A not-so-quiet revolution has been taking shape over recent years. Radio, once thought vanquished by the television and the Internet, has been making a powerful comeback. There are many shows aimed at visually impaired people that are creating waves amongst their chosen audience. Anand Vivek Taneja and Koyel Lahiri listen in to what’s happening
Sitting at his console in a small sound studio at Hauz Khas, sound engineer Vijay Chawla, veteran of many radio shows says, “Mazaa bahut aa raha hai”, [“This is a lot of fun”] and smiles broadly.
Fun. That seems to be the spirit dominating the production of Score Foundation’s ‘Eyeway Yeh Hai Roshni ka Karwan’, a radio magazine programme for visually impaired persons, despite the seriousness of its intent. There is constant banter and jokes between Vijay, and Pranay Gadodia and George Abraham of Score Foundation as they produce the program. This is reflected in the banter between the two anchors of the show, the famous duo of Arshad Iqbal and Salima Raza. But then that’s radio for you. It is a medium where, in a well-produced play, the sound of two coconut shells rubbed together can create the sound of an army of horsemen. (Imagine the budget you’d need to achieve the same thing in a movie, with real horses, warrior costumes, stunt directors, location shooting!) Radio is a medium in which a large audience can be reached, and important messages conveyed, for a fraction of the cost of televisual media. For all, but particularly for visually impaired persons, it is a very important medium.
As Ashish Sen of the Bangalore based N.G.O., VOICES, which works with disability and community media, says, “Mainstream media – despite its reach – has limitations on space that impose restrictions on depth. Apart from disabilities, issues like HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, poor farmers, child labour, tribals, minorities jostle for limited space on a daily basis. Perhaps this is why the packaging tends to be ‘larger than life’ and emphasises the ‘extraordinary’. In sharp contrast, community media has the advantage of interaction and depth because of its participative nature.” Roshni ka Karvan is not yet community radio in that the larger visually impaired populace is not involved in the production, or in control of the transmission. However, in its spirit and in reaching out to the genuine concerns of the blind population, and in giving the larger community a voice, it is definitely a community media initiative. Among those who regularly write for the show are Dr. S. Tarsem, a blind short story writer and poet from Malerkotla (from district Sangrur) in Punjab, and Pradeep Kumar Gangwal, a student from Lucknow.
There are many extraordinary stories from VOICE’s own work with disability and community media. Like the story of Kumar who had become severely physically challenged after he had an auto accident. Kumar’s story was broadcast on All India Radio (A.I.R.) Bangalore as a part of VOICES’ effort to participate in a global campaign – ‘VOICES without frontiers’. The programme was put together by people with disabilities after they participated in a workshop on community radio. The programme based on his experiences was significant on several fronts. First, it generated a response from a physically challenged listener. She called A.I.R. Bangalore and tracked Kumar’s contact number, and the window to a friendship opened. Another listener heard the programme and sponsored a telephone kiosk and also provided appliances like calculators, etc. The result enabled Kumar run a telephone kiosk.
Drishti was born nearly three years ago, in the mind of S.K Sharma, ex-C.E.O. of A.I.R. He felt the need for a radio show for a visually impaired audience that would provide entertainment as well as address concerns of health, education and employment, amongst other things. At that time, it was the first show of its kind the world over. Aired every second and fourth Thursday of a month at 8 p.m., the half-hour programme on the Indraprasth Channel (819 kK) soon generated a regular audience. Information about scientific breakthroughs, new technologies and visually impaired achievers was collected over three to four months, and aired on Drishti Samachar. The show has featured, amongst others, J.L. Kaul, the dynamic founder of All India Confederation of the Blind, Neha Pawaskar, a blind mountaineer from Mumbai, and Dr. Salma Maqbool, a blind social activist from Pakistan.
Being on medium wave, Drishti reaches many homes. Its official radius is 150 kilometres around Delhi; however, if the quality of the radio set is good enough, it reaches further. “We have received calls from as far away as Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh,” says R.K. Sharma, who anchors the program, and is also involved in the research and production.
