After lunch, between 3 pm and 4 pm every weekday, a humble radio programme goes on air on the radio channel, Vividh Bharti. The announcers sound like friends engaged in a fun conversation — the language is kept simple and the songs range from old melodies to new Hindi tunes. All interspersed with candid, informative discussions. Sakhi Saheli, a synonym for girlfriend, is a popular show on All India Radio’s Vividh Bharti, running for nearly 15 years now.
For a one-way medium, the show still manages a remarkable two-way conversation with listeners, from school students to senior citizens. They pen letters and postcards, sharing thoughts, short stories, poems and couplets; some write about the problems they encounter and overcome in their lives, including gender discrimination in their families. The radio hosts read these letters and start discussions on everything from good parenting to cultivating hobbies. On Fridays, letters are put aside and phone-ins to the show are broadcast.
Sakhi Saheli has a wide audience: rural, suburban and cosmopolitan listeners, including many on-duty jawans. Balam Takli, Gola Bazaar, Katghora, Sohjani, Ural, Hardoi, Nayapara, Sambalgarh, Mungeli, New Majri Colliery are some examples of places — not quite nestled in the urban consciousness — from where letters make their way to the show.
Once a week, a fraction of the hour is dedicated to learning about someone like Sarla Thakral — the first Indian woman to get a pilot’s licence in 1936 or Dr Asima Chatterjee, the organic chemist who contributed to the development of anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs. On other days, there is a story corner, a new recipe or tips about fashion and beauty, careers options, tourism or healthy cooking.
“This maybe a small thing for us but imagine a woman in Ropar or Muzaffarnagar. This is a whole new world for them,” says former RJ and Delhi-based author Archna Pant, who often catches the show while driving.
The shows aired on Sakhi Saheli cause small but incremental impact, says Jyoti Bhadoria, a socially engaged homemaker and an avid listener of the show from Omkareshwar, Madhya Pradesh. “It’s different in towns and cities where there are many mediums. In rural areas, there is a dearth of information. Here, women get a lot of encouragement from Sakhi Saheli.”
Poet, and former AIR Mumbai station director, Rajesh Reddy, first conceived the idea of a programme centering around women in 2003. “I tried to ensure as much scope for interaction with audiences as possible. Beyond infotainment, the audience should be able to engage with the show at a personal level. I think we managed to achieve that and build on it,” he says.
About encouraging the art of letter writing — even today, the show receives sacks full of mail, Mamta Singh says, “There is still so much value attached with letters and people send them with such affection that we don’t want to end this.” she adds. Singh hosted the show’s maiden broadcast in 2003 and continues to be one of the two prominent voices of the show.
The show has an enduring fan base of men, too, who learn from the personal conversations. “The women and girls write so thoughtfully on issues, that you can’t help but feel attached,” says Secunderabad resident Sagar Nahar, a regular listener. “Women’s issues may not directly concern men, but it feels like you are learning a lot,” he adds.
However, politics and divisive issues like religion are off limits on VB by rule, Singh says, though, for social issues, it all comes down to the art of storytelling. “If we frame an issue in a way that uses simple language and is appealing, audiences will certainly take note of it,” says Singh, “Using stories and anecdotes to drive home an important point will work.”
Talking about the audience demography, Singh says that the show attracts a pan-India audience. “Our audience also comprises the modern woman — students and working women, including IAS, doctors and engineers. We don’t always indulge in serious talk, we make sure there’s a contemporary relevance to things — whether it’s music or light-hearted banter,” says Singh.
So if you tune in on a weekday afternoon to Sakhi Saheli, chances are that you will learn something about the Indian woman. About how she isn’t a monolith living a homogenous life, and how, despite all odds, she is ever transforming depending on her circumstance. With a little help from her friends, of course.
(#GenderAnd is dedicated to the coverage of Gender across intersections. You can read our entire reportage here)