Friendship through Ether Waves: Radio Berlin International and its Listening Publics in India

Dr. Anan­dita Bajpai

4 Octo­ber 2023


Radio was a promi­nent tool of the ‘Cultu­ral Cold War’ for reaching out to people in ‘far away’ spaces, commu­ni­ca­ting world­views that prescri­bed to Cold War-divi­des, and in forging ideo­lo­gi­cal affi­ni­ties and animo­si­ties alike. Seve­ral foreign broad­cas­ting stati­ons based in Europe, USA, and the Soviet Union were speci­fi­cally estab­lished between the 1960s and late 1980s to procure global listening publics. In my field rese­arch on the Hindi Service program­mes of seve­ral radio stati­ons and their audi­en­ces in medium-sized cities, town­ships, and rural villa­ges of India, I have espe­ci­ally been tracing the trajec­tory of Radio Berlin Inter­na­tio­nal, the GDR’s foreign broad­cas­ter based in East Berlin. Whereas much scho­lar­ship exists on sonic compe­ti­tion on the ether waves during the Cold War, the perspec­tive of listen­ers is rela­tively under­ex­plo­red beyond the realm of letters found in insti­tu­tio­nal archi­ves. Explo­ring the stories of those behind the radio sets by rely­ing on oral history as method and by enga­ging with private coll­ec­tions in listen­ers’ homes­teads can provide new insights into how inter­na­tio­na­list regis­ters of soli­da­rity and friend­ship were craf­ted in the ever­y­day through radio waves.

Radio Berlin Inter­na­tio­nal, or ‘The Voice of the German Demo­cra­tic Repu­blic’, as it was called by both those behind the micro­pho­nes as well as the listening ears behind the radio sets, was estab­lished in 1959. Its Hindi Service, as part of the Southe­ast Asia Depart­ment, began its trans­mis­si­ons in 1967. While some of the Hindi show’s mode­ra­tors were Indi­ans, seve­ral presen­ters, jour­na­lists, mail-bag programme mode­ra­tors, and staff were from the GDR and had learnt Hindi at East Berlin’s Humboldt Univer­sity. Most of them had never been to India but joined the station to actively engage with the language and its native spea­k­ers, who were a conti­nent away. Over the 23 years of its exis­tence, the Hindi programme acqui­red popu­la­rity among hundreds of listen­ers and listen­ers’ clubs across subur­ban and rural Hindi-spea­king parts of India.

As expres­sed by seve­ral listen­ers in inter­views which I have conduc­ted since 2018, the immense popu­la­rity enjoyed by Radio Berlin Inter­na­tio­nal (RBI) among Indian audi­en­ces rested on inti­mate ties of ‘warmth’, ‘love’, and ‘friend­ship’, which the station’s mode­ra­tors forged with listen­ers. Seve­ral RBI listen­ers have pains­ta­kin­gly preser­ved their RBI memo­ra­bi­lia, letters, and GDR objects sent by RBI in the private space of their homes­teads until today, even after over 33 years of the station’s closure in 1990. What explains this inti­macy? How did ephemeral radio waves produce affec­tive trans­na­tio­nal ties of friend­ship across, and in spite of, Cold War ideo­lo­gi­cal divi­des? How are these ties recoun­ted today? I trace these ques­ti­ons by presen­ting the profiles of four avid listen­ers of the station, from Bika­ner (Raja­sthan), Gola Bazaar, Gorakh­pur (Uttar Pradesh) and Madhe­pura (Bihar) and snip­pets of my ongo­ing conver­sa­ti­ons with them.

