An ode to radio
The line ‘a log fire, a mug of hot cocoa and soft music from a radio’ is likely to conjure up sweet memories for many readers of my generation, who watched helplessly as television, video games and DVD players invaded their lives. There was a time when a polished wooden box with dials and a cloth covered front aperture was the prime source of news and entertainment.
As a child, I was told that the voices from this box-like doll house belonged to tiny people that lived inside and my wide-eyed wonder incited laughter from my siblings, who were perhaps old enough to understand the basics of how the ‘magic box’ worked. Little did I know that some years later, I too would become part of the family that ‘lived in the box’.
It was a chilly, overcast winter morning in 1959 and the schools had closed for the short December vacations, when I found myself being reluctantly towed by my father, into the compound of a colonial-style bungalow near Simla Pahari. We passed under a covered porch connecting a room to the main building and passed on to a U-shaped row of rooms bordering a garden in the rear of the bungalow. Everyone on the premises appeared to know my dad and then looked me up and down, putting me into an increasing state of discomfiture.
We entered a room, where a distinguished looking individual got up from behind a desk to hug my old man and then ruffle my hair. I later came to know this gentleman as Ayub Romani, a distinguished name in music and radio broadcasting. Ten minutes later, I was standing in an adjacent office in the presence of a group of people, one of whom handed me an Urdu script and in a booming voice ordered me to “read”. I have no recollection of the next two minutes, but I clearly remember the same booming voice address the room with the words, “larka, theek hai.” The source of the voice was none other than the legendary Rafi Peer, and this was the day that marked the beginning of an allegiance to the ‘King of Electronic Media’ – Radio.
Those were the days, when everything went live and standing around a boom microphone in the company of names like Rafi Peer Sahib, Mohini Hameed, Aqeel Ahmed, Khurshid Shahid, Sultan Beg and Sultan Khoosat was an unforgettable and humbling experience. I still remember my first ever lines consisting of just six words, “kaun hai, kaun hai, woh larka?”, broadcast in the presence of these greats and the great sigh of relief when Mohini Hameed placed her hand on my shoulder and silently framed the word “shahbash” with an encouraging smile.
There were no word processors in those days and scripts were hand copied with carbon papers, while some were cyclostyled. All scripts were issued to the cast days in advance for ingestion purposes and almost none of the shows went on air without rehearsals. These were held either in the rooms of the producers, where I had my audition or in a room next to one of the studios across the covered porch opposite the accounts office.
As child artists, we were paid Rs 10 in cash per show. It may appear unbelievable, but this amount procured many things that an amount 50 times larger can buy today. Years later, when I returned to the Lahore Studios as a young teen, to record a series of English Language programmes for the British Council and BBC, I found this remuneration to have been considerably increased.
I moved on to another career and returned to the smells and sounds of a broadcasting studio with my hair streaked in white, but I was happy in the knowledge that I was home. It is often that the young men and women, who make up my professional family, ask me how it was like five decades ago – I look upon them fondly and tell them: “Radio was ‘King’ then – it is still ‘King’ today!”