Postcard Friend: How Vibrant Vividh Bharat Turns To ‘Sakhi-Saheli’


There are many humbling lessons from the enthralling radio programme that connects women from the remotest and tiniest towns and villages in India. 

By Ratna Rajaiah

Did you know there is a village in Maharashtra called New Majri Colliery?

Did you know that May 30 is celebrated as Hindi Patrakarita Diwas or Hindi Journalism Day, because on this day, 191 years ago, the very first Hindi newspaper was first published. It was Udant Martand, meaning, rising sun. Did you know that the research findings of Dr Asima Chatterjee (the first female recipient of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award), more than 50 years ago, about properties of medical plants, led to the development of chemotherapy drugs used even today, as well as anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs?

Did you know that unripe jackfruit transforms into a delicious sweet-sour pickle and pineapple makes a mean murabba? That grapes make a delicious lassi flavouring?

Or that somewhere in India, children have decided to celebrate their birthdays by cutting fruit, not cake?

Or that chameli flowers are anti-depressants, air purifiers and help cure insomnia?

Or that Raksha Gopal, this year’s 12th standard All-India topper, chooses to opt NOT for science, but humanities as her future area of study?

How do I know this?

About two years ago, at about 3pm, I had the radio on in the next room, just loud enough for the sound to waft into the bedroom.

Suddenly, I heard the exquisite trill of Geeta Dutt, singing in perfect Bhojpuri, a song I have never heard before…

Neek caiyyan bin bhavanva…

I went and sat next to the radio and began to listen. I was riveted. And enthralled. By a sweet, uncomplicated, unpretentious yet completely engrossing one-hour show — Sakhi-Saheli, broadcast from Vividh Bharati, Mumbai. I have remained enthralled ever since.

As have been thousands of women … Actually, the producers say they get about 150-200 postcards every day and the show has been on five days a week for the last 13 years. So, even my shaky math tells me that it would be hundreds of thousands of women, from the remotest and tiniest towns and villages. Did you know that Ambadand in Chhattisgarh has a total population of 284 people? I know, because one of those 284 was a listener who wrote in.

Gola Bazaar. Khalwa. Balam Takli. Bemetara. Samana Mandi. Gotegaon. Malkapur. Ural. Bemetara. Hardoi. Bhatgaon Sudama Nagar. Lachchanpur. Ambed. Dhamangaon. Bhadwa. Amalner.

The names had an exotic, magical ring to them and I, like some intrepid, albeit armchair explorer, went hunting for them, mounted on my trust Google. Many I could not find, perhaps they were small or remote, or because I got the names wrong. But many I did. That is how I know that New Majri Colliery gets its name because there is a colliery nearby – naturally so, since the Chandrapur District of Eastern Maharashtra where this village (so small that its population is not listed) is located, has one of the largest coal deposits in India. And that Samana Mandi in Punjab (population – 54,000) got its name from Samana, who was the mother of a son of the 8th descendant of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Sayyid Mash-had Ali, buried here about 1200 years ago. The tomb is now a major pilgrimage site.

Yet, that is not the most amazing part of this show.

The letters from these listeners from this immense expanse make most of the content of the show. The roll call — the breath-taking immensity of the diversity that is India.

You would not think that a girl from a small farmer’s family in a village in Khandwa, MP, would be able to suggest ways to end world hunger. Or that a daily-wage zari embroiderer from Benaras would have something on the art of listening. Or that a little Class 3 student from Hardoi would want to grow up to be a customs officer. Or that women from thousands of little towns and villages would know that sleeping more than nine hours a day can lead to obesity, heart disease and diabetes (and quote research). Or that the eco-friendly thing to do is to send your defunct electronics to a recycling centre. Or about the importance of what is now fashionably called ‘conscious living’. Or that planting tree, apart from everything else, apparently, also makes you happy. Or what was Swami Vivekanada’s reply to a besotted American female fan who asked him how she could get a man like him. Or why the “anarkali-cut” kurta won’t look good if you have a figure that is on the “tandarust” side!

But they do.

And they write about it in simple yet eloquent little letters, in words that come from the heart, delicately embossed here and there, with beautiful little poems and couplets, intertwined with little trellises of wisdom like “Daulat bistar khareed sakta hai, need nahin (money can buy you a bed, it can’t buy you sleep).”

And you’d think that they’d never know about a little-heard, enchanting Manna Da/AshaBhosle duet – Mere jeevan mein kiran ban ke, that C. Ramchandra composed for the film Talaq (1958).

But they do.

The other amazing thing about the programme and what got me and kept me hooked — the music. All Hindi film songs, but so many of them are unusual, “unheard” numbers from movies, more than half a century. And many of them are …yes, you guessed it — listeners’ choices.
Baharo thaam lo ab dil mere – composer G S Kohli, film Namasteji (1965), sung by Mukesh/Lata. Chandrama Ja unse – composer Vasant Desai; film Bharat Milap (1965),  sung by Mahendra Kapoor.  Hum Hain To Chand Aur Taare – composer Shankar-Jaikishen, film Main Nashe Mein Hoon (1959), sung by Mukesh. O main chhoti si hoti badariya – composer Chitragupt, film Suhag Sindoor (1961), sung by Lataji.

It was on this glorious musical expedition that I discovered that the composer of that lovely Bhojpuri song by Geeta Dutt (film Bidesiya, 1963), was S N Tripathi, now almost unheard of, but in his days, he was not just a leading music composer (apparently, the late Amir Khan who did not think much of Hindi film composers, rated him as one of the three notable ones along with Naushad and Vasant Desai), but also director, actor, singer — you could say he was Kishoreda’s creative daddy! He was also the first person to use “Jai Hindi” in a film song!

In other words, there are many humbling lessons from Sakhi Saheli. That the smallness of your town or your school, or the narrowness of your social milieu has got nothing to do with how expansive your mind is, or how big your yearning to be the person you know, you have the potential to be. That nothing can compete with content, not even in this age of the Internet and glittering, yabbering, jabbering 24×7 600 TV channels at a press of your thumb.

And that nothing that comes from the heart ever goes out of fashion.

But, the last word on this enchanting show has to be from a man. June 2 was the 14th anniversary of Sakhi Saheli. And befittingly enough, it was an ardent male listener fan — Indore’s Sanjay Patel; adman, journalist and musical show host, who perfectly encapsulated why this lovely show has survived for so long and has such an unwavering, enthusiastic following. He said it was because “Sakhi-Saheli se pura Bharat ek dhaage mein piroya hua hai...”

I guess I do not need to translate.


— Ratna Rajaiah is an author and a columnist. She lives and cooks in Mysore.