by Rahul De'
There is an island you can go to. An island of nostalgia, joy and tradition. A little bit of sadness and a little bit of hope. An island of memories of days long gone, of winter afternoons in the sun with Vividh Bharathi, of evenings of eager anticipation of Chitrahaar, and of hot summer nights during power failures with a transistor. This island surfaces on the airwaves for two hours each Sunday. It is "Music From India" (MFI) and is on every Sunday evening on WDUQ (90.5 FM).
MFI is dedicated to music from the Indian subcontinent featuring a wide variety ranging from the popular Hindi fIlm songs to classical music. The current format is to have some light music in the first hour, followed by an hour of classical or folk music. This format has remained the same for the last sixteen years or so. In some ways it reflects the spirit of its chief architect and organizer, Harish Saluja, who took over the program 18 years ago and has been responsible for fashioning and sustaining it ever since.
Started in January, 1972 by the India Association of Pittsburgh, MFI was a half-hour program. The Association arranged to have a different host every week. This didn't work too well, for hosts often called to cancel. A more permanent host was required.
Harish Saluja, a young and energetic man with a keen interest in the arts (see below) who had just moved to Pittsburgh, seemed to be the obvious choice. Harish recalls that it was in a car park in Oakland Square in June, 1972 that someone first approached him to do the program. He started hosting in September of that year.
About two years after this, MFI was upgraded from a half-hour program to its present two-hour slot. Harish likes to tell a story about how this happened. During one of the biannual fund drives, the station was full of volunteers waiting by the phones for incoming calls from subscribers. Almost all of these calls came in during the regular programs. Then came the time for MFI and, as usual, the volunteers got up and left to get snacks. Harish went on the air and made his pitch to the listeners to call up and pledge their subscriptions. The phones rang off the hook. The response was overwhelming. Harish had to ask, over the air, for volunteers from the India Association living close by to come in and assist with the calls. The pledges easily crossed the targets set for MFI. Fired by this promising financial support, Harish asked for more air time and the program was upgraded to its present two-hour format.
MFI is the only survivor of a bunch of ethnic programs that began on public radio. One reason for this is the fiercely loyal, though small, group of people who support it. This group consists of people of Indian origin as well as Americans. It is not clear what the demographics of the group are (as the Arbitron ratings are not able to capture the details about such a small group in their surveys) or how widely this program is heard. One sure thing is that a lot of Indian students in the various universities and colleges in and around Pittsburgh tune in regularly.
Listener reactions, as far as Harish can gauge from the phone calls, are varied. Most people like the format and like to suggest changes in the type of songs and music played. There are some complaints about the predominantly Hindi songs and the emphasis on North Indian music. Camatic music and music from different languages are also featured, but these are few and far between.
Listeners like me, though, are happy with the fare provided. Besides our meager personal collections, this is the only source of music from "back home." We grew up with this music and a lot of our fondest memories are tied to it. So when on Sunday evenings the lilting voice of a Lata or a Kishore breaks through the tensions and pressures of work, my mind slips away into the folds of nostalgia and for a few brief moments revels in the luxury of memories.
The Man Behind the Voice:
To say that Harish Saluja is a painter, publisher, and music aficionado, would be to put three labels on a nice painting and letting people see only the labels. The painting beneath is a complex tapestry of images and colors: not very subtle but definitely charming.
We were at a restaurant last week with him to have dinner and discuss "Music from India." At first sight Harish is a short, dapper, middle-aged man. When he sits down to talk he is effusive, witty, andjust a great raconteur. He brags a little, but then he has some things to brag about. His paintings are getting rave reviews, his publications (technical journals) are doing very well, and the program he hosts is ever popular with the Indian community in Pittsburgh.
Harish always had an artistic temperament. Upon graduating from school he wanted to go to Bombay and make movies. His family was shocked and sent him for engineering training instead. Harish was hardly interested and took more solace in all the IIT has for a budding artist. In 1971 after working in India for awhile, he migrated to the U.S. He settled in Pittsburgh as an assistant editor in a company publishing two technical journals. About a year later he got an offer to host the "Music from India" program, which I he promptly accepted. The program became immensely popular.
Harish has a personal collection of Indian music from which he makes his selections for the program. He has about 2000 records, over 200 compact discs, and over 500 tapes, of all types of Indian music. He is very meticulous in his choices and claims that he always knows exactly what he wants to play.
An unabashed romantic, Harish maintains that life has just begun for him. He wants to paint all the ragas (his paintings are based on these), make movies, write poetry and books, and , of course, host "Music from India" forever.