The Jewish Refugee Who Composed AIR’s Signature Tune
Signature tune of All India Radio has mesmerized million of listeners over the
Did you know that this tune is based on Raag Shivaranjini, the lilting violin notes playing to the background of a tambura evokes a sense of nostalgia for generations.
My association with All India Radio (AIR) has been long and memorable. I joined AIR news in 1971 as the assistant news editor and retired in 2004 as additional director general (News). My love affair with AIR lasted for more than 30 years and I cherished every moment of it.
The first radio came to our house when I was around seven years of age. We were living in a government quarter in block six, Lodhi Colony In Delhi. There was excitement all around as it was the first radio in our block. I still remember, it’s body was of walnut colour and it had a green eye in the middle. The green eye flickered as the radio played, casting a spell on you.
You can listen to the tune by clicking here and relive nostalgia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuS-UiaKiVk
All India Radio has 414 stations, reaching 92% of India.
Elders listened to news with great interest and 9 pm bulletin was their favourite. People would set their watches with this bulletin. Favourite programme of all ages at that time was Binaca Geet Mala presented by Amin Sayani. Vividh Bharti broadcast added more spice to AIR programmes. Many new programs were added and AIR underwent many changes but their iconic signature tune remained the same.
I still get nostalgic when I remember the good old days.
The classic signature tune of All India Radio was created by a Jew refugee. Looks strange but true. His name was Walter Kaufman.
Walter Kaufmann composed AIR's signature tune. He was Director at Akashwani in 1937. He was one of the many Jewish refugees who found a safe haven in India from Nazis. He studied and trained in western music at Berlin and Prague.
Walter Kaufman fled from his home town Karlovy Vary, part of Austria-Hungry in 1932 to escape Nazi persecution. He landed in Bombay, now Mumbai. He was a music maestro who had more than 80 western compositions to his credit. He was also the authority on eastern music.
One wonders why he chose Mumbai. In an interview, he said, yes, I could have gotten visa for any country. But no one in the dream city recognized his talent.
Walter Kaufmann (centre) at the piano, Edigio Verga on cello, Mehli Mehta plays the violin.
However, having come to India, his initial years were not easy. As a trained musician, he was hoping to find takers for his talent, but his initial tryst with Indian music was not pleasant. He found it beyond comprehension.
Undeterred, he founded the Bombay Chamber Music Society within months of his arrival, which performed every Thursday at the Willingdon Gymkhana. Walter’s correspondence with his family back home confirmed that he stayed at Rewa House, a two-storied bungalow off Warden Road (now Bhulabhai Desai Road) towards Mahalaxmi temple.
In one year, the society had performed more than 130 times, while the audience at these performances kept increasing. Records of Indian music he heard made no sense to him. But he was not willing to give up. He wrote in a letter,” As I knew that this music was created by people with heart and intellect, one could assume that many, in fact, millions would be appreciating or in fact loving this music. I concluded that the fault was all mine and the right way would be to undertake a study tour to the place of its origin.”
From 1936 to 1946, Walter worked at AIR as the director of music, and it was here that he composed the iconic signature tune in 1936 with noted Indian orchestra conductor Mehli Mehta, who played the violin for it. Mehli Mehta was father of noted pianist Zubin Mehta. It is amazing that the tune that generations of Indians grew listening to was created by a European – proving that music knows no boundaries.
Walter moved to Mumbai at a time when there was a shift from silent movies. His adept mastery over western music helped him in the Indian film industry as well. He composed the background score for several films by Mohan Bhavnani (a friend he had met in Berlin). In addition to his job at AIR, Kaufmann worked for Bhavnani Films and for Information Films of India. He also lectured at Sophia College. Among his pieces with an Indian flavour was Anasuya, which made its debut in 1939. It was described as “India’s first radio opera”.
Albert Einstein, in a letter dated 23 January 1938, wrote a recommendation letter for Walter Kaufmann. In that letter in German, he wrote, “Mr Walter Kaufmann of Prague, currently in Bombay (India), has been known to me for years as an inventive and gifted musician. He has already written many compositions, he is an authority on Eastern music, and he has had extensive experience as a teacher as well. With his youthful energy and likeable nature, he would be eminently suited for the position of director of choirs and orchestras in schools or universities.
In 1946, Walter left India and went on to spend a year in England, where he was a guest conductor at the BBC. From 1948 to 1957, he was the Musical Director and Conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
He joined the School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington as Professor of Music in the Department of Musicology, where he taught till 1977. He died there in 1984.
Some sources credit Thakur Balwant Singh, an actor, singer and composer who moved to Mumbai from Himachal Pradesh. However, there seems to be no information on this subject on the Prasar Bharati website. But all most all sources credit Walter Kaumann with the creation of signature tune.
Here’s a clip of one of his tunes, titled Meditation.
While it has been over three decades since Walter Kaufmann’s demise, he has been immortalized through his signature tune that millions of Indians continue to listen as first thing in the morning. Many have made it their morning wake up call.