RBI’s Hindi Service

The Hindi programme began with a 20 minu­tes’ broad­cast in 1967, which even­tually became 30 minu­tes’ long and had three repeat tele­casts every day. The show consis­ted of some centra­li­zed features like Tages­kom­men­tar, Aktu­ell, and Pres­se­schau (daily commen­tary, news over­view, and current affairs, in Hindi: Aaj ki Sameek­sha), which were part of shows in all foreign language RBI broad­casts like those in Kiswa­hili, French, Spanish, Arabic, Portu­guese, English, etc. Seve­ral regu­lar weekly features included the Sport­sen­dung (Sports­news, Hindi: Khel-kud ke Samachar), Frie­dens­sen­dung (Peace Repor­tage; Hindi: Kadam Badhao Aman Ki Khaa­tir, lite­rally trans­la­ted as- Take a Step forward towards peace), Das Land in dem Wir Leben (The Coun­try in which We Live, Hindi:  Wah desh jisme hum rehte hain and GDR Darshan). The show allot­ted a considera­ble part of its airtime to mail­bag program­mes (Hörer­post) such as Aapki Chit­thi Mili (We Recei­ved Your Mail) and Aapne Poocha Hai (You Have Asked Us). The DX Programme was another plat­form of direct exch­ange through letters and recep­tion reports between the presen­ters and the listen­ers. An inter­na­tio­nal pheno­me­non since the 1920s, DXing refers to amateur listen­ers’ hobby of iden­ti­fy­ing and recei­ving distant radio or tele­vi­sion signals, or making two-way cont­act with distant stati­ons and informing them about the quality of recep­tion through reports (DX is the tele­gra­phic short­hand for distance or distant). DXers were sent a writ­ten acknow­led­ge­ment of receipt of reports by radio stati­ons in the form of QSL cards (acknow­ledgment cards). RBI had seve­ral dedi­ca­ted DXers and DX clubs, as can very often be heard on the two hundred magne­tic-tape recor­dings (1988–90) of the Hindi show, housed in the Deut­sches Rund­funk Archiv (DRA) in Pots­dam. From 1983 onwards, the Service star­ted a new feature called Naye Mitron ke Patr (Letters from our New Friends) given the show had become highly popu­lar among listen­ers and the station recei­ved many more letters than in the 1970s. This feature was espe­ci­ally intro­du­ced to address the letters of new listen­ers’ clubs of the show. Given that the radio station contin­ued to exist until Octo­ber 1990, one year after the fall of the Wall, the year 1989 saw the intro­duc­tion of new features such as Berlin Diary, which captu­red the rapid trans­for­ma­ti­ons faced by the city after the re-unifi­ca­tion of the two German states.

For most Indian listen­ers, it was East German voices which spoke to them in Hindi and the perso­nal meti­cu­lous atten­tion paid to their curio­si­ties, ques­ti­ons, and messa­ges that made the programme unique and a favourite. 

Solidarity and Friendship in Madhepura, Bihar

Arvind Srivas­tava, a student of Russian history at the local univer­sity when he began listening to Radio Berlin Inter­na­tio­nal, is today a full-time writer and poet in Hindi. In the 1980s, Srivas­tava foun­ded a radio listen­ers’ club called the Lenin Club in Madhe­pura, Bihar. Calling RBI his favou­rite station, Arvind recapitulates

I was stuck to RBI. The club’s main aims were to discuss the programme’s contents, inform ones­elf of world affairs, to criti­cally comment on Cold War poli­tics and also on India’s place as a Non-Aligned coun­try in the world. We found a common voice against impe­ria­lism and market-driven capi­ta­lism. Our views found a commo­n­a­lity with the GDR. We were also aware of events taking place in count­ries like Mozam­bi­que, Chile, Angola, Viet­nam, and Nica­ra­gua. We saw socia­lism and anti-impe­ria­lism as the only solu­tion to a world alre­ady torn by two recent wars.1

Srivas­tava also held highly criti­cal views of the Apart­heid regime in South Africa. RBI’s shows thus provi­ded him with a plat­form which reso­na­ted his own worldviews.

Srivas­tava was exhi­la­ra­ted to see these photos which he had sent to the station in the 1980s. Years after RBI’s closure (1990), they had travel­led back to him through me in 2019 (figs. 1 and 2). It was a matter of pride for him that they had been carefully preser­ved for all these years by one of RBI’s mode­ra­tors, Sabine Imhof, and that they had been in Berlin although he did not have any perso­nal copies of the same anymore.

