There was a time when All India Radio timed your weekday routines to the minute – into the bathroom by Vicco Vajradanti ad, out by Devaki Nandan Pandey’s gravelly-voiced 8 am news; the Munim Dhaage sada aage gave you 5 minutes to the chartered bus, the Hawa Mahal skit usually meant dinner and Chhayageet sang you to sleep.
Vividh Bharati’s Sangeet Sarita was one such radio ritual. It dropped every morning of the week, into the 7.30 am-7.45 am slot, ushered in by broadcaster Kabban Mirza’s baritone announcing “S-a-n-g-e-e-t S-a-r-i-t-a-h!” and a sparkling downpour of Raga Gaud Malhar’s notes excerpted from the song Garjat Barsat Sawan (Barsat ki Raat). The imaginatively programmed and hugely successful 15-minute capsule on Hindustani classical music, which has been now running for nearly half a century, initiated listeners into the delights of ragdari with a light touch – easy banter with artistes, clean commentary and accessible filmi parallels, all encouraging you to take a deeper dive into this treasure trove.
Between the school-bus dash and dabba pangs, you heard Shiv Kumar Sharma draw fascinating links between the classical santoor, its Central Asian counterparts, its place in Kashmir’s Sufi music and how beautifully it framed raga Pahadi in Baharon Mera Jeevan Bhi Sawaro (Aakhri Khat). You found out how Girija Devi’s gurus terrified her into remembering the raga time cycle by warning her that Yaman would arrive dishevelled and distressed at her door if she sang it in the morning. Or chanced upon sitar maestro Abdul Haleem Jafar Khan point to the delicate switches in Raga Bilawal in Zindagi Pyaar ki Do Char Ghadi Hoti Hai (Anarkali).
Every fan has a favourite Sangeet Sarita memory that weaves music and life together. “I would be ready for college in time for Sangeet Sarita to start and the second the programmed ended, I would leap onto my cycle and pedal fast to my college, reaching just in time for the 8 am class,” said tabla player Balkrishna Iyer on his recollections of the programme from the mid-70s. Iyer, a staple on Sangeet Sarita and an accompanist, presented an acclaimed 21-episode series on India’s percussive traditions in 2013. It became so popular that he was called upon to present it on stage in Ahmedabad, in ditto format.
Even radio veterans are not quite sure exactly when the programme began but everyone is unanimous that it was the brainchild of the gifted Odia violinist Bhubaneswar Mishra who joined Vividh Bharati Mumbai as a producer in 1973. The common belief is that it kicked off in the mid-1970s by simply identifying ragas used in film songs with brief spoken notes and clips on the classical elements.
“Few knew classical music, but everyone knew film songs,” said flautist Nityanand Haldipur. “By making that simple connect – this hit song, this raga, and here, listen how they mingle – Sangeet Sarita became the most popular programme in its early years. Also, so many classical musicians played for or composed Hindi film music – Ravi Shankar, Pannalal Ghosh, Timir Baran, Ram Naryan, Raghunath Seth, Sultan Khan, Alla Rakha – that there was a lot of material to create the programme.”
Radio is no longer all-pervasive in our lives, and Sangeet Sarita, struggling with ever-dwindling fresh episodes, now survives almost entirely on reruns. Its morning slot has moved an hour to 6.30 am – to the dismay of fans – but those who love it still swear by its charms. AIR has finally released archival episodes on its YouTube channel, adding to the repositories of uploads from ardent followers.
Currently on air is a rerun of Shubha Mudgal’s much-loved Varsha Choumasa series, an engaging take on how India’s monsoon music and classical forms are constantly at play with each other.
In its early years All India Radio was a critical platform for the classical genre, with all other forms, including film music, way behind. It made for up to 12-18% of its content, second only to news, shows a chart spanning 1965 to 1980 in This is All India Radio, a chronicle of the organisation by veteran broadcaster UL Baruah. A 1936 survey used in the book showed 30% support for Indian classical music, going up to as high as 60% in Chennai.
This support started slipping with film music flattening the cultural landscape but there was still a time when the most celebrated classical artistes considered it an honour to be called “radio artistes” and cited the “grade” allotted to them. Not just that, many of them were employed as programme heads. Ravi Shankar, Pannalal Ghosh, Alla Rakha, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Pandit Amarnath, Sumati Mutatkar, TK Jayaraman, Saraswathi Rajagopalan, Emani Shankara Shastri, M Balamuralikrishna are among the few to have been associated with it.
