The Sound of Friendship: Warm Wavelengths of Radio Berlin International during the Cold War years in India

Radio Berlin International (RBI), also called the “voice of the German Democratic Republic” began its journey on the 20thof May, 1959. Until the last broadcast aired on the 2ndof October, 1990, after which the station was merged into Deutsche Welle as the sole German foreign broadcaster, it had been on air for thirty-one years, four months and twelve days. The station was an important medium for presencing the GDR in five continents across the world. Its South East Asian Department aired shows in English whereas the Hindi Department, established in 1967, enjoyed an enormous popularity in the Hindi-speaking belt in India.

The story of the radio station’s South East department, and particularly the Hindi division, will unfold in two directions in my presentation today– from the perspective of those behind the microphone– the presenters, translators, journalists of the Hindi department on the one hand as well as from the perspective of those glued to the radio set– the listeners and fan clubs of the station in India. The rich written, visual, oral and aural sources which inform this truly entangled history of India-GDR relations have hitherto not been the subject of any systematic research endeavours. 
These sources thus uncover entangled pasts that spatially span across an urban European setting of East Berlin and vast stretches of a so-called “remote” sub-urban and rural India. The main points that I wish to draw home in presenting this entangled history are- (1) that these are pasts shaped and styled mutually by actors on both the sides of the spectrum- Indian listeners are not just passive receivers of Cold War propaganda stemming from the Eastern block but active co-shapers of a truly entangled making of the medium and its content; (2) that a holistic history of the Radio station’s trajectory in India necessitates unpacking archival written and sound sources, all housed by a state archive, as well as giving due cognizance to what lies beyond the official brick and mortar building of the archive whereby private collections and oral history become essential in filling gaps left looming large by archival silences. Thus, my intervention aims to illustrate how in order to write a truly entangled history of Indo-GDR relations, the entangled archives extend into the domain of memory and history. Individual actors here become the carriers of an oral archive through their narratives. Photographic and material sources (objects) add an important tactile dimension to such histories (3) to explore how the station became a site of lived local internationalisms for actors on both the sides–the journalists as well as the listeners. For the presenters, most of whom were citizens of the GDR and speakers of Hindi, the radio station was a medium of exchanging with a country they were studying and learning of and from, but had never been to. For the listeners, it became a means of inserting oneself into the wider world, a politically charged one, through fan mail, photographs, Fan clubs or Listeners’ Clubs and literature; and (4) that the lexical repertoire of sneh. pyar, garmahat, mananiyta– affection, love, warmth and recognition, which informs both the narratives of the presenters as well as the listeners, needs to be taken seriously rather than being discarded as unserious in order to unpack a history of emotions which duly entangles itself with tactile materiality.

Lecturer, Anandita Bajpai, Center of Asia and Africa studies, Humboldt University, Berlin

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