Fig. 1: Lenin Club’s protest march against nuclear proli­fe­ra­tion and for world peace in Madhe­pura, Bihar. Arvind Srivas­tava can be seen with the club’s banner (right). Photo­graph sent to RBI’s Hindi Service by Srivas­tava in the 1980s (exact date unknown), Private Coll­ec­tions Sabine Imhof (now part of author’s coll­ec­tions and to be trans­fer­red to the RBI holdings of Deut­sches Rund­funk Archiv, Pots­dam in 2025).
Fig. 2: Lenin Club’s protest march against nuclear proli­fe­ra­tion and for world peace in Madhe­pura, Bihar. Arvind Srivas­tava fourth from the left. One of the banners reads- ‘Stop Nuclear Race. We want peace. Do not repeat Hiro­shima.’ Photo­graph sent to RBI’s Hindi Service by Srivas­tava in the 1980s (exact date unknown), Private Coll­ec­tions Sabine Imhof (now part of author’s coll­ec­tions and to be trans­fer­red to the RBI holdings of Deut­sches Rund­funk Archiv, Pots­dam in 2025).

Among the memo­ra­bi­lia recei­ved from the GDR, which Arvind has safely stored in the attic of his homes­tead for years, one finds seve­ral RBI jour­nals and pamphlets, QSL cards which he recei­ved on writing recep­tion reports of the show, posters, penn­ants, letters, RBI peak-cap, and a half-destroyed photo­graph of the Funk­haus buil­ding at Nale­pa­strasse in East Berlin, from where RBI did its broad­casts (figs. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3: Arvind Srivas­tava in his homes­tead with a poster on ‘Youth in the GDR’ sent to him by RBI, exact date of recep­tion unknown, Madhe­pura, March 26, 2019, photo: Jyothi­das KV ©author.
Fig. 4: At Arvind Srivastava’s homes­tead. Srivas­tava proudly shows his RBI peak-cap. Madhe­pura, March 26, 2019, photo: Jyothi­das KV © author.

While visi­ting his homes­tead in Madhe­pura to shoot for a docu­men­tary film on the entan­gled trajec­to­ries of RBI, its mode­ra­tors and listen­ers between Berlin and Bihar, which I was direc­ting at the time,2 Srivas­tava suggested that we visit his attic and take out all the GDR and RBI objects for a closer look. The act of docu­men­ting, parti­ally digi­ta­li­zing the published mate­rial, and photo­gra­phing the radio-objects for the next three days on the roof­top of his homes­tead orga­ni­cally led us to the idea of orga­ni­zing an exhi­bi­tion, which would evoke memo­ries of India-GDR Friend­ship and his perso­nal ties to RBI.

What follo­wed in the next days was a careful selec­tion, sort­ing, and display­ing of all memo­ra­bi­lia in his house and an exhi­bi­tion which was offi­ci­ally opened with Arvind explai­ning the story of each displayed object to a room packed with visi­tors (figs. 5 and 6). The exhi­bi­tion was in fact remi­nis­cent of seve­ral such exhi­bi­ti­ons which listen­ers like Arvind regu­larly orga­ni­zed when the radio station exis­ted. These exhi­bi­ti­ons were photo­gra­phed, staged events, wher­eby liste­ner clubs’ members perfor­med soli­da­rity with the GDR by display­ing the mate­ri­als sent to them in their club meeting rooms. Objects were made acces­si­ble for watching to local neigh­bour­hoods in order to raise aware­ness about the radio station, its coun­try of trans­mis­sion, and its people’s ever­y­day lives. I first acces­sed photo­graphs of such exhi­bi­ti­ons via the private coll­ec­tions of an RBI mode­ra­tor, Sabine Imhof (mentio­ned above), who had been in regu­lar cont­act with the listen­ers through letters between 1981–90. In these photo­graphs, one sees objects that were sent to listen­ers carefully displayed like show pieces on tables and in vitri­nes. Books, jour­nals, curta­ins in GDR flag colours, pamphlets, souve­nirs, and penn­ants adorn the walls and tables of living rooms of club presi­dents’ homes­teads, which were usually used as tempo­rary exhi­bi­tion spaces (for e.g. fig. 7).3 The exhi­bi­tion in Srivastava’s homes­tead in 2019 was an attempt at recrea­ting the affec­tive mood of simi­lar club acti­vi­ties in the 1980s.

Fig. 5: Exhi­bi­tion ‘Memo­ries of India-GDR Friend­ship’ at Arvind Srivastava’s resi­dence Kala Kutir, Madhe­pura, Bihar, 28.03.2019, The photo displays walls with posters on sports, health­care, and music in the GDR (left) and RBI jour­nals, QSL cards, DX Bulle­tins, letters (right wall), and RBI DX certi­fi­ca­tes (below) recei­ved by Srivas­tava from the station. The exhi­bi­tion was a recrea­tion of simi­lar exhi­bi­ti­ons orga­ni­zed by liste­ner clubs in the 1980s for RBI, photo: Jyothi­das, © author.
Fig. 6: Exhi­bi­tion ‘Memo­ries of India-GDR Friend­ship’ at Arvind Srivastava’s resi­dence Kala Kutir, Madhe­pura, Bihar, 28.03.2019, The photo displays a wall with RBI penn­ants, stickers, post­card­s/­view-cards (Ansichts­kar­ten), and posters of Karl Marx which Srivas­tava recei­ved from the station in the 1980s. The exhi­bi­tion was a recrea­tion of simi­lar exhi­bi­ti­ons orga­ni­zed by liste­ner clubs in the 1980s for RBI, photo: Jyothi­das, © author.
Fig. 7: Photo­graph of an exhi­bi­tion orga­ni­zed by the Dougals Club in Naya Nangal, Haryana in the 1980s (exact date unknown), Private Coll­ec­tions Sabine Imhof (now part of author’s coll­ec­tions and to be trans­fer­red to the RBI holdings of Deut­sches Rund­funk Archiv, Pots­dam in 2025).

Arvind’s unflin­ching loyalty to the station’s message of soli­da­rity and inter­na­tio­nal friend­ship can also be traced in the fact that in 1983 he star­ted a jour­nal called Aman Ki Aawaaz (The Voice of Peace: Dedi­ca­ted to Inter­na­tio­nal Peace and Friend­ship), finan­ced and published enti­rely with perso­nal resour­ces. The jour­nal not just gave details of RBI Hindi’s show, its tele­cast timings and the sche­dule of its program­mes’ features, but also had seve­ral texts writ­ten on other topics such as the 2000th anni­ver­sary of Tash­kent as the city of inter­na­tio­nal peace and soli­da­rity and criti­cal essays against nuclear proli­fe­ra­tion and the arms’ race. The jour­nal thanks RBI’s Ujjwal Bhat­tacha­rya as one of its inspi­ra­tio­nal guides (figs. 8 and 9).

Figs. 8 (left) and 9 (right): Pages from the jour­nal Aman Ki Aawaaz (The Voice of Peace), edited by Arvind Srivas­tava, published in Madhe­pura, Bihar, 1983, Private Coll­ec­tions Arvind Srivas­tava, Madhe­pura, Bihar.

Recoll­ec­ting his love towards his favou­rite show hosts, Srivas­tava recalls

We really wanted to meet the people working at RBI, whether it was Frie­de­mann, Sabine or Marita, and the others like Ujjwal or Mahesh, or Wolf­gang. At least, to see them once in person! It is like this: if you deeply worship someone in your heart, in the form of an idol, then you also want to meet them in person some­day. Life beco­mes more meaningful if you can reach up to them. And there is one more thing: At the time radio did not just have a formal presence in my life. We also had a beau­tiful image of the people of the GDR: GDR citi­zens. If I saw any foreig­ner, I would wonder if he is from the GDR. And perhaps I could speak to him.4

