One can truly understand the relentless march of time by examining the things it leaves behind in its wake. For a millennial music lover like me, what could be a better metaphor for the passage of time than the varied music playback technology that our generation has witnessed? We saw LPs, cassettes, CDs, Walkmans and radios - all becoming obsolete leading up to the days of streaming platforms like YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, etc, which we are now all too familiar with. Wading through all the besotten nostalgia of music technology’s past, radios have always held a special place in my heart.
I’ve often wondered why and the realisation I have come to is this:
Radio was the gateway drug to the musicians you’d grow to be fond of or the music you’d base your early personality around. Back then, there were no curated playlists specially made for you by the new-age omniscient 'Algorithm'. Even channels like VH1 came to India later in the 2000s. Unlike the present day, televisions were a luxury item back then and were not half as popular as radios, an object that you could find in 9 out of 10 Indian households.
With a flick of the switch, these enchanting boxes of wonder could teleport to musical realms, which were all so new and exciting. Each dial turn was an adventure; a journey through waves of static to find the perfect frequency through which you reached the warm, crackling voices of familiar radio jockeys, speaking to you like an old friend. Their stations would play your all-time favorite songs, hold your hand as you discovered new music, and narrated riveting stories and news of home or faraway lands.
I remember calling up my favorite radio stations to make song requests and waiting hours for them to play my favorite song. I couldn’t sleep in anticipation before each Sunday as once a week, the radio station, Mirchi Bangla, would host the infectiously popular show, Sunday Suspense, where each episode involved a dramatized reading of Bengali classics, primarily from the horror and crime genres. Those were simpler times when an inexpensive box could create such auditory stimulation, sparking a vivid imagination and transporting you to melodious places from the comfort of your home.
Dialing down my nostalgic fondness for radios, let me share with you the story of a 66-year-old Kolkata man, who epitomizes the love for radios through his antique shop, which earned him the moniker of the ‘Radioman of Kolkata’. In the heart of Kolkata's Kumartuli neighborhood, which is primarily known for the artisans who sculpt idols for Durga Puja, there stands a modest antique radio repair shop. Amit Ranjan Karmakar is the custodian of this particular hidden gem.
Entering Karmakar's shop is like stepping into a time capsule. Rows of vintage radio sets line the shelves, each bearing the mark of a bygone era. From the iconic names of Bush and Phillips to the nostalgic tunes emitted by Murphy and Telefunken, these relics hold stories of a time when radio was the heartbeat of Indian households. Karmakar has been the go-to person for preserving and restoring these cultural artifacts for over five decades. His expertise spans generations, with clients entrusting him with cherished family heirlooms dating back to the 1940s. Despite the decline in demand, especially among the younger generation, Karmakar remains steadfast in his dedication to his craft.
Mahalaya, the auspicious day marking the descent of Goddess Durga from Mt. Kailash to the earthly realm, holds particular significance for Karmakar and his shop. It is during this time that the shop comes alive, bustling with patrons seeking to revive their old radios to listen to the traditional chant broadcasted on All India Radio. It features the remarkable, timeless, and sonorous voice of renowned actor and playwright Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Karmakar as he welcomes Ma Durga and her children, wakes up at dawn and listens to the Mahalaya chant that is a nostalgia-laden Bengali tradition. It is particularly during this time of the year, that Karmakar’s eyes light up as he puts his skillful hands to use and brings several vintage sets back to life and resonates with the melodies of yesteryears.
Karmakar's legacy extends beyond repair work. His shop is a living museum; an archive, preserving Kolkata's rich radio heritage for future generations. Each radio set, meticulously restored by his skilled hands, brims with a tale of nostalgia and cultural significance.
Karmakar acknowledges the inevitability of change. His once thriving business has felt the sharp sting of decline since the dawn of color televisions and in recent years, with the rise of smartphones and digital platforms, radios have been relegated to the sidelines. Nonetheless, for Karmakar, they remain timeless treasures. He may be one of the last of his kind in Kolkata, but his passion for preserving the city's radio legacy burns brighter than ever. In an age of rapid modernization, men like Amit Ranjan Karmakar are a rare breed.
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