The idea of communicating across long distances without a connecting wire was an old one. The first tangible efforts were made in the 1830s. The idea was put on firm theoretical and mathematical grounds by James Clark Maxwell in 1864. It was named wireless telegraphy. Others, such as David Edward Hughes and Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, put those concepts on firm scientific grounds.
But it was left to the Italian electrical engineer Guglielmo Giovanni Maria Marconi to produce a commercially successful wireless telegraphy system. He demonstrated the application of this new technology in military and marine communication and started a company that bore his name for the development and propagation of radio communication services and equipment.
How the Marconi transmitter and receivers reached Peshawar is an interesting story. One version is that the British government offered a transmitter and 30 receivers or radio sets to the British India Government. The viceroy asked various provinces if they were interested. Only NWFP was interested, so the equipment was delivered to Peshawar. This version was narrated by Abdul Hamid Azmi, a long-time radio official.
The other version is that in November 1930, Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum, the then chief minister of NWFP, was in London to attend the Round Table Conference to discuss constitutional reforms in India. While in London he met Guglielmo Marconi. Sahibzada Sahib must have charmed the Italian inventor for he promised to donate equipment to his province.
It just so happened that as soon as the equipment arrived, a young man from Peshawar, Aslam Khattak, also returned home after finishing law studies in London. While in London Aslam Khattak served as president of the Muslim Students’ Association and in that capacity, he worked closely with the Association’s Secretary General Choudhry Rahmat Ali to discuss and chart a theoretical outline of a homeland for Muslims of India. The name Pakistan was coined by this group.
Aslam Khattak distinguished himself as a political leader, ambassador, governor of NWFP and as an educator. Sir Griffith, the governor, saw the potential in the young man and made him head of the department of information and public relations. In that capacity he launched the new radio station in three rooms in the provincial secretariat. According to Abdul Hamid Azmi, one room served as a studio, and the other two as office and sitting room. The studio walls were draped with burlap to make it soundproof. The 30-radio sets were placed in the hujras of prominent landowners in villages that were within the range of extremely narrow wavelengths. The sets were bulky and needed equally bulky batteries to operate. The programs were tailored to the rural population.
How the Marconi transmitter and receivers reached Peshawar is an interesting story. One version is that the British government offered a transmitter and 30 receivers or radio sets to the British India Government. The viceroy asked various provinces if they were interested. Only NWFP was interested, so the equipment was delivered to Peshawar
Aslam Khattak wrote an English play that was liked by the governor and he in turn had it published in a London newspaper. At the request of Sir Griffith, Mr. Khattak rewrote the play for radio in Pashto. The Veno Jaam (Goblet of Blood) was the first radio play broadcast from the new makeshift radio station and was a sensation.
Mr. Aslam Khattak related an incident where during the broadcast of the play some people carried on talking, thus annoying the ones who wanted to listen in complete silence. Verbal arguments escalated into a gunfight – and at the end five men lay dead!
While most of the audience in villages marveled at the invention, some people – particularly the mullahs – thought it was a trick where the government was keeping tabs on citizens. Some mullahs went as far as to declare that to listen to azaan on radio was kufr!
In an undated radio interview, as reported by the retired radio official Abdul Hamid Aazmi, Mr. Khattak talked about the early days of Peshawar Radio. He mentioned a blind man who came to his office to ask if he could sing on radio. The blind man sang for Mr. Khattak and blew him away with his voice. He was given the opportunity to sing on the radio. This blind singer was none other than the famous Krishna Chandra (KC) Dey. It is intriguing that Dey came from a family of prominent Bengali singers. Did he make the long journey from Kolkata to Peshawar to be the first singer on radio? We don’t know. Incidentally KC Dey was not only a superb singer but also an accomplished composer and teacher. Manna Dey, the well-known singer was his nephew and his student along with the famous composer SD Burman.
After his Peshawar debut, KC Dey went on to act in many movies and sang in those movies as well. He sang the immortal songs Baba Mann Ki Ankhen Khol and Teri Gathri mein laaga chor.
The fledging Peshawar radio attracted many other talents to Peshawar as well. It was here that the famous sarinda player, Pazeer Khan, burnished his talent and was followed by his illustrious son, Munir Sarhadi.
