At the end of an hour-long radio episode on Bengali protest songs, the singer and oral historian Moushumi Bhoumik performed a song written by Birendra Chattopadhyay, a twentieth-century socialist poet. A witness to the 1943 Bengal famine, Chattopadhyay wrote the lines “Anna bakya, Anna pran, Anna-i chetana”—Rice is language, rice is life, rice is consciousness. Like several other shows on Radio Quarantine, Bhoumik’s programme is concerned with building an archive of regional narratives of political resistance and cultural histories. She interviews folk singers and friends from as far afield as Purulia and Sylhet, and recollects her travels through the Sundarbans to document the region’s folk traditions.
Radio Quarantine was started by a group of Kolkata-based filmmakers and scholars in March 2020, as West Bengal went into lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a tagline that translates to “Don’t be alone in such difficult times,” its primary aim was to create solidarity among its listeners even as national protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act were suddenly disbanded. The filmmaker and curator Kasturi Basu, one of the station’s founders, is no stranger to community-driven cultural and political work. Since 2013, she has run the People’s Film Collective, which hosts film screenings and festivals with a strong focus on popular movements. “This period of isolation is having a cruel psychological impact on people who are glued to the 24-hour news cycle on social media, witnessing an aggressive barrage of images, trolling and bullying,” Basu told me. “We concluded that this would be an ideal time to return to listening.”
While the radio station works as a collaborative platform that crowdsources diverse programmes featuring songs, storytelling and theatre, the shows often resonate with each other. The public memory of rice shortages evoked in Chattopadhyay’s poem was unpacked in investigations into the cultural history of the famine, through stories such as Manik Bandopadhyay’s “Chhiniye Khayni Keno?”—Why didn’t they snatch the food and eat? The fact that foodgrain stocks in India hit an all-time high this summer, even as a considerable section of the population went hungry during the lockdown, shows how this history echoes through the crises unfolding today.