Independence Day: A young volunteer from the Indian National Congress party experienced a momentary epiphany in 1929.
Nanik Motwane watched Mahatma Gandhi, a national hero, struggle to make his voice heard at large pro-Independence meetings. Motwane later recalled that the leader would “go from platform to platform” at one venue in order to “enable [his weak voice] to be heard by large amounts [of people]”.
The 27-year old second-generation migrant entrepreneur decided to find a way “amplify” the voice of the leader to make it clear to all who were more anxious to hear than see him.
Motwane had a public address system ready for the Congress party’s session at Karachi in 1992. This is now a bustling city in Pakistan. One of his earliest photographs shows him smiling in a white Gandhi cap, and showing Chicago Radio the branding on his microphone.
Chicago Radio was synonymous for the loudspeakers that retransmitted India’s struggle to free itself from the imperial rule to the masses over the next 20 years. Kiran Motwane (son of Nanik and third generation scion) says that the loudspeakers were the “voice of India”.
Chicago Radio was an unusual name for a company based in Bombay (now Mumbai), which is where the Motwanes had immigrated in 1919. Kiran Motwane relates the story of how his father borrowed the name and permission of a Chicago-based radio producer. The fascination with a foreign name may be due to the fact that Motwanes were part of a vibrant, global networked community.
Nanik Motwane, a British engineer, imported microphones, loudspeakers and amplifiers from the US and UK. His team of five engineers then ripped the components apart and reverse engineered them to be used locally.
While his siblings worked in the business, Nanik Mtwane traveled to party meetings on trains and trucks with his PA systems, even though they were his siblings. On precarious roads, volunteers and the local police provided security. He would arrive at the meeting site, which is usually a local dirt ground, a day before the meeting to set up the system and verify that there were enough batteries. To ensure that the sound reached every corner, he would tie the horn-shaped loudspeakers to bamboo poles and spread them out across the ground.
Nanik Motwane estimated that a dozen loudspeakers spread over a medium-sized area would be enough to accommodate tens of thousands of people. He began stacking speakers on top of one another for better sound quality. For any Congress meeting, he had 100 public-address sets available all across India. Kiran Motwane says, “He was a pioneer in the Indian public address system and the party was its only consumer.”
Some of the most powerful speeches made by India’s Independence heroes over the years were broadcast through Chicago Radio loudspeakers. Jawaharlal Naehru, India’s first prime Minister, was a passionate fan of the brand. After a meeting, Nehru wrote Nanik Motwane: “Your loudspeakers did an excellent job and the arrangements were greatly appreciated by all.”
Nanik Motwane was also involved in the operation of a clandestine radio station, which broadcast messages from Gandhi and other leaders in an effort to counter the propaganda of the state-owned broadcaster. He was one of five people arrested after the station started transmitting messages in 1942. This year, Gandhi called for non-violent rebellion against British rule.
According to Usha Thakkar who wrote a book about it, the Congress Radio station case is still an “important chapter” in India’s history. Nanik Motwane was arrested for allegedly providing technical support and equipment to the station. Chicago Radio, despite its proximity to freedom movement, was not on the police radar. British officials often went to Nanik Motwane in order to purchase police wireless equipment. Their books seemed to be in order. Motwane claimed that he wasn’t a member. He was released after no evidence was found. Kiran Motwane says that he was held in prison for over a month and was tortured. “It is true that he was working for the underground police station.”
Nanik Motwane, a self-proclaimed nationalist, was a savvy businessman who was acutely aware of his legacy. He wrote diligently to newspapers, asking for copies of photos of Chicago Radio leaders. He compiled the newspaper clippings and photographs of the public meetings into large albums.
This is not all. He would record speeches on spool tapes, and give a copy to the party. A photographer was hired to accompany him on trips to the meetings. He took pictures and recorded priceless footage. These included luminaries like Gandhi, Nehru , Sardar Vallabhbhai Ptel , and charismatic Subhaschandra Bose. Many of these recordings are now scattered throughout the Motwane home in Mumbai’s uptown. Kiran Motwane says that he used to keep meticulous records of meetings.
His family claims that Motwane provided PA systems for nearly three decades for half a dozen Congress meetings.
Chicago Radio employed more than 200 people in India to build PA systems and service them in other cities. He began to sell commercially only after Independence. He didn’t charge his party until the 1960s, when India was free. “That’s when Nehru paid us. Kiran Motwane says that the party would pay our expenses and give us approximately 6,000 rupees per meeting.
In 1963, Lata Mageshkar, a pioneer of playback music, sang Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon (Ye People of my Land), a ode to fallen soldiers into Chicago Radio speakers. This was to a teary-eyed crowd at a sprawling Delhi ground. At large public meetings, global leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev spoke using Motwane microphones.
To relay the celebrations after Mrs Gandhi won an election in 1970s the company installed 120 speakers along Delhi’s Raj Path, which runs 1.8 miles. Urban legend was created when fake advertisements for the brand featured Nehru promoting Chicago Radio.
Inexplicably, Chicago Radio received a stern letter in the 1970s from Indira Gandhi’s Office. It asked us to change our brand’s name. What is the reason you are using a foreign name to describe your loudspeaker model? it asked,” Kiran Motwane recalls. We don’t know why it happened. My father wrote to the prime minster, refusing the move. We placed Motwane on the one side, and Chicago Radio on another.
Chicago Radio, nearly 100 years after its launch to amplify the voice of India’s freedom, is still in existence. It is a small, low-profile firm that sells intercom and public address systems in a saturated market. Kiran Motwane says, “We still make noise.” But it’s not all quiet.