In 1939, Peshawar Radio was taken over by the British India Government. In 1942 it moved to a new purpose-built state of the art building on North Circular Road (Now Khyber Road). It was now part of All India Radio where the Peshawarite, Syed Ahmad Shah Bukhari aka Pitras Bokhari, was the controller of broadcasting. In 1947, Mr. Bukhari opted to come to Pakistan where he became the principal of Government College, Lahore. His younger brother, Z. A. (Syed Zulfikar Ali) Bokhari, became the head of the Pakistan Broadcasting Service, later known as Radio Pakistan.
The idea of Pakistan was fiercely opposed by the provincial government. Naturally, Peshawar Radio, as part of All India Radio, parroted the government line. Amidst this uncertainty, a clear voice of Azad Pakistan Radio was heard
There are some famous poet and writers that were part of Radio Pakistan, Peshawar before and after the Partition. They included Sajjad Haider, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Murtaza Ahmad Khan Maikash, Syed Abdullah, Justice M. R. Kiani, Nisar Aziz (Nagri Nagri Phiraa Musafar), Noon Meem Rashid and Qateel Shifai. There is also a list of local poets and writers connected with Peshawar radio that went on to become famous on the national and even international level. Among them were, Farigh Bukhari, Raza Hamdani, Basit Salim Siddiqi, Muhammad Shafi Sabir, Ahmad Faraz and Khatir Ghaznavi. Peshawar radio also helped nurture many Pashto poets and writers who in due course made a name and assumed iconic status in Pashto literature. We can count Ajmal Khattak, Amir Hamza Shinwari, Samander Khan Samander, Said Rasul Rasa, Qalander Mohmand and Moulana Abdul Qadir.
Here, I wish to interject a personal note. In 1946, I started participating in the weekly children’s program. During the winter, it was not bad walking a mile and a half from the city in mid-afternoon. But, in summer months it was awful. From the street of the gold smiths, Muhammad Qavi would join me, and we would walk the remainder of the distance together. We both ‘graduated’ from the children’s program to become radio voices or radio actors. That is where I got the opportunity to write for the radio. Qavi later went on to become Pakistan’s matinee idol.
The story of radio in Peshawar will not be complete without mentioning a clandestine radio that functioned in Peshawar in the months leading to its independence. At the time, the provincial government was led by the Congress leader Abdul Jabbar Khan, commonly known as Dr. Khan Sahib. The idea of Pakistan was fiercely opposed by the provincial government. Naturally, Peshawar Radio, as part of All India Radio, parroted the government line. Amidst this uncertainty, a clear voice of Azad Pakistan Radio was heard.
Every evening, exactly at 8:30 on 31-meter band, the secret Azad Pakistan Radio would come alive. It was an organization of the Muslim League and highlighted the “atrocities” of Congress Government and gave enthusiastic reports of public meetings of Muslim League and agitation against the British rule.
Behind this effort were important Muslim Leaguers like Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar who at the time was serving as communication minister in the coalition government of India. A trustworthy League worked by the name of Major Khurshid Anwar was dispatched to Delhi to buy transmitter components in a flea market and bring them in a suitcase to Rawalpindi where a radio-shop owner, Muhammad Tahir, put the parts together and crafted a functioning transmitter. The transmitter was installed at Khurshid’s residence in Peshawar, and the first broadcast was heard on a receiver by Nishtar Sahib and his friends who had gathered at the minister’s home in Peshawar.
The provincial government tried hard to find the location of this transmitter but failed. The transmitter would be moved often to different locations within the city by a trustworthy worker, Abdul Rashid, who would dress like a street sweeper and carry the precious cargo in a filthy basket on his head.
It all came to an end when at midnight, on August 14, 1947, Mustafa Ali Hamdani announced in Urdu:
“Assalam o Alaikam. This is Pakistan Broadcasting Service from Lahore. It is midnight between 13 and 14 August 1947. It is the dawn of independence.”
A similar message was broadcast in Pashto from Peshawar station read by Abdullah Jan Maghmoom.
Thus, a new, post-independence era began for Radio Pakistan, Peshawar.
Quotes attributed to Abdul Hamid Azmi are from a chapter written by him in the author’s 1994 book, Aalam Mein Intikhab - Peshawar.
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org