Radio Birds for Road (1)

Sometime in 2004, I was approached by Karen Yates, from BBC World Service (as it was then called) to put together a pitch. The pitch was for a promotional campaign for a BBC Roadshow that was taking place in the
'Hindi Heartland' in Central India in 2005. Karen had seen the illustration and book design of Gond artist Bhajju Shyam’s book The London Jungle Book(published by Tara Books) and got in touch to work with the art team behind the book – Bhajju (author and artist extraordinaire) and myself (book designer).

Book jacket for Bhajju Shyam's The London Jungle Book.

The idea was to work with indigenous art from the region as a core part of the BBC’s promotional campaign. This invitation was the start of a journey that changed my perspective on what campaigns meant and could achieve in rural areas. Along with us on this amazing ride was my friend and fellow student from Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, Marianna Zegiannini and her studio Alan Bates Design.

The BBC brief was clear in its intention and focus. The aim of the promotion was two-fold: to connect and engage with the rural target audience in the Hindi Heartland and to encourage listening on BBC Hindi radio in the area. But the real difference between this campaign and other usual promotions were two aims in the creative brief: ‘to empower people to have their say, encouraging debate and discussion, and providing a less-Delhi centric point of view’ and ‘to make use of a combination of targeted mass media communications as well as unconventional, more localised media forms such as folk media’. This struck me as a heart-felt mission for the much ignored, rural, poverty-ridden Hindi Heartland and something I really wanted to be a part of creating.

Considering that the literacy rate in the Hindi heartland is low, our proposal encouraged the use of more visual means to reach the audience. Gond art is rich with metaphors that we could use to communicate our concepts visually and not have to rely on words.

Image from Bhajju Shyam's The London Jungle Book.

Our aim in creating the communication material was to get as many people as possible to know of the Hindi roadshow and its locations so they could attend the events. Using the power of the metaphor as suggested by Gond art and its themes, we compared the bird (a known entity) to a radio. For us, they seemed similar in nature in the sense that they both brought news of the world to the Heartland and carried news of the Heartland to the rest of the world. The radio was really a technological carrier pigeon carrying messages back and forth. It had antennae for tails, speakers on its body, and BBC presenters on its back. We created a sketch to show both the client and Bhajju.

Initial sketch of the bird and the map of the roadshow.

How Bhajju took this as a starting point and appropriated it into some authentic and powerful is another story. As noted by Steve Hare in his article about this campaign for Eye magazine, ‘this is a story about a happy collision of cultures; and the celebration, rather than exploitation, of native talent. It is, incidentally, an eye-opener for us in the UK, where we take the communications revolution for granted, and have entirely lost the ability to see the rooster in Big Ben.’

Close-up of the radio bird.

BBC,folk media,mass media,rural India,-