Sangeet Sarita, produced by Vividh Bharati Mumbai, grew out of the now extinct three-way connection between different music worlds: the rich archive of raga and film music with AIR, the keenness of classical musicians to engage with radio and, most importantly, the inextricable links that once linked Bollywood and classical music.
Vocalist Vidyadhar Vyas, who presented a Sangeet Sarita series on Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, remembers the daily excitement around the series in the ’70s, with water cooler conversations revolving around the day’s episode. “Radio was powerful in our lives then,” he said. “So the popularity of this 15-minute attempt to link ragdari with popular music spread like a wave. People would often discuss how classically aware this or that film composer is depending on the day’s episode.” Not surprisingly then, despite being a programme based on classical music, Sangeet Sarita proved to be commercially viable for Vividh Bharati, bringing in the Vicco ad.
The real, behind-the-scene stars of the show were its producers whose work was painstaking – it went from conceiving, curating and designing episodes to coaxing classical greats to participating and dealing with legendary temperaments. After violinist Mishra retired in 1985, the programme was taken over by Chhaya Ganguli, who is credited with revitalising it, bringing in fresh themes. A ghazal and playback singer who soared to abiding fame with a single from Gaman, Aapki yaad aati rahi, Ganguli produced the programme till she was promoted 14 years later. She was followed by a string of other bright women producers such as Kanchan Prakash Sangeet and Manisha Jain, each contributing significantly to ensure that the public interest in the show did not flag.
“When I joined, it was a totally library-based programme,” recalled Ganguli. “There was a brief introduction to a raga’s aaroh-avroh (ascending-descending notes), chalan (path), pakad (unique note cluster) and thaat (family), followed by a classical piece and then a film song based on it. The then additional deputy director general of AIR MP Lele, a music lover himself, encouraged me to bring in change. Along with production assistant [and broadcaster] Kabban Mirza and with the support of station directors and dedicated engineers, we worked on the idea of bringing in specific themes – gharanas, instruments, folk origins and the creative journeys of film composers. We wanted to explore other forms beyond classical.”
Ganguli, who was familiar with classical musicians because of her association with versatile composer Jaidev and her guru Madhurani, recalls drawing up a dream list of artistes she wanted to feature on the programme. With copious research, backbreaking work and admirable engagement from many musicians, she managed to produce some vividly memorable series where artistes performed and explained a raga’s nuances.
One of Ganguli’s most memorable productions was a 22-episode series on the Maihar school of the great Baba Allaudin Khan. It was presented by Aashish Khan, the California-based son of the Maihar prodigy Ali Akbar Khan, and scripted by music critic Madan Lal Vyas. Ganguli managed to persuade Aashish Khan to do a hectic four-day recording session, starting at 8 am and ending at 10 pm.
“The programme featured the ghanti (bell) from the Sharada temple at Maihar, which Baba held in reverence, a rare jugalbandi of Nikhil Banerjee and Ali Akbar Khan from his own collection and Ma [Annapurna Devi] playing the surbahar,” Ganguli recalled. “It was an unforgettable experience.” Other artistes who made an appearance on the episodes she produced included Amjad Ali Khan expounding on his Bangash tradition, N Rajam on the gayaki (vocal) style of violin playing, and Ajoy Chakraborty on the legend of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. The Zakir Hussain series on tabla baaj (styles) was something of a coup given the master’s peripatetic concert schedule.
Among her most popular series was Meri Sangeet Yatra (my music journey) featuring RD Burman, Asha Bhonsle and Gulzar. Burman, known for his eclectic engagement with several genres, including classical, and his sweeping grip on percussion, was also a passionate collector of music. “He was so enthusiastic about the series that he shared his massive collection with us, graciously dropping it home,” said Ganguli.
Anil Biswas, considered among the most gifted of composers, featured on 26 episodes that traced the evolution of film music from RC Boral to Burman. It was diverse themes like these that allowed the programme to evolve even after Ganguli’s exit. Marudhar ki Sangeet Dhara Mein Shastriya Sangeet, produced by Kanchan Prakash Sangeet, was an ambitious series on the quicksilver links between the music of the desert and the classical system.
“This is 15-minute content for both lay listeners and specialists. You could say it is fast food but it is very nutritious,” said Ganguli with a laugh.
Malini Nair is a writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Classical Music Writings for 2021.