Calling from London, talking to India: South Asian networks at the BBC and the case of G.V. Desani

Bainbridge, Emma and Stadtler, Florian (2012). Calling from London, talking to India: South Asian networks at the BBC and the case of G.V. Desani. In: Nasta, Susheila ed. India in Britain: South Asian Networks and Connections, 1858-1950. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 164–178.



This chapter discusses the Indian Section of the BBC’s Eastern Service as an intellectual hub for South Asian writers and artists in the 1940s. The Indian Section began broadcasting in May 1940 and expanded rapidly soon after under the management of Indian programmes organiser Z A Bokhari and George Orwell, whom Bokhari employed as talks assistant in 1941. Orwell persuaded many South Asian writers to broadcast for the BBC, among them Mulk Raj Anand and Cedric Dover. He was responsible for a diversification of the Service’s output, including current affairs programmes, reviews, round-table discussions, poetry readings, plays and music. The essay will explore how this group of South Asian diasporic writers living in London sought to address the English-speaking, opinion-forming intelligentsia in India. Furthermore, it will address how these intellectuals, many of whom were campaigners for Indian independence, reconciled their activities with their BBC broadcasts, aimed at maintaining the allegiance of nationalists in the fraught context of the Quit India Movement and the British war effort in the early 1940s. G V Desani’s career at the BBC is a case in point. Joining the Corporation in 1941 as a radio play actor and broadcaster in Hindi and English, Desani’s relationship with the Eastern Service remained fraught. Desani was aware of the fact that he contributed to a wider discourse on what was considered suitable Indian material and as such his history of submission to BBC guidelines provides the focus for a debate on inclusion and exclusion, not only in terms of what the BBC felt was acceptable material, but perhaps, more importantly, what Desani felt listeners needed to hear. The very subjectivity of Desani’s viewpoint offers fascinating insights into the complexities of his broadcasts, revealing something previously hidden, but presented in a palatable format to a radio audience. His 1950 play Hali became, for Desani, the locus to determine the borders of inclusion in a way that he had spectacularly failed to consider, not least in his interactions with audiences at the BBC. the chapter thus delineates the diverse affiliations these writers formed in the process of generating broadcasting materials that were interesting and relevant to the BBC’s intended audience. Within this newly constructed arena broadcasts of writers like Desani negotiated in creative and complex ways the changing relationship between Britain and India.

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