For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

How Radio Ceylon Decided to Use a Language That Was Neither Hindu Nor Muslim

Radio Ceylon’s use of the hybrid Hindustani was a commercial call but directly defied the British-led decision to bring separate Hindi and Urdu programmes on AIR. Leading this ideological movement was Ameen Sayani.
Ameen Sayani of Radio Ceylon. Photo: 'Radio for the Millions', courtesy of Rajil Sayani and Srinivas Agarwal’s family.

This excerpt, first published on April 12, 2023, is being republished on February 21, 2024, on the day of Ameen Sayani’s passing.

Language was a key aspect of Radio Ceylon and Ameen Sayani’s appeal. Radio Ceylon broadcasters hailed from India and, for the most part, called the language they spoke on the airwaves Hindi.

Radio Ceylon employees, however, adhered to what I described earlier as “the ideology of Hindustani.” They strove to speak a language free of religious affiliations that could connect speakers of other regional languages, without threatening regional identities.

In so doing, they defied both the Indian and Pakistani governments’ linguistic policies, which promoted Hindi and Urdu, respectively, as national languages.

‘Radio for the Millions: Hindi-Urdu Broadcasting Across Borders’, Isabel Huacuja Alonso, Columbia University Press, 2023.

Radio Ceylon’s linguistic preferences were influenced by the film industry, whose song productions the station aired. Radio Ceylon’s decision to use Hindustani needs to be analysed in the context of this important transmedia relationship between radio and film.

The Hindi film industry in Bombay consciously subscribed to the ideology of Hindustani.

Madhumita Lahiri explains it well when she writes that in post-independence India and Pakistan, “Hindustani does not persist in literary publications, legal records, or elementary school text books, yet it can be found in one large, populist realm: that of the Bollywood cinema.”

Hindustani also remained well and alive on the airwaves. For the Bombay film industry, employing Hindustani was a commercial decision as much as it was a political one. The versatility and widespread intelligibility of Hindustani allowed the film industry to access a large and diverse audience.

Similarly, Radio Ceylon’s use of Hindustani was a commercial decision, but one that was ultimately successful because it capitalised and expanded on already existing linguistic connections. By employing a simple version of Hindustani, Radio Ceylon broadcasters were able to reach a diverse population – spread throughout northern, eastern, and western India as well as throughout most parts of Pakistan – that could understand, if not necessarily always speak, Hindustani.

Again, Radio Ceylon’s timing was crucial.

It was under the British that AIR first instituted separate Hindi and Urdu programmes and officially eliminated Hindustani broadcasting. During B.V. Keskar’s tenure, however, AIR’s Hindi became a matter of contentious debate. Hindi news bulletins became increasingly Sanskritised and employed what many felt was an extremely clumsy and forced language.

In broadcasting in Hindustani and embracing the ideology of Hindustani, Radio Ceylon directly defied AIR’s and the Indian government’s policies. Radio Ceylon’s success, therefore, needs to be understood in the context of Keskar’s reforms. Listeners welcomed Radio Ceylon’s accessible language just as they had welcomed the stations’ Hindi film-song broadcasts. Radio Ceylon’s policies, however, also challenged the Pakistani government’s stance that a version of Urdu, divorced from Hindi and free of Sanskrit loan words, should be the national language of the newly independent Pakistan.

Ameen Sayani’s linguistic history and approach to language is most revealing.

The language Sayani spoke on the air was consciously neither Muslim nor Hindu. For example, in Geetmala, he often used the greeting ādāb, which can be associated with North Indian Muslims, and he unashamedly quoted from Urdu couplets in his programmes. At the same time, Ameen Sayani was perfectly comfortable employing words much closer to the Hindi spectrum in his programmes, such as the word kāryakram (programme).

Interestingly, Ameen Sayani was not a native speaker of Hindi, Urdu, or Hindustani. He grew up in a Gujarati-speaking Muslim household and attended an English-language boarding school. In a number of interviews, Sayani described his plunge into Hindi broadcasting as purely accidental. He was still in his teens when a senior announcer asked him to read a Hindi-language commercial because the permanent voice artist did not arrive in time. The producer liked Sayani’s voice and invited him to host a new Hindi programme.

A newspaper clipping of Ameen Sayani’s 2007 visit to Pakistan. The caption reads: “Ameen Sayani Ek Muddat Tak Muhabbat Kī Mālā Bunte Rahe” (For Such a Long Time, Ameen Sayani Knitted a Garland of Love), Gateway, May 9, 2007.

Ameen Sayani’s older brother, however, advised him against anchoring a programme in a language Ameen was clearly not comfortable speaking. The young Ameen Sayani, however, was eager to prove himself as a broadcaster in his own right and ignored his elder brother’s advice. The fact that Sayani was not a native speaker of Hindi, however, seems to have ultimately worked in his favour. On the air, Sayani consciously adopted a simple manner of speech that nonnative speakers of Hindi, including his own family members, could easily understand.

Radio Ceylon broadcasters were able to adhere to the ideology of Hindustani because the station, located in Ceylon, lay outside the jurisdiction of both the Indian and Pakistani governments and could freely ignore the linguistic policies (and politics) of both governments, but also because radio is an aural medium. It was much easier for broadcasters to embrace Hindustani in spoken broadcasts than it would have been in written form because they could avoid issues of script. Also, on the airwaves, broadcasters could deploy a more colloquial form of speech that was not nearly as marked as the higher registers of literary Hindi and Urdu, which borrow from Sanskrit and Arabic or Persian, respectively.

Hindi film-song programmes, which tended to be colloquial and somewhat informal, were particularly propitious for this. Perhaps most important, radio listeners did not necessarily need to understand everything broadcasters said on the air to enjoy the music and to get the gist of broadcasters’ announcements.

Letter to Ameen Sayani from a listener named Pradeep Kumar Poddar, who was president of his radio club. Note the custom-made letterhead and the stamp.

Radio Receivers 

Timing was important in regards to another important matter. Radio Ceylon’s birth and growth concurred with the increasing availability of radios in the subcontinent. Following the lift of production restrictions worldwide after the end of World War II, and the consequential increase of radio manufacturing around the world, high-quality valve radio receivers became more affordable and accessible throughout the Indian subcontinent.

It is difficult to find reliable statistics of radio receiver ownership in the subcontinent.

The Indian and Pakistani government’s statistics are unreliable because a large percentage of radio owners did not register their sets to avoid yearly registration fees, just as they had done during World War II. Nonetheless, the abundance of radio ads in newspapers and magazines as well as the proliferation of ads for radio repair services suggest that radio receivers became more widespread in the years following the war.

The above is an excerpt from Isabel Huacuja Alonso’s book Radio for the Millions: Hindi-Urdu Broadcasting Across Borders. American spellings have been changed into British and paragraph breaks introduced for ease of readers on mobile. Images used in the piece are from the book.

Isabel Huacuja Alonso is a historian of South Asia.

Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter