EARLY RADIO HACKERS IN INDIA: An Interview with Umashankar Manthravadi

Updated: Oct 8


This was an interview with Umashankar Manthravadi by Yashas and the students of the Build your own D.I.Y radio station workshop. The interview was conducted on 19/08/2020 and covers various topics including radio in India, censorship during the Emergency and other related topics. Mr. Umashankar Manthravadi life's work was also a part of a retrospective at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt at Berlin.Sudipto Sanyal from Radio Quarantine, Kolkata also joined us for this interview session.



Food Minister Rajendra Prasad's Broadcast to the Nation in Dec 1947. Image courtesy: Photo Divisions India

Yashas :

You have a show in Berlin which is a retrospective of your work through the years, maybe thirty years or even more, forty years of your work is in Berlin. Could you talk a little bit more about the show?

Umashankar :

Berlin show, it is more about my life and various things about audio and sounds and its relationships to various things. Various people were involved, nearly twenty people.So, it had gone on till September 20,2020 it started on July 23,2020.

Yashas :

Longish show.

Umashankar :

Apparently, we were getting a good response in Berlin for people go and see, people who go there had far different experience than if you just looked it up online because it was kind of an audio play and Yashas also got some contribution to that and I think they had one or two shows in a day and there was some 360-degree video I had done also. One of the things the show talks about is about my acoustic measurement experiences.



Yashas :

How has it been going?

Umashankar :

There are various things that have been taken so we are basically going to do an encapsulated version of the same thing today, I suspect because when you talk of me and radio, I have my early Drescher radio. What they had done is that they had done a vitrine of the kind of things I played with when I was a child, I don’t know exactly but before ten I got myself a crystal radio, those days you used a Galena crystal and you assembled a catch whisker, inductor and headphones and those days luckily was not much radio noise so you could listen to the local radio station, in my case it was Madras B which was the strongest station and I would get very good quality. That’s where it began.


So, the setup; because it was an exhibition, they selected the kind of headphones I would have had in the fifties, XS headphones, and similarly, they also found a Horlicks bottle on which I wound my coil so, it begins there and for me it was interests in electronics and audio sets because it was quite a challenge for somebody living in Madras in the fifties to do anything in electronics because we had absolutely no exposure to the world. You could buy everything shown in Digi tonsil and they would be publishing everything including circuits and designs and such and there was no hope of building it in India as you couldn’t get any of those parts.




Images of Mr. Manthravadi's crystal radio from HKW's A Slighlty curving space exhibition. Image: Eunice Fong.



Somebody gave me a book ‘Hundred things for a boy to make and do’ I think it was called, some title like that. There were designs for box kites, planes and there was one design for a radio. Radio was what caught my fancy and it was almost impossible to build, living with about eight or nine of us in two rooms. I used to make boxes and I used to build a different box kite every week and take it to the beach to fly. But this radio was also a challenge to prove to others that it was actually working. Nobody could hear anything that soft and first the headphones were very insensitive compared to what we have now and the second difficulty was that it was not amplified. It does need a little bit of imagination to actually hear it. The truth was that we could hear a test match commentary and tell people the score accurately. So that’s when they believed that I was actually listening to something otherwise there was no evidence that I was listening to it. They couldn’t hear it.


But later on I did buy transistors, the very first transistors that became available, OC72 I think it was or OC71, and it cost Rs 20, a lot of money those days. So, I could build it with a little amplification and I think I got into listening to radios instead of building radios for a very long time and similarly it was more feasible to listen rather than become a shortwave ham, getting a ham was very expensive, again you had to import everything. Getting a ham license was a very politically fraught thing in those days. Anybody who had a radio transmitter was a suspect. It even got worse, it never got better. I remember people trying to arrest them, you know, till Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister and was himself a ham, it was not a very respected thing. All of them were treated with a lot of suspicion. So, I became a radio listener rather than a radio transmitter and listening of course has its own pleasures which people got into it when they got in deep.


So, like people collect stamps, you collected stations. You tried to go to far away stations, it was very difficult to get stations and I wasn’t very good at it. Other people would talk and at such a time you listen to the station and say that I am living here, this is the aerial I used, this is the receiver I used, and this is the signal I copped. You would grade the signal quality. This was quite a serious hobby and I didn’t take it much seriously.I was interested in the sound quality because right from the beginning the things I was interested in how different each station sounded. Not because some were close or some were far away but because…. For example, radio stations like BBC, took great care of the quality of sound they put out. I was also interested in the kind of programs they were doing. I am probably talking about the late fifties/the early sixties.


