Monday, 6 October 2014

Seeing the song.

By Anirban Mitra
Calcutta, 5th October 2014.


“Dear Radio, do you have to play a song I like when I arrive at my destination?” 
– A teenager post #5085.

When I finally arrived at the station with my Dad, the tail light of the last bogey blinked at the far end of the platform. I remember I missed a long distance train for the first and probably the last time in my life as I was glued on to a film’s climax on television. No, we did not have a video player at home, then, to play a movie of choice at any time.  But that was, I believe the whole fun of enjoying broadcasts. Programmes and surprises to enjoy -and all of them at real time, on air. Either you are on, or you miss it. Just as simple as that.
I think this spirit of tuning into air and enjoying the music (or any programme) was double the fun with a Radio. And its also nice in listening to something being played for us, which may not necessarily be of our preference at that time.
Technology, sadly has not been kind to the Radio - the great, poor soul. 
There was a time when huge consoles adorned the homes of the rich. They were floor standing, vertical wooden sets with huge speakers and the tuning dials. It was Radio in his most regal incarnation.
Then, of course came the majestic Radiograms (composite consoles with a radio and electric gramophone), mostly fitted with British Garrard made record changers – where one could stack as many as a dozen discs (LPs or 78 rpm records) and they would play one by one.  It was a robust, all mechanical arrangement and withstood the ravages of time, for many decades - often for more than half a century!  Quite remarkable and unthinkable in today’s production standards. A selection switch in the radiogram would provide an option to play the radio or the records. The built in gramophone (the record player) would employ the radio amplifier through the ‘pick-up’ feature and it was a harmonious and elegant sharing mechanism.  The sound was rich and mellow, especially because of the valves (tubes) and for the solid, wooden casing where the whole set up was handsomely and acoustically cased.  A medium size Radiogram needs quite some space of a living room, was (and, is) indeed a showpiece, status symbol and a musical set up, second to none. 
The tuning indicators or the ‘magic eye’ was another signature feature of the valve set radios/radiograms.
The main sets or the table top, stand alone radios were great audio systems, as well. Oh, yes. And there were so many makes and models, quite countless.

I fondly recollect the couple of Philips radios we had at our home when I was a kid. One of them was a valve set. White and light grey, Bakelite built and the other one, a circa 1970s transistorised set, high-end table top in ebony and ivory with piano switches on the lower front panel to change the wave bands – for Medium Wave (MW) and various Short Wave (SW) selections.  On the left hand was the on-off switch cum volume control knob. The right hand tuning knob was equipped with a bass and treble control arrangement through a concentric, small knob – a smart arrangement. There was a rectangular push button on the front panel to illuminate the dial in dark. The sound quality was lively and lovely …and till date (after more than 30 years) I am able to clearly visualize my Dad strolling with his post-prandial cigarette as the old melodies on the radio played to enthrall us. The Radio served as Mom’s afternoon companion as well and it was then, when I could have chance to fiddle with it, though with care. Invariably Dad used to find that out quite easily and enquire, without fail – ‘Did any one change the tonal settings of the sound?’. Of course he knew who did it!  The valve set radio fell from the rack and still survived. These radios were built to last generations.

 The famous Philetta model of Philips with fabulous illuminated dial.

Our simple HMV Calypso turntable (in deep navy blue) was connected to the radio to play the records. Hindi composer Madan Mohan’s film Mausam was the first Long Playing (LP) record my Dad gifted to Mom on their first anniversary and I took great pleasure in playing the same record on my first Garrard Changer I bought 25 years later. I have now switched on to the legendary Garrard 301 turntable, but the same LP plays just like the old days and sounds even more appealing – being sugar coated with fond nostalgia. 

I think the portable transistor sets came in India in the 70s, along with the ultra portable, palm sized radios, which were great devices for following the cricket or football match commentary. My aunt was given such a portable set while in her studying days in hostel and I remember using it, myself – more as a toy. Pity.

In my childhood and teenage days in the 80s, the Japanese two-in-ones were a rage. They were mostly smuggled in through the docks. Mainly Panasonic, Sharp and the Sanyos, and occasionally the German Grundig or the Holland Philips models. With deep red, shining black or steel cabinets, these boom boxes were really a thing! I think till date, these vintage sets command great respect and enthusiasm with audiophiles. 
(Did you notice Aamir Khan’s boom box in PK?).
Its a National Panasonic RQ-565D.
And of course there were those heavy tuners of the 70s-80s of the component audio set-up – where the radio, cassette decks, spool (reel-to-reel) players, equalizers and later, CD players - were all connected to a common amplifier with a couple of speakers or four. The feeling of the manual tuning knobs and the bold dials glowing in dark greatly accentuated the pleasure of radio listening coupled with the heavy sound with rich mid tones.

When was the car radio introduced in India? I am not sure, but I remember seeing one of them in the 80s, in an Ambassador car of one of my relatives (who were quite affluent in those days). The radio was fitted on to the custom made, wooden dashboard and looked awesome.