Intimacy and friendship through Objects in Bikaner, Rajasthan 

A golds­mith by profes­sion, Rajen­dra Kumar Swarnkar’s family (father and sons) specia­li­zes in fine-desig­ning jewel­lery with silver, gold, and enamels. As a young radio liste­ner in the 1980s, he has memo­ries of long working days spent next to his father on the upper floor of his home, where the radio set’s sound was ubiqui­tous and the only accepted ‘foreign’ presence. Shiel­ded away from ever­y­day house­hold life and other family members, this is the space where most of the desig­ning work was done. Swarn­kar vividly remem­bers fiddling with the radio knob and catching frequen­cies of foreign broad­cas­ters such as Radio Tash­kent, Radio Beijing, Deut­sche Welle, Radio Praha, and Radio Berlin Inter­na­tio­nal on the first ever radio set in the house. The curio­sity came when he first heard BBC’s Hindi Service and wonde­red if there were other radio stati­ons in the world, which also had Hindi program­mes. From 1982 onwards, Swarn­kar became a commit­ted liste­ner of RBI, foun­ded his own listen­ers’ club, and follo­wed all its shows and repeat tele­casts regu­larly. In his own words

I will tell you what was so special about RBI– for them it wasn’t only the club that was important, but the indi­vi­dual, the person. They took me very seriously as a person. And this is how their presen­ters were with every liste­ner. It showed in the programme.5

Fig. 10: Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar at his resi­dence in Bika­ner, Raja­sthan, April 2, 2022, photo: Jyothi­das KV ©author.

Over the years Swarn­kar could reco­gnize the voice of each mode­ra­tor from the GDR. In his own recount, he felt inti­mate ties of friend­ship with these voices.

Listening to RBI was like an addic­tion and passion. Unlike most addic­tions, one didn’t harm anyone with such a hobby– a healthy passion– this is how I describe it. It gave me know­ledge about the world. RBI was my favou­rite because each presen­ter had a perso­na­li­zed and proxi­mate way of spea­king to us listen­ers. Their voices would keep echo­ing in my ears long after the show was over. It is hard to express these feelings. Each one of them had a unique voice, tona­lity and way of spea­king in Hindi. It was a unique expe­ri­ence to listen to these East German voices in Hindi.6

The show became a means for Swarn­kar to inform hims­elf of the GDR, its people and their ever­y­day lives, and its urban and rural land­scapes. In his homes­tead, in the same room, from where Swarn­kar worked and heard RBI, today one finds seve­ral iron cupboards which are full of seve­ral objects that he recei­ved from the radio station almost 40 years ago. Among this plethora of items are for e.g. a GDR pioneer doll ador­ning an RBI scarf, a manual slide-viewer (Dia Betrachtor) with seve­ral slides that show GDR land­scapes, plas­tic bags from RBI which are as glossy as they were when recei­ved, seve­ral pin badges, RBI peak caps, decks of RBI play­ing-cards whose wrap­pers have never been remo­ved, GDR penn­ants, and every enve­lope of every letter Swarn­kar recei­ved from the station (figs. 11–15).

These objects, which travel­led from the GDR to Bika­ner by regis­tered post at the time were precious posses­si­ons which Swarn­kar has meti­cu­lously preser­ved until today. In present times, they are a remin­der of his ties of friend­ship with the coun­try, its people, and most importantly, RBI’s East German moderators.

Fig. 11: Pioneer doll (Pionier Puppe) with an RBI scarf which Swarn­kar recei­ved from the station, date unknown, Private Coll­ec­tions Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar, photo Jyothi­das KV © author, April 2, 2022. 
Fig. 12: Deck of play­ing cards issued by the station. The plas­tic cover was never remo­ved. Date of recep­tion unknown, Private Coll­ec­tions Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar, photo Jyothi­das KV © author, April 4, 2022. 
Fig. 13: Manual slide-viewer (Dia Betrachtor) and two sets of slides with GDR land­scapes and images of Berlin’s urban land­scape. Date of recep­tion unknown, Private Coll­ec­tions Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar, photo Jyothi­das KV © author, April 4, 2022. 
Fig. 14: Page of a pamphlet on GDR-USSR Friend­ship sent to Swarn­kar by RBI. Exact date of recep­tion unknown, Private Coll­ec­tions Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar, photo Jyothi­das KV © author, April 4, 2022. 
Fig. 15: Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar shows RBI plas­tic bags, which were sent to his listen­ers’ club in Bika­ner. These have been preser­ved carefully in a cupboard over the years and are almost new and glossy even today. Exact date of recep­tion unknown, Private Coll­ec­tions Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar, photo Jyothi­das KV © author, April 4, 2022. 