A lot of these hi-fi terms were used at that time like CLASS B DISTORTION.I really didn’t know what they were about but BBC did a series of programs where each of these problems were solved. They played a section of the same recording, I remember, it was a Mozart piece but they played it a clip of recording with various types of distortions so that you learn to identify what it all meant. So, it is a kind of audio education on radio. BBC was doing a lot of these teaching things in the sixties. They went all the way to creating BBC MICRO to learn about building computers for all the people who listened to BBC. And BBC would broadcast these programs of BBC micro on the Radio station itself as some kind of a Morse code which you record and decode it.


Later on, I joined the newspaper. There were two things. The radio was still very important. I used to do the reviews for books on the local radio station and more importantly when emergency was imposed and all sorts of external news were cut off, I used to listen to the 10:00 BBC news. BBC had two kinds of news programs, I think they still have, one is a once an hour thing which is nine min long and the second was only twice a day which was fifteen minutes long. I used to listen to this fifteen-minute broadcast and I used to find out and write down all the top headlines I heard. We used to put this news on the front page of our newspaper. This was the only viable option we had to publish. The constraints they were trying to put on us, if we squeeze everything out, we would have to publish from their point, that is what they hoped. We still didn’t publish because we were big headed. One of the ways I could contribute was to go and listen to the radio. I would come down and say, “oh it was the queen of Nigeria.” We didn’t get that kind of news at all. Every night one of my jobs was to go to the terrace of the Indian express Madras with a big radio and listen to it.


I was sort of involved with the radio at various times. And then when I came to Delhi and became a sound recordist for a time, one of the other things I used to do was that there was an organization called Sendate, I don’t think so it is there anymore. For them, I used to do a sound program, a week long audio program for the people who are interested in audio and I would be teaching them how to listen to sound and how to record and also how to organize your materials. I didn’t teach them editing because in those days it wasn’t so digital as yet. In fact, there was no digital way at all. We used to use cassettes as a recording device. And basically, how to script your material so you can go and record. One of the scripting assistance was to record for a radio program. So, we did bits and pieces of this all through the seven days and this is what, seventies/eighties and every year for a few years, I did the sendate program. Ok so this is what my relationship is to radio.

Yashas :

Ok, so that was a great introduction and I think it covers many of the themes that we are looking at, at least in the next couple of weeks.


One of course is when you talked about the relation to radio and BBC where radio is used as a pedagogical tool because again I think with All India Radio as well there were a lot of Educational Programmes and the Early Promise of Radio, was a major tool for Education. Let’s go back to the place of radio in the context of when you were growing up, what was radio’s place back then? How was it seen in India back then in the 50s? What was radio back then for Indians?


Umashankar :

So one memory I have was that they had a rather nice signature tune, I can’t remember what's it called but every evening there was a program called India-Dragon, based on a little fight we had with China and post India- China war for many years, it was played everyday so you sort of got used to the signature tunes of the program.But another thing happened was when you walked back home you could hear the sound from people turning on the radio to listen to it, all across the street it’s not just your house. In Fact in my house, it was not so common it was not favoured but the rest of the world was very very interested. And when there was a cricket match you could hear the sounds of radio from house to house as you walked down the street.

When the famous world cup match happened I was going home and I heard this huge amount of noise coming from all around the street and I didn’t know what it was , they were keeping track of one day matches. But that day I heard the voices due to broadcast and you know a cricket match is something. 100s of people were on the streets all with their radio glued to their ears. These are some things I can remember from that time.

Yashas :

So, do you remember looking back, do you think Radio was looked upon as a tool of propaganda by the state? Just like 10-20 years later television became propaganda too?

Umashankar :

You see, the intention was always there, that it would be a tool of propaganda. We had songs and drama in it, then they had a department for songs and drama and I think it is still there. Their job was to choose programs to Broadcast, but the thing is it was ineffective anti- propaganda. They were interested in promoting things like these and there was no advertising at all then. Vividh Bharati became important, Advertising in India used to go out to Sri lanka and broadcast in Radio Colombo and radio Colombo had very successful Indian film programs run by people like Vellani and then the Government felt bad that all the money was going to Sri Lanka. Geet Mala was the most popular station that started in Madras and they started broadcasting film materials and it became very popular. A lot of Advertising happened.in terms of propaganda it has become much more efficient and dangerous now, but in the 60s it was extremely clumsy and very bureaucratic. Also Krishi Darshan a radio program meant for farmers became popular, and you know it was these stations were meant at really boring places, the only exception was in Madras like I know there were a lot of radio places had both Tamil and Telugu.and they were broadcasted in extremely good quality with audio effects and music and all was done because they enjoyed doing it, and they did produce good material.