Till the 60s, my Dad says – a Radio was a luxury in India. On special days of important events - people in a locality used to queue up in the house which had a radio and everyone followed the broadcast, together. Of course, prior to the great Durga Puja Festival, there was the ‘Mahalaya’ aired at dawn and it was a ritual never to miss.

When I was staying outside Calcutta for work and visited home on the weekends – in the early 2000, my sister told me, once, I remember – ‘Do you know, something called FM has been introduced. The channels are great and they play crystal clear music and mostly without advertisement breaks!’. Subsequently I purchased stacks of blank cassettes (Desi Meltrack and imported TDK, Sony HF 90) to record the late night FM broadcasts of rare interviews and Western Classical Music. I would patiently wait for the announcement to know what is being played so that I could catalogue my custom made cassettes. One day I could not follow the pronunciation and the following day called up the AIR (All India Radio) office to enquire. Mr. Ranjan Mitra, the famous compère was on the other end of the line and I asked – ‘Sir, could you kindly let me know what was played yester-night? ‘Archduke Trio’ – he smilingly said and also asked me what else do I listen to and like in music? J
A very rare interview of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan was recorded from the radio in the same way on one of my blank cassettes and so were a couple of interviews of the Great Satyajit Ray :
The Music I Live by’ & ‘Mozart and I’.
It was all fun, great fun and adventure. Innocent, simple, but engrossing and fulfilling. There was a strong feeling of attachment and less of gadgetry.

Founder Max Grundig with model 5088.
Must be a special one as he chose to pose with it.
Fortunately this radio I have in my collection :-)

And there’s a story behind each radio. The circa 1943, British Mullard, 12 band set I have with me was bought by a gentleman who wanted to have a radio which was made during the years when he was born /was very young! That was his unique fascination and later he gave it to me almost for free. He wanted to ensure the radio gets a good home. The 1947, Made in England Bush radio I accidentally spotted and casually picked up from a dealer and it plays wonderfully well.  One of my best buys. I always feel someone might have tuned-in to it to hear the transfer of power in August 1947.  Also, putting the wrong polarity in an AC/DC set taught me a lesson about these sets – a mild shock and a smile from the aged technician to tell me to reverse the plug.
Having followed the Radio through my great interest, with some adventures around it and a very modest collection, I feel heart-broken to see its fate. From the majestic consoles to radiograms to great table top sets…to even the portables, the radio has now been relegated largely to menu items of mobile phones or just an option in a multi-functional home theatre set-up. The radio broadcasts might have survived (though with over-commercialized FM services (in India)), but not the Radio in its original form and appeal.  Only the ghost of the radio lives with a few enthusiasts searching and caring for its embodiments and personas.
With most of the old audio shops and establishments closing by in Calcutta and the expert technicians leaving us, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain vintage sets, especially the valve radios. That challenge, however also gives a stronger ‘kick’ to try a new restoration project and succeed in that J
It needs great patience, time, effort and money to simulate the past and enjoy it alongside the live present.
I know people whose ancestral, 1939 Marconiphone (HMV England) radio set plays like new …and even others who have travelled to distant cities just to pick up a particular vintage model they fancied. And making those radios running again would be the second phase of adventure. Unlike vintage and classic cars…or like they do in the West, we do not have organized forums for vintage audio enthusiasts, but I do guess that a large number of people in India and especially at Calcutta own a large number of lovely radios – many of which still play music and symbolize ‘the form’ and identity to the contents we are losing in the excuse of technology and convenience. Faugh!!

There is sense and sensibility, though. Philips has come up with a modern digital radio with a retro look and they call it the ‘original radio’. This is a refreshing blend and a welcoming continuity of the past in the present. And there are some other brands as well who makes the Radio in the traditional way and top them up with all the modern, cutting edge features. Now that’s the spirit! And unbelievable as it may sound – the Tesslor R601 is a modern, brand new valve radio that is being manufactured!! Wow.
 Philips 'original radio' which has a retro look but equipped with the latest features.
The internet is a wonderful place to find a LOT OF GREAT information and insight which are of immense help.
Thanks to the collectors, enthusiasts and various forums around the world. I have received a lot of support and information from the web and from kind souls around the globe who love to ensure those radios play again!
And it is also fascinating to see WANTED advertisements for old radios. So eccentricity indeed has company.
That day I was reading the user’s manual of a circa 1976, Birmingham made, Eddystone AM/FM marine receiver providing in great details on how to build various options of aerials and antennas so as to receive the different wave bands and frequencies. Paragraphs and pages have been dedicated to describe the possibilities of great, wireless reception.
Isn’t our human form and being a super Radio and that we are equipped to receive great many signals and frequencies from the vast multiverse, much beyond we largely comprehend that we can?  How many of us are bothered about tuning ourselves for those receptions??  Well that’s an altogether different story of another frequency.
In short, there is and there will not be another thing like the Radio.
(In memory of Late Sir Jagadish Bose & Guglielmo Marconi).

Horn radio from the 1920s.
The ultra luxurious Siemens Schatulle.
Marine receiver for passenger use.

Telefunken 'Concertino.
A perfect example of the radio personified.