“In early 1929, as one of the volunteers in the [Indian National] Congress Organisation, I saw Gandhiji [Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi] going from platform to platform to address meetings at the same place, to enable his weak voice to be heard by large numbers. It was then that I felt that I must find some means to amplify the voice of our great Gandhiji so that all who were anxious, more to hear than to see him, would be able to hear him clearly,” recalled Nanik Motwane, the son of serial entrepreneur Gianchand Chandumal Motwane. (Above image of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel addressing an audience courtesy Chicago Radio loudspeakers and public address system)
In 1926, Gianchand founded the company Chicago Telephone & Radio Co. (now called Motwane Private Limited) which dealt in radio, telecommunication and loud-speaker equipment. The above quote comes from a document issued by the company in 1960 celebrating the 51st anniversary of its founding.
Gianchand had adopted this particular name for the company because he was representing Chicago Telephone Supply Company, a United States-based corporation, in India. Taking permission from them, Gianchand started his own firm with the same name in 1919 before changing it to Chicago Telephone & Radio Co. in 1926.
The means by which Nanik would amplify Gandhi’s voice to the masses was the famous Chicago Radio loudspeaker system. It would seem fitting that a firm “which had pioneered radios in India should conceive, perfect and put into practical effect the use of loudspeakers for spreading the human voice,” noted the document from the company archives.
Nanik’s realisation that year would result in a decades-long association with the Indian National Congress and its leaders culminating in India’s Independence from British rule and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru‘s famous ‘A Tryst with Destiny’ speech. From 1929 onwards till Independence, almost all distinguished leaders of the freedom struggle addressed the masses through Chicago Radio loudspeakers and public address equipment. Crucially, the masses of Indians could now clearly hear their leaders without any distortion or disruption.
Visionary & pioneer
Gianchand was only 12 when his father, Diwan Chandumal Motwane, a successful lawyer in the city of Larkana, Sindh Province (present-day Pakistan), passed away at the early age of 45 in 1890. The family was left nearly penniless despite Diwan’s successful career because he would spend nearly all his money on charity in “service of the needy and the sick”.
To support his family’s “meagre coffers”, Gianchand turned his attention to book-binding and making rubber stamps and kites, earning Rs 2 per day.
Given his newfound responsibilities, Gianchand gave up his formal education before completing matriculation but his “technical bent of mind” led him to learn telegraphy. Eventually, his talents were sought out by the Railways as a signaller and was soon promoted to Inspecting Telegraph Master in the Posts & Telegraphs Department on the North-Western Railway. Despite finding some semblance of job stability, this wasn’t enough for a restless Gianchand who was always on the lookout for other avenues where he could showcase his technical skills.
In 1909, he quit his job with the Railways to start his own venture called Eastern Electric & Trading Co. in Sukkur (Sind) backed with just Rs 300 as capital generated from his earnings.
His business venture began with the importing of flashlights from Germany before adding mobile power plants to supply electricity and telephones. An early believer in the power of advertising, he would say, “Nothing but a mint can make money as advertising can”. Soon, he had over 200 agents selling his flashlights all over undivided India. Within three years, his business grew so fast that he shifted base to Karachi and shut down his Sukkur office.
According to company archives, the work he put into growing the company was such that he slept only four hours a day while doing all the work of “clerk, typist, dispatcher and engineer”.
As World War 1 commenced in 1914, his business did suffer somewhat given that imports from Germany had come to a halt. Undeterred, he began importing his requirements from the United States and Great Britain. Following years of further growth, the next major milestone for Gianchand came in 1919, when he decided to shift his company headquarters to Bombay (Mumbai) in April 1919. However, this was more than a shift in location.
To further his business in telephones and the installation of telephone equipment, he started another company called the Chicago Telephone Supply Co. This new company sold and installed telephones systems for a large number of private companies and government agencies.
Also, given his high regard for technological advancement and innovation, he “rigged up his own radio-transmitter and started broadcasting under the sign of ‘2-KC’ through the Bombay Presidency Radio Club Ltd., of which he was one of the founder members”. He would soon embark on the business of importing radio receiving sets and selling them to individual customers.
A decade after renaming the company, he would convert that into a limited liability company. His other business, meanwhile, also underwent a churn and by 1928 he had changed the name of the company to Eastern Electric & Engineering Co. following his foray into heavy electrical and mechanical engineering.
Like many other businesses across undivided India, Partition did cause a significant loss of assets for his companies but by that time Gianchand had well expanded his business operations across different cities in present-day India. His sons, Nanik and Visharam, meanwhile, had become partners in Gianchand’s business in 1937 after spending about two decades learning it. Gianchand eventually passed away on 16 June 1943 at the age of 65 in Mumbai, but not before leaving behind a remarkable legacy for his sons to carry forward.
Mike testing Chicago Radio loudspeakers
The first real test for these loudspeakers came at the historical Congress Session at Karachi in 1931. At this session, the Congress party would pass the Karachi Resolution reiterating its commitment to ‘Purna Swaraj’ or ‘complete independence’.
“In addition to fundamental rights which protected civil liberties, the Resolution for the first time put forward a list of socio-economic principles/rights that the Indian state had to adhere to,” notes a description on ‘Constitution of India’ about the Karachi Resolution.
Before the session, Sardar Vallabhai Patel had asked Nanik Motwane to “take personal charge of the loudspeaker arrangements”. And the results were quite spectacular with the Chicago Radio loudspeakers receiving a lot of praise. One newspaper reported: “All Congress leaders who spoke from the rostrum, like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, were happy on account of the loudspeakers reproducing every word of theirs in a magnificent form very clearly and without distortion.”
What stood out about these loudspeakers was their high quality which ensured not just a “clear and faithful reproduction of voice and sound”, but also “an alert and efficient service before, during and after installations”. Credit for the growth of this division has largely been laid at the door of Nanik Motwane, who worked with the top leaders of the freedom struggle both before and after Independence. They weren’t just importers of equipment, but innovators as well.
One good example is the Chicago Radio Conference Interpretation System, which according to company archives did the following: “As a speech is delivered, the system makes it possible for the simultaneous translation and relay of the speech in the language of each delegate present.”
Everyone from Nehru, Gandhi, and Patel to Dr Rajendra Prasad employed these loudspeakers and spoke very highly of their quality. What they did was amplify the voice of our leaders to the masses of Indians clamouring for freedom. Following the Karachi Session in 1931, Gandhi said, “The cheers that punctuated my remarks on some of the most important amendments showed that the listeners were following my exposition with the utmost attention. All this was possible because of the perfect Chicago Radio loudspeaker arrangements that were made for the Subjects Committee as well as for the Open Sessions.”
These loudspeakers were also spectators to pivotal moments in India post-Independence starting with Nehru’s famous ‘A Tryst with Destiny Speech’. Another pivotal moment these loudspeakers captured was when Lata Mangeshkar performed ‘Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon’ on Republic Day in 1963 which fell just months after the devastating India-China War.
The song written by Kavi (poet) Pradeep was composed to commemorate Indian soldiers who had lost their lives fighting the war. In an old interview, the late Lata Mangeshkar recalled the moment after she performed the song at New Delhi’s National Stadium where President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were in attendance.
“At first I was nervous, thinking I have committed some mistake. But when I met Panditji (Nehru), I saw tears in his eyes. ‘Lata, tumne aaj mujhe rula diya’ (‘Late, you made me cry’),” the singer said. Besides her immortal voice, one might suspect that the loudspeaker had some role to play in amplifying the emotions running high inside the stadium and around the country.
Today, the company’s (Motwane Private Limited) profile looks very different from its humble origins, but the legacy it carries remains deeply significant today.
Fifty-One Years of Progress: 1909-1960 (Motwane Private Limited archives)
‘Watch: When Lata Mangeshkar sang ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’ for the first time after India-China war’ courtesy WION
Constitution of India– Karachi Resolution (1931)
‘The First Wave’ by Prince Frederick courtesy The Hindu published on 12 February 2013
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)