Yashas :

Going back to maybe later the 70s and so on during Emergency, I know you worked as a Print Journalist, was there any kind of defiance in Radio v/s Print?

Umashankar :

There was no defiance between Radio or Print except single voicers, like Indian Express, as a newspaper in Madras was defiant but not in Delhi. And the owner of the paper Ramnath Goenka was defiant but not his son and when Ramnath Goenka had a heart attack in ’75, it looked Bhagwan Das Goenka would become operative owner of the newspaper and he went and met Mrs. Gandhi and we don't know what was discussed, but it was a general feeling that none of the newspapers were going to put up a fight, none of the journalists wanted to put up a fight. It was much more upsetting at that point, that all the journalists were in favour of Emergency. Because at that time the major income came from newspapers, and the whole paper was classified with government ads getting printed on it. By law they had to advertise the local newspaper and what they did was they wouldn't realise the money and your news prints came from abroad so it just used to get stuck at customs at harbour.

Umashankar :

Producing a newspaper was very much government dependent and everyone was aware of how much they were dependent on the government. But a lot of people thought of working in a newspaper. It is a job it is as good as being a teacher. It is worse than being a teacher in those days. All they wanted was a guaranteed salary at the end of the month, they had two children to bring up. I didn't have those issues and I was willing to fight, there were very few who were willing to fight. It is not that there is no journalist that is ready to fight it, just there were very few and they were scattered. One Narasimhan is not enough- Narasimhan became our editor and all he brought was disgust to the Indian Express. Next to the editorial the last two columns there is space for opinions, used to be i don't know if it is there, and he wrote a very strong thing on how bad emergency was in the country.

One of the only few openly defiant pieces written and after that he had three censorships in the newspaper one month left which means we had to produce a newspaper and give it to the government, to the censor officer, and he would then approve it for printing. Which meant we couldn't print before 11 o'clock in the afternoon. You know for a morning newspaper to publish at 11 was not a very good way of making a living. And we had to fight in court saying this is not justified. And the way we did that was to produce a paper that could not be censored. And my job was to see that we were producing an uncensorable- basically means no news that the censor could (break in audio). It was a very painful thing to do. That's what i've been doing for the last few months in the newspaper.

When the court ruled that the government could not impose pre censorship, though they did not rule it - you can't have censorship but not pre censorship, that's when I told my editor I'm leaving. Cause I've done my job now I'll let others manage. So I left around April ‘76.

Yashas :

I just want to kind of ask this question which is about - so you said in those days it was all government controlled, the media radio newspaper, everything was being controlled by the government, what do you feel about the opposite now which is corporate control. Everything is controlled by the corporation?


Umashankar :

It is more disgusting in many ways.


Yashas :

Right


Umashankar:

There is something about government control, especially the 60s government were somewhat idealistic. Even if they were stupid. Indira Gandhi at her worst was not trying to sell us. You know I didn't like her, I never liked her. I didn't like her even when she was just the education minister under Nehru. She came to Madras and we booed her. Because we didn't like her at all. I was a college student when she was the education minister. And we were rioting in madras and we did not know Hindi. But she could have died in Madras.

This was in ‘65 i think. I was a second year in college, we can make it ‘64. So the government over there had its own, it did have a reliance link even those days. And uh we could see it but it didn't seem very serious. Like for instance I remember one brief 14 point headline in the newspaper saying import of steel had been lifted. Restriction on the import of steel had been lifted. I know now much better, I didn't know why they lifted it. The only person that could have brought material under it, the liberation would be somebody who already had the steel in the harbour and waiting for permission to import it. Because it takes too long to make it. And that was Mr. Ambani buying the steel for something. There was this guy who died mysteriously in Delhi after drawing money in Gandhi’s name. What was the amount involved? Fifty thousand rupees. It was not fifty thousand crores.


Yashas :

This was the guy caught impersonating her or her secretary


Umashankar:

And drew the money. First thing everyone said how did- even if Gandhi drew money herself you can't give money like that.

Yashas : Right


Umashankar:

You can't just take it out and give cash. And this guy died mysteriously after that. So there were things happening but they were not very big. The horrors were extremely mild and now you don't know how much worse it can get. But part of it- world itself has gotten that much worse. In many ways- there was a government, actually I was born two years before independence day. There was a lot of idealism among the politicians even in the sixties. It died out slowly and disappeared but i keep always saying one of the first laws they passed post independence was the abolition of child marriage. And something called sita - suppression of immoral trafficking. You know there were lots of attempts of doing good things. Which one forgets they were trying to do those things.


