The first photographs of ordinary Bhutanese families surfaced around the 1950s. The family portraits would be a haphazard collection of children, grandparents and relatives, as and when one ran into a photographer. Or so it seems. Frozen monochrome expressions of the whole family; the patriarch standing stoic behind the family, his head held high, with his wife, children, grandparents and relatives by his side. Every Bhutanese will have family portraits from bygone days, commanding the best place on the showcase. My father also has one of family. He is not in the picture, but he still treasures it, most so because the photograph is the only evidence of his parents’ existence.
Surefire - Most Bhutanese families, who had foreign or luxury items would have brought it along for the photo session, to be frozen along in time. Ours, like few families, has a non-descript portable radio in the photograph. A foreign object like a radio would have been the most coveted item in the village. First for obvious reason, it’s foreign and second, it blared out sounds and music at the switch of a button. Who could beat ‘a box that speaks’. I wish I could have been there the first time it was switched on.
I don’t quite remember when radio came into our lives- it was always there. What I remember is the day my father was returning for ‘foreign’ country; my sister and I were beside ourselves with excitement when we saw the TV and VCR player he bought. He also brought along many Walt Disney classics like the Snow White & the 7 Dwarfs, Cinderella, Bambi, etc. It was the most treasured items for the two of us.
Then, came television. The hidden satellite dishes, behind the vegetable patches, was a source of pride for families as it garnered a certain ‘cool’ status in the community. Every Sunday, we would switch on the TV to watch ‘Chitrahar’ on Doordashan and sing along with damsels twirling around trees. It was like clockwork: Sunday, 6:00 am, Chitrahar. The one day my sister and I got up miraculously, without nudges, shouts and screams. And the only day our parents frowned over us for doing the one thing they wanted whole week.
My parents moved base in the early 1990s to the windy town of Yonphula, which put an end to television, but brought about a newer craze for movie watching. There again, we were one of the few families that had a TV set; which automatically meant our house would to be packed by friends, families, acquaintances and strangers watching B grade movies. These movie sessions were extremely interesting and noisy, since being the ones who understood Hindi we were nudged for translation.
Yonphula is the base of Wing 4 of the Royal Bhutan Army. The entire town was built around the army base and only few could afford TV sets then. So, the next best thing was the radio. Everybody in this place had a radio. Radio has been called the poor man’s TV and rightly so; not too heavy on the purse and portable.
My aunt used to run a general store in Yonphula. Her biggest selling items apart from groceries were lead batteries. Eveready lead batteries were used for torches and radios, the two items one couldn’t and wouldn’t do without in a small town - it almost bordered on obsession. So there I would be in my aunt’s shop hoping to be given a treat, watching cowboys, army privates, housewives and teachers come to buy their groceries and batteries. My father was also a regular consumer of the lead batteries; he loved his radio. He had a small portable Panasonic radio, and on this we have heard hundreds of songs, talk shows and drama from neighbouring India, BBC and VOA. However, our own homegrown Bhutan Broadcasting Services (BBSC) was a staple among rural Bhutanese.
In small towns like this one, people become ingenuous with scarce commodities. They saved their batteries by taking them out of the radio, or torches, when not in use or dry them out in the sun. I would sometimes see my father bashing old batteries to make them run on a bit longer. No battery meant no radio; it probably feels the same way we feel when our laptop battery dies out in the middle of skype-ing, or when the electricity goes off during our favorite TV show.
As is evident, change in the media environment has also affected Bhutan in the same way it has many nations worldwide. We are only frantic consumers; no sooner are we exposed to a new technology, along comes a brand new one; and the brand new one we want.
