A readable account of a broadcaster’s life whose name became synonymous with quality and excellence
By Arif Waqar
“Love your voice” was the first lesson taught to Raza Ali Abidi, when he joined the BBC World Service in 1972. Twenty four years on, at the time of his retirement, Abidi had reached a different conclusion: “Love your audience.”
Through his soft, resonant and clear voice, he generously showered his love for a quarter of a century; on the receiving end were as many as twenty million listeners of the BBC Urdu Service. His recent book Radio ke Din (The Radio Days) is a story of the same love affair.
“I was with the Urdu Service of the BBC for nearly a quarter of a century,” writes the veteran broadcaster. “It was undoubtedly the most enjoyable part of my life. Each morning I would leave for my office looking visibly happy, much to the amusement of my kids. Even if unwell, it never occurred to me to stay at home, as I could not imagine missing the delight of work for a single day. So intense was my involvement in broadcasting that I would fall ill only on the weekends, when I had to stay away from Bush House.”
This intense involvement in work soon bore fruit and Abidi’s name became synonymous with quality and excellence. He was given the most prestigious programme Anjuman based on listeners’ mail. People from all walks of life wrote to BBC and Anjuman soon became a true mirror of life in the subcontinent.
Abidi was also entrusted with the weekly production of Sub-Ras, a programme of literature, music and entertainment that monitored the pulse of cultural life in India and Pakistan. On the front of current affairs, during his long and eventful career, Abidi led his listeners through the vicissitudes of Z.A.Bhutto’s rise and fall, Ziaul Haq’s plane crash, Benazir Bhutto’s exile and re-emergence, the Kargil debacle and Pervez Musharraf’s coup.
In his own judgment, however, the news and current affairs were never his forte. He excelled in features and documentaries. His own favourites have been Kutub Khana, a long running radio documentary about the Urdu books of the 19th century, carefully preserved in the India Office Library of London, the British Library and elsewhere; Jarneli Sadak, the history and culture of the Grand Trunk Road; Sher Darya, a journey along the path of the Indus River, and Rail Kahaani, a train journey from Calcutta to Peshawar, to explore the great railway network in the subcontinent.
During his research on the old Indian books, he came across a rare copy of Jawaher-e-Manzoom’ (Pearls of Poetry). It was actually an Urdu translation of “Selections of English Poetry”. But the real importance of this 1849 book is that the manuscript was sent to Mirza Ghalib for an overview. How did Mirza take it? What, if any, changes did he suggest? This is still an unexplored subject: an open invitation to the Ghalib enthusiasts, and a challenge to our poetry researchers.
The journeys on the G.T. Road and along the Indus path enabled him to meet hundreds of people, study their lives closely, share their joys and sorrows, and thus draw a realistic picture of this society for his radio listeners. From a common wage-earner on the road-side to a highly skilled scientist, from a young high school student to an octogenarian research scholar and from an innocent villager to a shrewd landlord, Abidi met people of all hues.
Part of this journey was planned but the unplanned segment had its own wonders and surprises. It was during this casual wandering that he came across the tallest man of the world. This chance encounter with Alam Channa enabled him to produce one of the most interesting episodes of his radio series. The tall man was getting married the very next day. Abidi succeeded in getting the rare access to his would-be wife and very skilfully elicited her excitement…and fears!
No wonder Abidi’s greatest worry on his way back was: “what if I’m robbed on these far off country roads? Will I be deprived of all these tapes carrying hundreds of voices?” Fortunately enough, Raza Ali Abidi did not attract any robbers even at the most likely places. He always came back to London with hundreds of tapes and produced for his listeners some of the most exciting episodes in the history of Urdu broadcasting.
All the field recordings were done on audio-cassettes, later transferred to quarter-inch tapes. Abidi cherishes the days of tapes and cassettes. He misses the solidity and tangibility of those devices and writes in his memoirs: “ I had become highly proficient in radio production, having gained the necessary skills in audio-recording and editing. We would record and edit on magnetic tape, using a sharp-edged blade and splicer to cut out all unwanted noises. Today you record digitally, and the sound waves can be seen on your computer screen. It’s much easier now to get rid of the unnecessary bits on the stroke of a key. Today’s broadcast journalist looks at the old tape-cutting devices as primitive and perhaps crazy. But, to tell you the truth, nothing could be more enjoyable than cutting and joining the tape manually.”
Source: The Radio Star