Yashas :

Now coming back at least for a brief moment in time it seemed like the internet was free of control. It would be the media channel of the people. But those illusions are gone.


Umashankar :

I never had that delusion. Because A - in India it was so expensive to have internet in the beginning. And the radio every three minutes you make a phone call. And to get permission to use it you, Mr Vajpayee was president then, you have to literally sign an agreement with the prime minister to get permission to get an internet connection. You couldn't get an internet connection easily, you know it spread too much you cannot control it.

In the beginning the control over the internet was even worse than it is right now. You know we first try to do the organisation itself, the government was trying to provide internet equivalents between educational institutions. And we were trying to get on- forget what it was called. And firstly it was a 14k modem so nothing happened very fast. And getting the government to agree that you had any right to have it. It was very much a government controlled right. Right from the beginning it became less of a government this thing because the liberalisation of communication opened it up. Before that it wasn't even an open system.



Yashas :

Do you see us going back to the idea of radio , do you see the radio being useful right now.


Umashankar:

Radio is useful, in many ways. Radio is actually - because it is one way it is a broadcast. The whole idea of broadcast is quite elegant. You know the word comes from spreading seeds. You know you broadcast seeds in a field basically they come up where they have fallen. Radio broadcast even now even in spite of all the noise I can carefully tune into BBC London. It's not even a very powerful broadcaster. But you know you get worldwide, you get signals all over the world. And the thing is BBC is itself not the thing that it once was let's say. There was a time when there were plenty of idealists in BBC there were plenty of idealists in oxford. They try to do things but it becomes less and less of that. I'm not saying there aren't any. The thing is now idealism is political idealism. No other kind.



Yashas :

Can i just interrupt you there. When you say idealism is only of the political kind, and no other kind, what do you mean by that, like what other kinds of idealism were there.



Umashankar :

Especially in education for a lot of people, there was something called open university in England. It was not political at all it was- like BBC. You could learn western music theory or what hi fi means. It was not meant for anything but a desire to educate- a desire to tell you what they know. If you are knowing how western music works it's not a political thing, at least it wasn't during those years. Actually I was interested in western music and knowing a little bit of theory was useful. Knowing how to recognise a chord was useful. And it went to people who would otherwise have no access to these things.

Later on I met people who were doing the London university exam for western classical music, I used to conduct exams on behalf of London university and there were a small group of people in India. And even with Indian music you don't get to know the theory of music until you're a musician or a friend of a musician. You've heard it and sometimes people have gotten very deeply involved by merely listening but that's a difficult way of doing it. If somebody doesn't talk about why one raag is played in one way, you can see there's a difference and people who teach those things are not politicians.


Yashas :

Right but now I guess in a sense to engage in some sense of idealism you have to be political. You have to take a stance.



Uma : And you'll have to take a stance on a lot of things not interesting to you.



Yashas :

Right, so ok you know basically I think this format that we’re using right now is a failure, probably unusable so therefore I suggest we do a part two where I am not dependant on this network.


Yashas :

first Sudipto made some comments about radio and propaganda with radio hanoi and Rwanda, Sudipto you want to elaborate on that?



Sudipto Sanyal:

Yes, there is something about radio in the history of the 20th century, because you can separate the visual from the sonnet. It feels like it is easier to demonize whole populations unlike in tele news where you're trying to say some bad things towards others or some section of societies. For some reason you are construed from these visuals. And unless you actually get these visuals of the associated issues.

I am not saying this because these days we have more access to television news. I am not saying it’s worse, something about how propagandists have exploited radio successfully. This is true for the holocaust and the Nazi propaganda machine. This is true for even the 1990 during the Rwanda genocide. Where people in Rwanda did not have many television sets but most people in Rwanda had radio sets. And so the Hutu government would constantly demonize the Tutsis and call them sub humans. a lot of the language that we see now when Donald Trump calls Mexicans infestation of black people or Mexicans identify as insects or when our own ministers call people termites and dogs and things. This kind of degradation of humanity turns someone into a sub human being and it seems like propagandists have used radio pretty well to that effect

At the same time radio propaganda also had an interesting effect during the Vietnam war, Hanoi Hanna, who was this north Vietnamese broadcaster, would keep broadcasting these anti-American propaganda messages along with locations of where American ships were arriving in Vietnam and more reports on where American soldier had come from, her information was much more accurate than the information that would be broadcasted to the American armed forces by their own radio service. So a lot of American soldiers in Vietnam would listen to the North Vietnamese anti American propaganda to get more accurate information about their own eye American force movement. It’s an interesting start of complication, where radio is used as propaganda. But in the history of the 20th century it was also because radio was an accessible device.