In 1999, Sabine Imhof travel­led for the first time to India and, among others, she perso­nally met one of her most ardent listen­ers in Bika­ner, Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar. Rajendra’s attach­ment to radio-objects from RBI can be summa­ri­zed in what Sabine tellingly recoun­ted as a memory of her visit to his homestead

He showed me a part of the wall in his house where an RBI penn­ant had been hanging for years. This trian­gu­lar patch had been saved from the impact of dust and humi­dity on the rest of the wall. I mentio­ned to Rajen­dra: “Of course, RBI does not exist anymore and neither does the GDR. It only makes sense that you have taken off the penn­ant from the wall”. To this he said- “I did not remove it because it didn’t make sense anymore to have it there, I remo­ved it to save it from the wall. I remo­ved it because I know that this will be one of the only memo­ries I can keep of RBI.”7

GDR objects thus clearly served as ambassa­dors of friend­ship and forged inti­mate ties with RBI’s Indian listen­ers. They became mate­rial markers of radio’s perva­sive presence in people’s ever­y­day lives and years later, today they serve as instru­ments of recount in narra­ting listen­ers’ affec­tive ties to the station and its host coun­try.8

Going Global from Gola Bazaar, Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh

Based in a small town­ship in eastern Uttar Pradesh, seventy kilo­me­t­res away from the city of Gorakh­pur is the town­ship of Gola Bazaar, where Badri Prasad Verma ‘Anjaan’ and Shak­un­tala Verma have been avid listen­ers of RBI’s program­mes since the incep­tion of its Hindi Service in 1967. A hobby cari­ca­tu­rist and children’s short stories writer, Verma runs a gene­ral (all-purpose) store in his neigh­bour­hood. His wife Shak­un­tala Verma has been a home-maker in the past, but now also assists their son in running another gene­ral store. In the 1980s, Verma foun­ded the Swar­giya Menu Shrota Club, a radio listen­ers’ club named after their eldest daugh­ter, who died as a young child. The sugges­tion to name their club after their decea­sed daugh­ter came from a mode­ra­tor at Radio Beijing, Sun Ing, with whom the Vermas contin­ued to have perso­nal epis­to­lary and tele­pho­nic cont­act until some years ago.

Fig. 16: Badri Prasad Verma ‘Anjaan’ in his homes­tead with his private coll­ec­tions and two radio sets (Natio­nal and Phil­lips), Gola Bazar, Gorakh­pur, Uttar Pradesh, photo: Jyothi­das KV ©author.

For the couple, it is a matter of extreme pride that they were one of the few listen­ers to have recei­ved the last QSL card issued by RBI (fig.17). While listening to RBI Hindi Service’s last broad­cast from 02.10.1990, a copy of which (tape-recor­ded cassette) I had acqui­red from one of the show’s mode­ra­tors (Marita Hoff­mann) in Berlin in 2018, a teary-eyed Badri Prasad recoun­ted how the show had helped him as a compa­n­ion in diffi­cult years. For him, the voices mode­ra­ting the last show of the station reflec­ted the pain that was felt by listen­ers all over India that day, knowing that their favou­rite radio show would never be aired again.

