| AIR, Delhi: the beginning
It is perhaps ironic that the news of the passing of P.C. Chatterji went largely unnoticed in the print media, unlike the electronic media, into which he entered by chance and where he proudly belonged till the end. A former director-general of AIR and Doordarshan, former president of Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union and prominent in Commonwealth broadcasting, among many other national and international distinctions, Chatterji brought honour to India in all these spheres.
But Chatterji’s choice of AIR as a profession seems strange, since he came from a family of eminent educationists and his discipline was philosophy. His grandfather, S.K. Rudra, was the first Indian principal of St Stephen’s College. Chatterji’s father, G.C. Chatterji, who taught philosophy at the Government College, Lahore and was later its principal and the vice-chancellor of Rajasthan University, wanted his son (known affectionately to his friends as Tiny) to sit for the ICS and was bitterly disappointed when he qualified instead for the air force which, luckily, he did not join.
Finally, in desperation, he asked a friend in AIR’s news division for help, and Tiny was selected for the news division by Charles Barnes, the director of news, initially as a sub-editor on a paltry three-figure salary.
But then, look at the calibre of AIR in those days. In the newsroom, Chatterji’s immediate colleagues were Nirad C. Chaudhuri, still an unknown Indian, trotting briskly down the corridors of Broadcasting House in bow tie and hat, employed by the British for counter-propaganda but so uncanny in his anticipation of every Japanese move in Burma, including the use of elephants for transport, that the British started suspecting that he was a spy, although one is not sure on which side. Then there was Bengali poet, Samar Sen, with his sardonic humour which infuriated the bureaucrats in the organization, Pran Chopra, who left to become later the editor of The Statesman in Calcutta. Amalendu Dasgupta, after a stint with the Atomic Energy Organisation in Vienna also became editor of The Statesman, Balbir Vohra left to join the IAS, while Som Benegal with his droll humorous stories told with a straight face also left and helped Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay to set up Cottage Industries. There was barrister Gol Obhrai, straight from Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn who later rose to the highest media position in the United Nations. He, together with Toto Gupta, came to draft the 9 pm AIR English bulletin straight after cocktails at the Chelmsford Club, in dinner jacket and black tie. K.P. Shungloo, a bit of a dilettante, also down from Oxford, wrote a book of poems bound in black khadi, entitled The Night is Heavy. His colleagues on night duty agreed that it was, indeed, as were the poems. In fact, Tiny Chatterji was about the only one from that colourful group who stayed on and eventually became director-general, the first to rise to the position of DG from the ranks of the newsroom.
After a few years as news editor, Chatterji was encouraged to cross over to the programme side of AIR, and was duly selected as a station director by the Union Public Service Commission. His postings ranged from Shillong to Srinagar and he immersed himself in the culture of each region, such as digging up forgotten archive material on the Khasis.
But it was in Calcutta that Tiny was in his element as he made an entrée into its exclusive, elite intellectual circles through Samar Sen. This in spite of the embarrassment, as a third-generation prabasi Bangali who did not know a word of Bengali. He was soon welcome in the normally exclusive homes of Sudhin Dutt, Buddhadeb Bose, Lindsay and Minnie Emerson, and he got Bishnu Dey to interview Jamini Roy. Shombhu and Tripti Mitra also became Tiny’s friends.
But Chatterji’s most significant professional achievement in Calcutta was his famous row with the West Bengal labour minister, Subodh Banerjee. Chatterji felt his script for a talk, I think on Labour Day, was in places critical of both the president and the judiciary, therefore against the Constitution and would not pass it. Ashok Mitra, one of the last members of the ICS and a well-known connoisseur of arts and culture, was then information and broadcasting secretary and the government of India on his advice, fully backed Chatterji, although the then minister, K.K. Shah, was a little shaky about it. This incident soon led to formulation of the AIR code, which now takes care of such problems.
With Tiny’s passing ends an era when people of high calibre not only entered the portals of Broadcasting House, but also showed that officials of integrity and courage, while not losing touch with their creative leanings, could stand up to both bureaucrats and politicians.