Recently, A.I.R. started a new series titled Aangan ke Aar Par which has received tremendous response. This is a show where couples are invited to talk about their lives. These aren’t, however, ordinary couples who lead conventional lives; one or the other partner is visually impaired. Take the Vermas for instance. Prashant Ranjan Verma, a computer engineer with the National Association for the Blind (N.A.B), was partially blind when he married Veena Mehta, an M.B.A. Both husband and wife are highly qualified, with Ranjan involved in the development of software which is supplied abroad. It is hoped that such stories will motivate people and demonstrate that life doesn’t end with visual impairment.
In Tamil Nadu, a cross-disability organisation called Ability India has been broadcasting a 15-minute capsule since August 2002, which addresses the concerns of the disabled community. Says Jayshree Raveendran, Director of Ability Foundation, whose brainchild this initiative is, “The radio programme has created history, albeit a silent one, in the disability world in India and also – by their own admission – at A.I.R. The response has been so overwhelming that we are ourselves awestruck at the magnitude of the task ahead and the responsibility before us. We’ve been touched beyond measure by the letters and phone calls that tell us that we have given a new use, another dimension, to A.I.R. itself.”
“Yet, most people do not even know where to turn for initial problems such as: ‘My daughter has low vision and needs a school which is sensitive to her needs. Where do I go? Is a blind school the answer? Can I admit her in a mainstream school?’ Or, ‘My son is a spastic, a wheelchair-user, and has to appear for an exam and the hall is on the first floor. The authorities won’t help, is there something I can do?’ ”
Eyeway Yeh Hai Roshni Ka Karwan is a half-an-hour weekly show with five sections. The first section is an interview with a visually impaired person, or with someone connected to the field of visual disability. Among those interviewed so far are Prithveesh Nag, head of the National Atlas and Thematic Map Organisation, which produces Tactile Atlases; Roshan Rajan, a Bangalore musician; and Nafisa Buhariwala, who is a senior manager in Central Bank of India and is also involved in training. Then there is a section on profiles of inspiring visually impaired people, which is voiced by celebrities such as Naseeruddin Shah, Sushma Seth, Om Puri and Vinod Nagpal. The profiled figures range from Surdas to Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder to Ved Mehta. Then there is a section on advice about various aspects of life from parents, doctors, educators, counsellors and other experts. A fourth section is a creative corner, where an artist of the month is featured. Also, this section has the voices of children, whether visually impaired or otherwise, either presenting their creative work or in conversation with classmates. Finally, there is a Question of the Week section, which aims to get people thinking about the eye and blindness.
Thirty-seven episodes have already been aired – in Delhi, Mumbai, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Kolkata. The first episode was aired on November 17, 2005, in Delhi. And as George says, ‘For any programme to catch on, it takes at least a couple of months.’ But already there are encouraging signs, of people really listening. For example, Manubhai Patel from Baroda was particularly impressed by the interview with Prithveesh Nag and the Tactile Atlas, and wrote in to say how much he appreciated it. From Bareilly, someone called to say you should talk more about genetic issues and hereditary blindness. Someone sent a poem on voice mail. D.N. Gupta from Rohtak wrote to ask what one should do in the face of discrimination. Advocate Jagga keeps writing in from Panipat with feedback about the programme.
George says, “One of the major objectives of the radio programme is to make people aware of a media resource centre called Eyeway, where people can turn to for all information about visual disability.”
Drishti and Eyeway Yeh Hai Roshni Ka Karvan are both fulfilling that, but are also realising a very important empowering role. Visually impaired persons, and their everyday challenges and victories, are brought into the mainstream public domain. If people with preconceived notions of visually impaired people as helpless and dependent were to listen to this program, as some of them surely do every week, their ideas about visually impaired persons would change. Roshni ka Karvan has featured visually impaired children in conversation with their ‘normal’ classmates. The programme’s being on mainstream radio is an attempt to make that into a much larger conversation.
Back in the studio, much activity is happening. An interactive session with a group of young students from the Blind School is edited. George goes into the radio studio to do some impromptu translations into Hindi of an interview with William Roland, the South African President of the World Blind Union. An interview with senior bank manager, Nafisa Buhariwala, is edited. The questions are practical, not heroic: ‘How did you deal with the paperwork?’
“The most exciting part about it all is travelling and meeting new people. And what is interesting is that we are now ‘media’. People pay attention,” says George. “Let’s go and talk to various public utilities – like the National Museum, Dilli Haat, the Metro. And see how disabled friendly they actually are…”