Facing East 2: George Orwell

I just found this great image:

Photograph of 'Voice' monthly radio programme team in 1942

‘Voice’, the monthly radio magazine programme in the Eastern Service of the BBC, 1942: (left to right, sitting) Venu Chitale, J. M. Tambimuttu, T. S. Eliot, Una Marson, Mulk Raj Anand, Christopher Pemberton, Narayana Menon; (standing) George Orwell, Nancy Barratt, William Empson.

I found it at a site called Making Britain: South Asian Visions of Home and Abroad, 1870–1950. It highlights the fact that Orwell, although thought of by some as a Little Englander, was fundamentally an internationalist and cosmopolitan, and in many senses a postcolonial figure.

More photos of this period of Orwell’s life here. More of this story beneath the fold.

Here’s an extract from “Divided Loyalties” by Shompa Lahiri  in History Today, May 2007:

Throughout the war the Indian section of the BBC’s Eastern Service, led by Z. A. Bokhari, who later become head of Pakistan Radio, and staffed by Indian residents, broadcast a wide variety of radio programmes to audiences in South Asia. One series was called ‘Through Eastern Eyes’, though the scripts were in fact often written by George Orwell. As talks assistant, and later talks producer, in the Indian section from August 1941 to November 1943, Orwell’s job was to write programmes to help win Indian support for the Allied cause. The scripts were translated by Indian members of staff and then checked by Orwell before being broadcast. Adhering to government directives on censorship, the BBC employed a switch censor to monitor all broadcasts, with instructions to interrupt any attempt to deviate from the written script. It was noted that the BBC had difficulty in recruiting Indians to do the job of ‘switch-check’.

Although Orwell’s role in the Indian section has attracted some scholarly interest, comparatively little is known about the Indians employed by the BBC. There were several women, including Princess Indira of Kapurthala, who was the House of Commons correspondent and also drove an ambulance in London during the Blitz, Mrs Damyanthi Sahni, who had come to Britain with her husband in 1940, and Venu Chitale, who had been studying teacher training at University College London. Chitale’s first job at the BBC was to assist Orwell with both English and Hindi language programmes. Later, she became a fulltime member of staff devoted solely to programmes in her mother tongue, Marathi. Her presence helped to maintain the equilibrium between Hindu and Muslim staff employed by the BBC. She wrote a recipe for the BBC’s magazine, the Listener, ‘Bean Sausages and Mash’ — a vegetarian version of the British staple ‘Sausage and Mash’ adapted to meat-deficient wartime rations — which provides a rare and fascinating example of an Indian woman writing confidently for a domestic British reading public. Her tone (which may have reflected her radio voice) is light, frothy and engaging.

Some of the programmes put out by the Indian section were personal, with staff describing their experiences in wartime London, including the Blitz, to their Indian audience. English-language programmes also included ‘The Names Will Live’ (a series of biographical sketches on political personalities of the time), ‘Today and Yesterday’ (discussions of social changes in Britain as a result of war), ‘Women of the West’ (arranged as a letter to a friend in India from Venu Chitale), ‘The Debate Continues’ (a breakdown of parliamentary news by Princess Indira) and Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘A Day in My Life’, in which he interviewed ordinary people taking part in the war effort. The BBC’s Eastern Service also broadcast Indian-language programmes in Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali: news commentaries, features, talks and music, as well as a message service for Indian soldiers to their families in India. One of the most popular Hindi programmes was a children’s series featuring Salamo, an Indian mouse who had arrived in England in the suitcase of a Bevin Boy (industrial trainees who came to Britain under the scheme initiated by the wartime Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin). Salamo’s adventures enabled him to see a great deal of British life.

Perhaps the single most interesting broadcast during the war was the 1943 documentary drama ‘India Speaks: Map of India’ by Mulk Raj Anand. Produced by the radical British Unitary theatre company and performed by an all-Indian cast, it took the dramatic form of a ‘living’ newspaper, vividly depicting the political situation in India, in particular the devastating 1943 man-made Bengal Famine. It is a striking example of how Indians strove in creative and imaginative ways to keep Indian politics on the British metropolitan agenda during the wartime years. As India and Pakistan prepare to celebrate their sixty years of independence it is fitting that we should remember the South Asian men and women who made their home in Britain and contributed both to the making of Britain and of their homelands.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. George Orwell is my favourite writer of all time next to Aldous Huxley. Orwell’s 1984 nobody can forget as it talks volumes about Stalinism’s drawbacks and the advantage of democratic socialism provided it has liberty, education, decency and human rights! It is interesting to know about Orwell’s activities in BBC in the forties!

  2. […] Previous: Orwellia, Born in Bengal, Orwell and the BBC Eastern Service. […]

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