What is the first thing that comes to mind when anybody mentions Jhumri Telaiya? Probably Vividh Bharati and the litany of song requests it received from this town. However, there is more to this town in Jharkhand’s Koderma district than just its people’s love for music, besides the fact, of course, that it is not a colloquial term or a fictitious place.
The story of Jhumri Telaiya’s fondness for radio music is inextricably tied to the village’s economic history. After the British discovered vast mica deposits in the region in 1890, a railroad was laid through erstwhile south Bihar (now Jharkhand).
Mining activities started soon after, with entire trains being devoted to carry mica (a mineral with insulation properties used in the construction of spaceships and defence equipment) from the mines to the dockyards of Calcutta, from where it was exported to Japan.
The Mica kings of Jhumri Telaiya, Chattu Ram Bhadani and Horil Ram Bhadani controlled nearly 1,000 mines in the region. These fabulously rich businessmen led the transformation of Jhumri Telaiya from an obscure little village into a boomtown.
Huge mansions were built, Arabian thoroughbreds were imported and seeing luxury cars like Mercedes and Porsche became a common sight in Jhumri Telaiya. The Bhadani family even got Suraiya (a famous Bollywood playback singer) all the way from Bombay to perform at a concert in Jhumri Telaiya.
In the 1950s, television was yet to find a place in many Indian homes and radio shows were a huge national phenomenon. Sending song requests on postcards to these shows was slowly becoming a popular pastime in many Indian villages. A mica mining tycoon from Jhumri Telaiya, Rameshwar Prasad Barnwal, decided to join the trend.
Barnwal started mailing postcards with farmaishein (song requests) to Radio Ceylon daily. The first broadcasting station of South Asia, Radio Ceylon’s popularity had soared after B.V. Kesakar, the then Information and Broadcasting Minister, banned film music on All India Radio (AIR) in 1952.
Radio Ceylon’s most popular programme for Hindi film songs was Ameen Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala. Thanks to his regular postcards, Barnwal’s name started appearing regularly in the requests announced in this show. Tingled by the thought of hearing their name on radio, two other residents of Jhumri Telaiya, Ganga Prasad Magadhiya and Nand Lal Sinha, decided to join Barnwal’s postcard-sending spree.
The trio’s growing fame spawned a cult in their home town. Every resident of Jhumri Telaiya wanted their name to be mentioned on the radio show too. As the song-request fad took over the town, radio aficionados in the little town formed listeners’ clubs and began competing among themselves to send out the most song requests in a day or month.
According to local lore, the town postmen were often bribed by residents not to post their competitors’ letters so that they would have a greater chance of getting their names read on radio!
In 1957, when All India Radio re-started broadcasting old Hindi film songs on Vividh Bharti Service (VBS), the whole town began sending postcards by the dozen. To save labour, the request format was printed on postcards, with only the song details being filled in by hand.
As the pastime became a passion for the people of Jhumri Telaiya, the name of their village became famous among Vividh Bharti listeners across India. However, thanks to the town’s unusual name and the humongous number of song requests it sent, many listeners were sceptical about its existence.
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Gradually, the name became a part of folklore, with Jhumri Telaiya fan clubs began springing up in other states. Other villages, such as Nanded, Rajnand Gaon, Naya and Purana Jalna, also began sending postcards in huge numbers, vying with Jhumri Telaiya for airtime.
The town’s name was immortalised in Bollywood songs too. For instance, in the movie Hasina Maan Jayegi (1968), the heroine croons a mock threat to the hero that she would leave him for the legendary town: “Main Jhumri Telaiya jaoongi, Sainyan tore karan.” The 1975 movie, Mounto, also features a song titled “Main Toh Jhumri Telaiya Se Aayi Hun.”
Jhumri Telaiya’s song request fad continued till the ’80s when television began gaining popularity, and postal costs increased. With so many video options available, the residents (especially the young ones) no longer needed to tune in to radio to listen to their favourite songs.
Today, only a few radio loyalists still write letters to AIR”s music programmes, fondly remembering Ganga Prasad Magadhiya’s melancholy couplet: “Maana ki farmayish bachpan barbaad karti hai, Magar yeh kya kaam hai ki duniya yaad karti hai.” (This craze for song requests may have destroyed our childhood but it is for this that the world will remember us.)
The enterprising little town in Jharkhand, however, has still managed to retain its uniqueness. Jhumri Telaiya is now famous for a sweet preparation that it has improvised and made its own — the delectable Kalakand.
Unlike the version available elsewhere, Jhumri Telaiya’s Kalakand is softer, creamier and more moist. Said to have originated in Alwar in Rajasthan in the 1940s, it is believed that the kalakand found its way to Jhumri Telaiya through the Bhatia brothers who came to the town in the late 50s.
The talented sweetmeat makers tweaked the traditional kalakand to create a version that was an instant hit. Over time, Jhumri Telaiya has become a gastronomical destination for foodies who come to the town just to taste its sweet specialty. So if you are planning to visit this fabled town soon, don’t forget to try the treat that has given the town a new identity!