During the 1960s, that paan shop with a radio-installed rally crowd became the epicenter of social gatherings in every corner of the country. Especially with the presence of All India Radio, a national public radio station in India left a significant impact on our socio-economic and cultural identities as Indians. This station has given us some of the best newscasters in Indian journalistic history. Of these, there is one of those anchors who established the centrality of women in the news business by being the first female voice on the channel.
Today, as we witness the spread of community gossip by our TV newscasters, let us remember the voice of Saeeda Bano, India’s first female radio newscaster. This article covers quotes from Bano’s 1994 memoir, ‘Dagar Se Hat Kar’‘, which was later translated by his granddaughter Shahana Raza as ‘Off the Beat Track: My Offbeat Life Story‘.
Story of the two cities in the experiences of Bano
Living by convention always sounded like a second option to Bano. He identified himself as one of those people who “chose a road less traveled“. She was born in Bhopal in 1913, the only state in India ruled by women for four straight generations. Later in 1925, Bano was admitted to the Karamat Hussain High School for Muslim Girls, Lucknow. She graduated from the prestigious Isabelle College in Lucknow. Her father tried to provide her with a good formal education. Given society’s odds, it was best to provide it to a woman of her time. She was an average student in school. She was seeking more pleasure from exploring ideas, experiencing the outside world, and playing sports rather than academic learning.
However, in 1933, at the age of 19, despite an emotional four-page letter to her father who resisted the marriage, Bano married a judge from a wealthy family in Lucknow, where she had to settle permanently at from then on.
Bhopal, more progressive and Lucknow, more conventional in terms of the government of the patriarchal nawabs. Bano recorded how during the freedom struggle, Lucknow was slowly dying but still retaining its rich oriental culture. The social media in Lucknow during harcourt butler time had bottomed out. Lucknow was heading towards disaster with no idea how he was slowly leaving behind the rosy charm of his aristocratic society, leaving him nothing.
The other reality that Bano saw was the presence of the east india company officials in Lucknow who gradually introduced Western cultural thoughts and lifestyles to the city. Yet all of this change thrived in a very patriarchal setup. That was why Bano hated to leave his world in Bhopal.
This day to day made her feel miserable. In her everyday behavior, she submitted to submission. In all of this, she mourned the death of that playful child in her. She the one that she could appreciate life any way she wanted. She couldn’t be herself anymore, without being judged too much. At every stage, Bano’s life in Lucknow came with endless expectations followed by precautions. This took her breath away. As she quotes Ghalib in her memoir, expressing her state of mind:
‘Phir waza e ahteyat se…. rukne laga hai dum. . ‘
‘I am so consumed with the anxiety of being discreet that I feel suffocated.‘
After 20 long years, Bano found his way out of Lucknow. Her life is a reflection of the constant facade that women faced in her daily life during those days and still today, swallowing her sense of individuality and true feelings. However, Bano was encouraged to choose to live as a single woman. She mentions in her memoirs,
‘Breaking the chains of an extremely conventional and secure life,
She had chosen to live the vulnerable existence of a single woman..’
His youth gave him the strength to take such a bold step. Circumstances openly gave her the courage to ignore all the rumors about his family, ignoring social criticism, he had spent his life leading his way and finding his way. He had to take a difficult step in his life by sending his eldest child to a boarding school. After which, in August 1947, he arrived in Delhi with his youngest son, Saeed. The period in which tensions around partition violence increased. This is why his lived experiences are crucial even in determining India’s understanding of his past.
A remarkable mark in journalistic history
Saeeda Bano found its independence two days before the country’s independence from the Colonial Raj. At 8 a.m. on August 13, 1947, when India’s radio came on, Bano gave the nation a very pleasant surprise by becoming the “first female voice, newscaster for All India Radio Urdu news bulletins“. When Bano appeared on the live broadcast, he had already set the bar high for Indian journalistic history. Before this, even the BBC had never hired a woman to read the news. She expressed in her memoirs how she was the first woman all indian radio he had considered capable enough to read the radio news for them.
Bano’s voice quality and tonality were highly appreciated. According to her, the Statesman newspaper even published some words of praise. Soon after, she was offered many other shows. One of them was a Show of women and children.Others involved her in producing extensively researched news analysis and reading short bulletins. She even worked as a producer, producing a five-minute show called dekhi suni.
However, everyone’s reaction was not very favorable towards this historic moment that Bano’s presence had registered. He received tons of letters after broadcasts from him, some with gentlemen proposing to him, while others warning him that ‘go to pakistan‘. As a single Muslim woman, she was thrown into agony.
what the partition and its misery brought him
Bano did not realize that the intensification of communal violence in the country would become the most violent partition in history. Circumstances forced her to take refuge with many other prominent personalities in Rafi Ahmad Kidwai house. However, this was the time when he met some of the most important Muslim leaders of the time. Bano watched the actions of these leaders who were concerned about the mass murder in the country. His close presence allowed him to closely record some facts. One such fact became clear through his refutation of the rumor that Khaliquzzamaan, a major Muslim League leader, fled India in Burkha. Because he saw him leaving for Pakistan from Kidwai’s house.
Another event that left a deep impression on Seeda was the assassination of Gandhi. On the day of his death, Bano visited Birla House to hear Gandhi in person. During those tumultuous times, he tried to comfort the masses suffering from Partition by reinforcing the feelings of unity among them. In the soft tone of Gandhi’s voice, as he spoke, Bano felt a sense of defeat. The agony that Bano experienced shortly after Gandhi’s death prevented him from reading that day’s news. He juggled the busy schedules of morning and night shifts for the radio station.
Bano’s ‘Road Less Traveled’
From the beginning, he defied convention and did not bother to pay attention to the labels that society placed on him. Even her memoir seems to have taken this unconventional path, where she shamelessly talks about her love life and her relationship with a married man without worrying about being judged. Her granddaughter, Shahana Raza, who translated her memoir “Off the Beat Track” mentioned in 2020 Jaipur Literature Festival that Bano was content to play the other woman, she accepted that part and took her for who she is. Instead of trying to change it.
Saeeda Bano never took the safety and comfort of her life in Lucknow, contrary to what she really wanted, and retired as a newsreader in 1965. After which, until the 1970s, she played the role of producer for the service. Urdu by AIR. In 2001, she passed away. Her life continues to inspire women who appreciate their individuality and won’t settle for less.
Women like Saeeda Bano do not submit their individualistic autonomy to the hands of others, even if they have to assume a ‘off the beat cum unconventional track‘ In their lifes.