On community radio, music builds a shared space for the subaltern

Mukta Naik, Delhi Community Manager
Delhi, 16 August 2016

Gurgaon, Delhi’s glitzy suburb, has been in the news lately for a gargantuan traffic jam triggered by faulty drainage and flooded roads during a heavy shower in the last week of July, unleashing a spate of fury over the city’s lack of planning and poor infrastructure. It’s not only the physical aspects like water supply, drainage and road design that was ignored, however, during Gurgaon’s exponential growth since the early ‘90s. There has been equally little attention paid to the social dynamics between the city’s diverse inhabitants: the villagers whose fields turned into a concrete jungle, the well-heeled and educated professionals who moved here to work in one of Gurgaon’s many Fortune 500 companies, and the illiterate rural migrants who comprise the city’s unorganised workforce. Despite their interdependence, these groups live in rather separate worlds in this city. Not enough thought is being given to what would happen when these worlds met.

In 2009, while the world was fooled by the upward mobility that financial investments had brought in, revelling in markers like shopping malls and private cars, the enthusiastic team of a newly launched community radio station in Gurgaon, brainstormed intensely on issues around identity. For Gurgaon ki Awaaz (GkA), the question ‘Who is the community?’ was central to positioning and propagating their work. And so, they took the bold decision of targeting only non-English speakers, both locals and migrants through their programming.

The mainstay of a radio channel is music and the pursuit of original music that would engage their target communities became an all-consuming roller coaster ride. Reminisces GkA founder Arti Jaiman, “Through word of mouth, we gathered inroads into the world of mandalis (troupes) that performed the ragini, a folk form popular in Haryana. Our team travelled to Kota Khandelwala, a small town that hosts a famous ragini competition annually to record music. We discovered a whole thriving world of music that we were barely aware of, a world patronised by local elites where the tradition of storytelling through folk music was still very much alive.”

Slowly but surely, as the sounds hit the airwaves, not just artists from Haryana but also those performing in other languages and dialects began to approach GkA for a chance to be on air. “We faced some backlash from Haryanvi listeners the first time we played Bhojpuri music,” Arti shares, “but we were determined to be as inclusive as possible.” Patiently telling each irate caller to bear with the channel and give a chance to something new because “the city belongs to everyone who lives here”, the channel’s young team realised that music could be used effectively to break ice, start conversations and sensitize communities about each others’ perspectives. Tweaking the programming and content to include explanations of the meanings of songs played in various dialects, for instance, made it possible for listeners from different parts of India to recognise common themes in each other’s music. Regardless of language and style, the troupes were singing songs of love, of longing and separation, of devotion, songs that accompanied the seasons and related to festivals; common themes were a subtle reminder of the underlying human bonds across Gurgaon’s fractured communities. For locals and migrants, whose interactions with each other as landlords and tenants are not characterized by much bonhomie, this community radio channel became a shared space where subaltern voices and cultures could be given free expression.

Even as the hard work since 2009 is starting to pay off, with listeners more empathetic and open-minded than before, GkA is constantly pushing the boundaries. Encouraging newer troupes that break away from purist forms and incorporate electronic sounds in their raginis is an example of how the channel strived to be “constantly disruptive”. Music was the low hanging fruit, opening the door to new mediums of expression like storytelling and poetry. “People are always looking for themselves in you,” Arti says, and this is what Gurgaon ki Awaz has enabled them to do through music and words.

You can hear Gurgaon ki Awaaz on 107.8FM in Gurgaon or online through live streaming.

Photo credit: Sukanto Debnath

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