. The two forms thus drew upon one another, effectively working in conversation. The vocal and dramatic personalities of the stars both worked together to captivate listeners, with Alonso touching on the importance of playback singers, who emerged as celebrities, despite their lack of visibility on screen.
Ultimately, Radio for the Millions provides an innovative insight into the importance of oral history by approaching radio as a specific study of the Hindi-Urdu language, and not one marked by nationalism. The geography of radio listeners was not based on race, religion, or nationality, with numerous stations broadcasting across India and Pakistan, including BBC’s India service and outside stations which targeted the population of South Asia. Alonso’s book not only reveals how radio provides a window into the past, but also acts as a recovery project in the form of decolonizing and legitimizing sources. It uncovers radio’s power in giving listeners the freedom to contest the linguistic and political agenda of the British Empire, and later that of India and Pakistan.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah on All India Radio via Wikimedia Commons