Sudipto Sanyal:

Radio came in earlier, Radio happened at the beginning of the 20th century, television happened at the end of 20th century so you had about 60 years where radio was the only available source. Even during the Vietnam war, it was just the beginning. Film during the Vietnam war was to take a 16mm camera and sound recorders. I remember one interesting thing about that time, there were more sound recordists who died during the war compared to camera men because camera men can drop the camera and run while the sound recorders were tangled in wires.

The real difference is actually history. Radio is not local, I can have pick up and access to it with just a good area. I don’t need high technology for that while television is not a local thing. It offers a visual range. It’s a line of psy translation. In fact, TV is now broadcast through satellite. Which is why there are specific channels that are only in certain parts of the place. Like how many people can get Bangalore TV station, it's only people in central Bangalore. You can't get it outside, these TVs are very different from the TVs in the 70’s. The way it is spread and the way it makes money is different. And it matters how it makes money. We had about 20 people with television channels as a whole mostly broadcasting from Nepal because they wouldn’t give permissions and slowly we were all given permission



Yashas :

I had an insightful experience about 5 years ago when I started working with software radio and prior to that I thought radio as a technology was long gone but once I started looking at software radio I feel it morphed itself to everything we now use so your Bluetooth is radio, your cellphone is radio, your wifi is radio so radio became everything.



Sudipto :

Did you forget the visual part, televisions initially had better sounds than radios had.



Yashas :

Well the other thing I had noticed was the radio geeks, the guys who were building radios etc they were then gone, they have now moved into this fast moving technological realm which I was astonished by where they were now making FPGA's they were writing extremely sophisticated software so they had kind of stayed on the cutting edge of communication technology.



Sudipto :

In fact radio was a pioneer of all things weather broadcasting, they kept track of all sorts. If you wanted predictions of weather, they were the people who kept arial farms which even the government couldn’t do.



Yashas :

I was wondering if both of you could contribute to the fact that the electromagnetic spectrum is now capital. This spectrum has become sellable, it's not commons anymore, isn’t this disturbing?


Umashankar :

In the beginning when Marconi was transmitting, you could accurately transmit and receive with very little equipment, because it’s the only transmitter in town. The only slight interference was with the sound of the Sun, which transmitted a lot of noise, but they didn’t know it was doing it. So, the moment you put two radio transmitters in a space, you’re going to compete for bandwidth; and the way that you do it, is that either you narrow your bandwidth so the other singles out, but he will also have to narrow his bandwidth in order for your signal to work; you have to have an agreement between the two. Before you know it, you know if you have 50,000 transmitters in that same space, somebody is going to make money in the apportionment of it. In the same way, if there wasn’t a huge population crisis, I could just find myself a nice little plot and build myself a house and nobody would argue; but when twenty people are trying to build on that same plot, the government will say “You give me 20,000 and I will let you build it”. What right do they have on it? Their only right is their ability to implement some kind of restrictions on it, and the same thing happens with transmission, the only right the government has on this ‘spectrum’, this new word, well- it’s actually not spectrum, it is bandwidth, - is that they will decide who will use it, and they will punish those who are using it without permission. The right to permission and punishment is all they have, they don’t have anything else; they’re not giving you the aerials, they’re not giving you transmission power, they’re only saying you can use it, that’s all.




Yashas :

So therefore do you have- again the both of you, do you have any kind of thoughts about the creative appropriation of bandwidth, either through people who use bandwidth, pirate radio for example- do you have thoughts on that?




Umashankar :

I thought pirate radio was always fun, especially the pirate radio in the early days, when they used to put a transmitter- because in a country like England you would be able to do it, not in India- you put a radio station on a small boat, you’re outside territorial space of the country but not the radio space, and then what do you do? You broadcast pop songs, because the BBC was not willing to broadcast. We never got that in India, because India has only a tiny amount of sea border, the rest of it is deep inland, you know? You can’t do pirate radio. We’ve got a satellite; the transmitters were all in Nepal because there was no legal basis for satellite transmission in India. So NDTV and all these guys had transmitters in Nepal. Remember there was a time before there was satellite, we had the tapes to watch the news-




Yashas:

Yeah, the VHS tape would be sent to you. India Today I think did that.




Umashankar :

Yeah- but India Today was one of the later ones, there were 20 other companies which were doing it. Some of them graduated to satellite TV because it was not very good quality. India Today- NDTV was doing that.




Yashas:

Yes, Prannoy Roy did that.



Umashankar :

And then they got television, so they could do- and that was equivalent to TV, whatever it was called. So you finally had to fight for bandwidth. It was never free.


Yashas:

Yes.



End





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