Fig. 17: RBI’s last QSL card sent to Shak­un­tala Verma by the station (dated 11.10.1990), Private Coll­ec­tions Badri Prasad Verma ‘Anjaan’ and Shak­un­tala Verma, Gola Bazar, Gorakh­pur, Uttar Pradesh.
Fig. 18: Front page of RBI News Bulle­tin, Issue 1988. Private Coll­ec­tions Badri Prasad Verma ‘Anjaan’ and Shak­un­tala Verma, Gola Bazar, Gorakh­pur, Uttar Pradesh, photo: Jyothi­das KV ©author.
Fig. 19: Badri Prasad Verma ‘Anjaan’ shows a penn­ant from RBI as a DX club presi­dent, Private Coll­ec­tions Badri Prasad Verma Anjaan and Shak­un­tala Verma, Gola Bazar, Gorakh­pur, Uttar Pradesh, photo: Jyothi­das KV ©author.
Fig. 20: Shak­un­tala Verma (Anjaan) in her homes­tead with an RBI cloth-calen­dar from 1988, Gola Bazar, Gorakh­pur, Uttar Pradesh, photo: Jyothi­das KV ©author
Fig. 21: Badri Prasad Verma ‘Anjaan’ shows a GDR flag sent by RBI. Private Coll­ec­tions Badri Prasad Verma ‘Anjaan’ and Shak­un­tala Verma, Gola Bazar, Gorakh­pur, Uttar Pradesh, photo: Jyothi­das KV ©author.

For Shak­un­tala and Badri Prasad there was no harm in listening to foreign broad­cas­ters, which belon­ged to oppo­sing ideo­lo­gi­cal sides of the Cold War. As curious listen­ers, they were anything but passive recei­vers of Cold War ‘propa­ganda’. Among others, they also carefully follo­wed the Hindi shows of Deut­sche Welle, Radio Tash­kent, Radio Beijing, Voice of America, BBC Hindi Service, Radio Moscow. Howe­ver, they recoun­ted how RBI and its presen­ters remained one of their favou­ri­tes. The show touched their hearts and given the serious­ness with which the station respon­ded to their letters, their requests and their ques­ti­ons, they felt ‘reco­gni­zed’ by the station. Both have safely main­tai­ned seve­ral folders with letters, QSL cards, pamphlets, jour­nals, and news­let­ters (fig. 18) from the station until today. These and other objects that they recei­ved from the GDR via RBI, such as penn­ants, calen­dars and flags (figs.19, 20 and 21) have been preser­ved in the private space of their bedroom until today. Two of the features of the Hindi programme – Aapne Poocha hai (You have Asked Us) and Naya Daur Naye Prashn (A New Era, New Ques­ti­ons) – some 200 tele­casts of which (1988–90) can be acces­sed in the form of magne­tic tapes from RBI holdings of the Deut­sches Rund­funk Archiv in Pots­dam. These sound files are replete with ques­ti­ons, which were posed by the Vermas to the programme and which were duly addres­sed on the show. For Badri Prasad Verma, RBI did not just address his curio­si­ties rela­ted to the GDR and the Cold War, but gave him an oppor­tu­nity to insert hims­elf in a global Cold War’s cultu­ral poli­tics. It enab­led him to stage an inter­na­tio­na­lism from the very loca­li­zed rural context of Gola Bazaar in eastern Uttar Pradesh. The show was a means to inform ones­elf of an ideo­lo­gi­cal alter­na­tive – a perspec­tive that was often diffe­rent from what he heard on BBC, DW, or VOA. RBI’s programme, in his own words, allo­wed Verma not only to raise ques­ti­ons, but also to criti­cally opini­onate on world poli­tics. Above all, the Hindi show’s features helped him compare and contrast ever­y­day life of common citi­zens in both the GDR and India.

After reading our letters, and there were so many we sent them regu­larly, they (RBI) perhaps thought that these people in a small, discon­nec­ted village of eastern UP are so inqui­si­tive. We had so many ques­ti­ons – about their coun­try, its culture, its poli­ti­cal set-up, its past, and, above all, its people. RBI enab­led me to show that even if someone comes from such a tiny village, one can be part of the bigger, wider world.9


In her recount of her expe­ri­en­ces with reading listen­ers’ letters for almost nine years at the station, Sabine Imhof (also nick­na­med the Post­kö­ni­gin, the ‘Queen of the Post’) said

