For the artisans of Kolkata’s potters’ neighbourhood of Kumortuli, Mahalaya is a day of great happiness, when all the Durga idols have sold out and the workshops are empty. But way back in 1981, Mahalaya was the day Amit Ranjan Karmakar cried his heart out. That year, he had repaired the maximum number of radio sets before this auspicious day, when All India Radio or Akashvani still broadcasts the legendary programme Mahishasurmardini as it has done since 1931, and earned Rs 7,330, a personal record till date. “I thought if there was no radio set in the shop, nobody would give me work,” smiles the humble radio man of Kolkata, who we caught up with on World Radio Day.
Ask anyone in Kumartuli about ‘radio man’, and they will direct you to his tiny repairing shop on 40, Banamali Sarkar Street. Stocked with almost 150 vintage radios, this is the shop where 63-year-old Karmakar has been repairing radios since November 1976. Business has dipped as the radio has transitioned from radio sets to mobile phones, but Karmakar’s passion for radio remains infectious. He will tell you the names of almost all Akashvani programmes, news readers, and sports commentators without pausing for breath. In fact, he tunes into the radio news the moment he opens his shop at 7.00 am every day.
“We had a wooden radio at home and used to wonder what was inside. In 1966, I started listening to the radio. After Class 10, I couldn’t continue my education. My father thought I should become a mechanic but I didn’t quite like the idea. Then, one of my father’s friends took me to Naresh Sikdar. I started receiving hands-on training in repairing radio sets,” says Karmakar.
Ever since he opened shop in 1976, he has remembered Sikdar every time he repaired a set. Though he has repaired world renowned vintage sets like Telefunken, Philips, Murphy and Bush, Karmakar still says he is “learning every day”. The oldest set in his shop dates back to 1944.
The introduction of colour television changed the radio culture in India, he feels. “Earlier, people used to tune into the radio for sports commentary, especially football. The Durand Cup, Rovers Cup and Kalinga Cup were specially popular. Similarly, other entertainment programmes like Joymala and Binaca Geetmala were superhits. We enjoyed sports commentary by Ajay Basu and Pushpen Sarkar. In Kumartuli, people from various districts of Bengal used to come to work in the hosiery, plastic and idol making industries. They listened to the sports commentary during work. They were my customers. But then colour television arrived, and business started suffering,” Karmakar explains.
Many of his associates moved on to other businesses, but Karmakar had dedicated his life to radio. Soon, youngsters began flooding Kumartuli, armed with cameras to photograph the idol makers. These young photographers would give him their vintage sets belonging to their grandparents or parents for repairs. “So business picked up again,” says the city’s longest serving ‘radio man’.
In this digital era of smartphones, not many are bothered about radio. But Karmakar still manages to get a few clients who bring in their vintage sets to repair. He gets very busy before the Mahalaya, which heralds the beginning of Durga Puja. It is the time of year when Bengalis perform the annual ritual of listening to Mahisasuramardini by Birendrakrishna Bhadra on Akashvani. “Even those who don’t care about radios all through the year make sure the radio sets are in working order during Mahalaya. So Mahalaya has always given me work. Mahalaya is also about nostalgia and Bengalis don’t like to listen to the programme on their mobile phones. Even during Covid-19, Mahalaya has given me so much,” smiles Karmakar again.
Ask him if he has ever thought about what will happen to his shop filled with vintage radio sets that many customers have never reclaimed once he is gone, and he simply says, “No.”
His son Partha has not followed in his footsteps, a realty that he has accepted. He knows he is perhaps Kolkata’s last radio repairman but is confident that radio will never go out of fashion. “Parents push their kids into mobile repair today. So, I am the only one left in the radio servicing industry in Kolkata. Technology might evolve but radio will continue to remain in our lives,” he said.