The last 2 decades has been a bombardment of technologies. Most Bhutanese families in the urban areas would have gone through the journey of encountering mass media technology and discarding it for the next big sensation: from VCR to VCD to DVD players, from rotary telephones to numbered buttons to handsets to mobile phones, from spaceship-like stereo systems to portable cassette players to MP3 players to IPod, from box TV to Flat Screen to High Definition to 3D, from newspapers to blogs to social network. Yet, the journey is long from over. There is deep seated desire to be a part of the progressive world, of connectivity and relevance in urban Bhutan, but we quite forget 2/3rd of the population are off grid; no roads or electricity. There, TV is actually just the idiot box, and radio is the victor.
The staying capacity of radio is unsurpassed, challenged but never defeated. Every Bhutanese started off with ‘a voice in a box’; each of us owned or still owns a portable radio, our vehicles still has it, and even our latest mobile phones have it. WHY? Two reasons: it’s all encompassing and non-invasive.
The kishu tharas of Kurtoe are a rage among the ‘nouveau riche’ of Bhutan; women spend hours on color patterns and huge amount of money to find skilled weavers. Kishu tharas are a labor of love and require consistent hard work; it takes anywhere between 9 to 12 months, crouching over her handiwork from dawn to dusk, for a weaver to complete. Ever tried sitting in a particular position for long hours? If not, it can be excruciatingly mundane, and painful. Ever wonder what could be a source of entertainment without their focus being distracted from the kira? Yes, the radio.
Back in 2002, students in Delhi were most thrilled when the Delhi government permitted the launch of many private radio stations. Our hostels did not have TV (except in the common room), so we sought entertainment on radio. “It’s like cable on radio,” we used to comment.
‘It’s like cable on radio” for Thimphu as well. With a handful of entertainment radio stations for the valley and 2 radio stations with widest coverage in Bhutan, most of the Bhutanese population is kept informed. But how well informed are they? As the 4th arm of the government, are we actually and fully aware of our responsibilities as radio jockeys and journalists?
With the more interactive medium of the World Wide Web and subsequent social media, every individual has the potential to reach a wider audience. Anyone with access to the internet has the capacity to be informed; however the issue of authenticity and quality has been left to personal discretion. Therein lies our advantage; radio does not need an internet connection, electricity nor does it need visual focus.
But, radio needs to adhere to a discipline of quality in providing information regarding current affairs, issues, trends, etc. Personally, every radio station in the country needs to outline and define their responsibility. Have a self assessed and realistic image; adhere to certain fundaments of radio broadcast. Much is desired, when a radio show is more of personal rambling that imparting any sort of information. There is a need for strong voice, not inanity, for the listener.
It is a well known fact that every radio station provides community service through public service broadcasting, but I understand that we are on public service every second on air. It might be just entertainment and music, but in it we provide information of particular cultures and create ‘exposure’.
It is a social responsibility to be on air; we are informing many people about many things. We need to do it the right way; we are meeting the media needs of all, including a poor villager who has no other media options. Radio itself is about including the needs of minority, concerned with developing taste, promote understanding, help spread literacy and empower the disadvantaged.
Consider the influence of radio and our voice. It has historical evidence for being the engine of change, and has survived as long as it did because of its relevance. Therefore, we need to act responsibly; know our responsibilities are diverse and complex, mainly because we cannot contemplate the impact of our broadcast.
Just the other day I was watching the movie ‘Inception’. The protagonist and his team extract dreams from people. The whole movie is about ‘planting’ an idea in someone’s mind, so that it grows as their own and becomes them. It’s uncanny how similar their job is to that of a radio jockey or journalist, in that sense. We have the power to ‘plant’ ideas in the public, and so that they make it their own.
So let’s focus on bringing about a positive social attitude through the many programs each radio stations have. Yes, most radio station in the country is entertainment based but we shouldn’t condone insensitive frivolity. Let’s work towards being the medium of change, so that our future will unconsciously acknowledge us by making those ideas into reality. Let’s us be a trusted source of information to our weavers, and dispel their feeling of lethargy. Let’s us still be the ideal partner to housewives in the kitchens, children in the garden, farmers in the fields, cowboys with their cattle and drivers on long journeys. All we need to do is begin- sensibly.