By Amit Roy
KAILASH NATH BUDHWAR, a broadcaster, writer, director and presenter who died last Saturday (11) at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, aged 88, was head of Hindi and Tamil at the BBC from 1979-1992, the first Indian to be appointed to the post.
In those days, when the BBC’s World Service was located at Bush House in the Aldwych, London, diversity was an unknown concept. The heads of the language services were invariably white, with broadcasters from India and Pakistan recruited to work under them.
Budhwar, who had worked for All India Radio, arrived in Britain in 1970. In 2010, writing for the annual yearbook brought out by the Indian Journalists’ Association (IJA), where he was an active member and once its general secretary, he recalled his time at the BBC: “During the crisis in Pakistan in the 70s, my immediate predecessors were Mark Tully, Evan Charlton, a former editor of The Statesman in India, and AT Mason.
“Early in 1978 when Ayatollah Khomeini reached Iran, Towyn Mason was posted to Teheran.
“When the World Service, on my selection as the head of Hindi, introduced me to the press corps, a kind fellow journalist complimented BBC’s overseas service on appointing the first Indian as head of a language service. I politely intervened to say that I hoped I had not been chosen just because I was an Indian. Yet, throughout my tenure at the BBC from 1970 to 1992, my Indian identity always kept me company in Bush House and beyond.”
Of the feedback from listeners in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the rest of south Asia, he said: “Our audience research was time and again mystified at the enormity of our listeners’ letters, very often more than all other languages’ combined post. At one stage it was estimated that our Hindi broadcasts were being regularly tuned into by, at least, 35 million listeners.”
In the early days, many listeners could hear the service only on shortwave.
“We were the BBC’s World Service in Hindi and Tamil like scores of other languages,” he explained. “At very many places, our transmissions could be tuned into only on short wave, often with effort in the middle of aerial disturbances. But the World Service broadcasts in one’s own language were a reliable source of news that listeners did not want to miss.”
Budhwar added: “One amazing aspect of our reach was that our Hindi broadcasts were not only being heard in north India; they had a vast listenership in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan and beyond.
“Any crisis and our listenership shot up. Starting from Bangladesh’s independence war, the flow of news from our region constantly made international headlines.”
Of the atmosphere at Bush House, he wrote: “I enjoyed every minute of my 22 years at the World Service. There was a constant rush to be the first and as accurate as humanly possible. There was no scope for any favour or bias. In the BBC canteen or club, there were people from all corners of the world. Bush House is a mini United Nations which works. Although parliament sanctions its grant-in-aid, the World Service prides itself on its editorial independence. It is a happy accident of human history that the BBC has maintained its integrity without succumbing to political pressure or commercial manipulation.”
Budhwar wanted Bush House, with its uplifting motto, ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation’, to remain autonomous from the domestic service of the BBC. “It would be a sad loss if the World Service is ever shaken from the firm ground it is rooted in or loses the faith of its millions of devoted listeners all over the world.
“Nothing can ever replace it or be rebuilt if lost. It would be a mishap of human civilisation.”
But the BBC did get rid of Bush House – it is now part of King’s College London – and the World Service, with its language departments, were relocated to Broadcasting House at Portland Place.
After he left the BBC, Budhwar was a freelance commentator on south Asian affairs for a wide range of radio and TV outlets, and remained an active member both of the IJA and the Commonwealth Journalists’ Association.
At the annual general meetings of the IJA, Budhwar, a much respected and popular figure, was usually prevailed upon to be the returning officer when a new president, secretary, treasurer and committee members were elected.
Born in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh on April 11, 1932, Budhwar did his BA and MA from Agra and Allahabad universities, respectively. He had a spell as a senior housemaster and head of department at Ranchi & Karnal Public Sainik School, which left him with a lifelong interest in education.
He also had acting ambitions, and spent time in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the mid-1950s working with the Prithvi Theatre.
Budhwar is survived by his wife, Vinodini, to whom he was married for 62 years; a son; three daughters, including the actress Mamta Kaash; and seven grandchildren.
Mamta said: “We are overwhelmed by the thousands and thousands of messages coming from all over the world.”
She said that her father died from complications arising from psoriasis, which might possibly have been dealt with earlier had lockdown not happened, but his regular check-ups were cancelled. She thanked the doctors and nurses at Northwick who had been “brilliant, brilliant, brilliant”.
The family had been able to see Budhwar during his last days as he was moved into a Covid-free single room.
“That was a blessing because if he had not been put in a single room, there’s no way we could have met him,” she said.
She revealed the reason for her father’s friendship with the film legend, Prithviraj Kapoor. Mamta said her husband’s grandfather, Prof J Dayal, was Prithviraj’s “guru” who persuaded him to go into acting rather than law. A grateful Prithviraj kept in touch with Budhwar and was a faithful listener of BBC Hindi until the actor’s death in 1972.
Speaking of her father’s influence, she said: “He took us to a gurdwara, he took us to a mosque, he took us to a temple, he took us to church but he never celebrated religion as religion; he was spiritual. And he just said to us, ‘It’s all the same sun – you look at the sun and you just call it by different names.’ That is his legacy.”
One of Budhwar’s colleagues at the BBC, William Crawley, recalled: “Kailash joined the BBC at almost the same time as me. The communication skills which led to his popularity both as a broadcaster and as a colleague were drawn from his experience in India as a teacher and a performer.
“As his broadcasting career developed, there was a great deal more original journalistic input from BBC correspondents in India, providing reports and giving interviews in Hindi, which became a distinctive and important part of BBC news coverage. As head of the Hindi Service – or programme organiser as it was then styled – Kailash had an important managerial and editorial role in developing this new source of news and integrating it into the wider BBC news coverage.”
Crawley spoke of “the warm and genuinely impressive image of Kailash as a family patriarch, immensely proud of his children and grandchildren and their achievements, in particular the success of his daughter Mamta Kash as an actress, which so chimed with his own early acting ambitions”