This is what impres­sed and exci­ted me about my job from the very start — that they (the listen­ers) told us about their acti­vi­ties, their ever­y­day lives, their problems, their achie­ve­ments, that they asked so many ques­ti­ons. In spite of poor recep­tion — it fluc­tua­ted! — they contin­ued listening to us over the years. They told us about their poli­ti­cal acti­vism — that they some­ti­mes orga­ni­zed protest marches and that they sent us pictures of all they did. So, if a club had built a new street in its village, they sent a proud picture of the new street with them­sel­ves stan­ding on it with RBI banners that we had sent to them [smiles].10

RBI trans­mit­ted for the last time on Octo­ber 2, 1990, after which the station was offi­ci­ally closed and Deut­sche Welle became the only foreign broad­cas­ter of the re-united German state(s). Three of RBI’s Hindi Divi­sion employees were re-appoin­ted at DW whereas a majo­rity lost their jobs over­night, with many pursuing a diffe­rent profes­sio­nal trajec­tory there­af­ter. My ongo­ing conver­sa­ti­ons since 2018 with the mode­ra­tors and listen­ers alike, howe­ver, testify that the station is anything but forgot­ten by either of the two sides. As I have argued else­where, objects that travel­led from the station to listen­ers’ homes in India were a means to soli­dify bonds of inti­macy, love, friend­ship, and soli­da­rity.11 As markers of entan­gle­ments among Indian and GDR actors, they point to the mate­rial, affec­tive regis­ters produ­ced by other­wise ephemeral radio waves. Their proxi­mity to their keepers even today shows how radio was not just heard but how its waves contin­ued to be ‘felt’ through things. Today these objects belong to listen­ers’ private coll­ec­tions and home archi­ves which can be a hitherto unex­plo­red rich source-base in docu­men­ting the station’s recep­tion history as well as the history of India-GDR entan­gle­ments in the Cold War.

Dr. Anan­dita Bajpai

Leib­niz-Zentrum Moder­ner Orient (ZMO), Berlin

Prin­ci­pal Inves­ti­ga­tor, Craf­ting Entan­gle­ments: Afro-Asian Pasts of the Global Cold War

Leib­niz Colla­bo­ra­tive Excel­lence Project (2023–26) (K437/2022)


[1] Inter­view with Arvind Srivas­tava, en route Berlin to Bonn (DW), 31.01.2023.

[2] Docu­men­tary Film by Anan­dita Bajpai, The Sound of Friend­ship: Warm Wave­lengths in a Cold, Cold War ,, trai­ler:   

[3] For a detailed descrip­tion of such objects and how listen­ers perfor­med ‘love’, ‘friend­ship’ and ‘soli­da­rity’ through and with them, see Anan­dita Bajpai, ‘Objects of Love: Remem­be­ring Radio Berlin Inter­na­tio­nal in India’, The GDR Tomor­row: Rethin­king the East German Legacy, ed. by Eliza­beth Emery, Matthew Hines & Evelyn Preuss (Oxford: Peter Lang, forth­co­ming 2023), 240–266.

[4] Inter­view with Arvind Srivas­tava, 27.03.2019, Madhe­pura, Bihar.

[5] Inter­view with Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar, 02.04.2022, Bika­ner, Rajasthan.

[6] Inter­view with Rajen­dra Kumar Swarn­kar, 03.04.2022, Bika­ner, Rajasthan

[7] Inter­view with Sabine Imhof, 31.07.2018, Berlin.

[8] I have histo­ri­cally unpa­cked the trajec­to­ries of such objects and their affec­tive ties to radio listen­ers in Anan­dita Bajpai, “Mate­rial Lives of Cold War Radio-pasts in India”, Histo­ri­cal Jour­nal of Film, Radio and Tele­vi­sion, forth­co­ming 2023.

[9] Inter­view with Badri Prasad Verma Anjaan and Shak­un­tala Verma, 12.04.2022, Gola Bazaar, Gorakh­pur, Uttar Pradesh.

[10] Inter­view with Sabine Imhof, 31.07.2018, Berlin.

[11] Anan­dita Bajpai, ‘Objects of Love: Remem­be­ring Radio Berlin Inter­na­tio­nal in India’, Ibid.