The story of how Laxmi Bhusal came to be the “Budhi Aama of Radio Nepal”

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21 Jul 2017
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Bhusal shares that radio for her is all about making memories, and that there’s nothing greater than living a life full of happy memories

Laxmi Bhusal, also known as the ‘Budhi Aama of Radio Nepal’, has faced many setbacks in her long and illustrious radio career. But nothing could stop her from continuing to reach out to millions of her listeners and fans. Homeless and struggling to find a roof over her head at one point, Bhusal has faced the brunt of a society that used to deem the media an inappropriate domain for women. But she has chosen to live her life on her own terms. “Either you live for yourself or for others—use your power to choose,” says the veteran radio presenter. And every time she says something profound, she makes sure to punctuate her statement with her trademark sigh: “Hari Saranam!”

In this interview with VMAG’s Alok Thapa, Bhusal shares that radio for her is all about making memories, and there’s nothing greater in the world than living a life full of happy memories.

Please tell us how you were as a child.
Those who know me remember me as an outspoken child. I can trace my memory back to when I was five years old; I can vividly remember myself wielding a sickle and threatening people who were arguing in my community. People would obviously take me as a joke and would say, “Here comes the village budhi!” I still have that sickle with me. I was always caricaturing people, especially the older women around me. I think that’s why I was able to do justice to the character of Budhi Aama during the audition. 

How did you get discovered?
My radio career happened out of serendipity. I had tagged along with a lady who was on her way to Singha Durbar for some job interview. At Singha Durbar, one of the personnel from the Agriculture Information and Communication Centre noticed me and invited me in for coffee, and he asked me if I was interested in working in radio. As a child, I didn’t know what working as a radio-presenter entailed, so I just nodded. I remember someone in the backdrop saying, “She’s a good artist.” Of course, I didn’t know what that phrase meant back then, but it stuck with me; I guess that was one of the first compliments I received in my life. 

I was soon called for an audition at Radio Nepal. During my voice test, I mimicked an old woman from my village and the auditioners were highly impressed—that’s how my career in radio started. Time sure flies when you truly enjoy what you do. It’s been 52 years that I’ve played the character of Budhi Aama. People still find it hard to believe that I have been the voice behind Budhi Aama since my teenage years.

Tell us about the radio drama.
It was my mentor, the late Kiran Mani Dixit, who came up with the idea for Tapaiko JTA Ra Tapaiko Budhi Aama (JTA and the Old Lady). He was the head of the Agriculture Information Section back then, and was looking to create a show that disseminated information to farmers and livestock-owners around Nepal. By the mid-60s, the transistor radio had already penetrated the most far-flung areas of Nepal, so it made sense to start a radio drama that would spread helpful information to farmers living in remote areas. The show first aired in 1962, and Budhi Aama was born in December 1966. Back then, it was a weekly show, but now, the old lady’s evening adventures can be heard daily, at 6:40 pm.

What were the challenges?
Budhi Aama is this inquisitive and outgoing lady who has become a female repository of village knowledge, and keeps track of everyone who comes to the village or leaves it. Coming up with the script for the show was tough as it required combining technical information and humour. And for a person without much education, I was pretty nervous. In the beginning, I received assistance in filling in the technical details, but before long, I was writing my own scripts. It entailed a lot of research, as I constantly had to update my agricultural knowledge by reading books and journals, and then tailor the script according to my listeners’ aptitude. Another challenge was to make the conversation very colloquial, avoiding technical terms as far as possible. Also, because the crop cycle is the same from year to year, I had to find ways to prevent the show from becoming repetitive and monotonous. I think the programme is popular largely because we use simple, relatable Nepali, as opposed to the complicated and over-Sanskritised version that dominates the airwaves and the print media in Nepal.

How was your family’s response? 
When I started out, the media was not considered an appropriate career option for girls, and anybody who was singing, dancing, or hosting radio shows was for some reason deemed characterless. I was called names by my own brothers, and I was eventually disowned by my family. I had to struggle just to rent a room in Kathmandu, because people had preconceived notions regarding a single career-girl living all by herself. There have been times when I had to lie about my marital status just to rent a place. My nephews and nieces still call me ‘the old hag of radio’ in a derogatory tone, but I don’t take it to heart; it’s not their fault if they haven’t been taught by their elders to treat others with courtesy and respect.

What have you achieved from radio?
For me, the love I have received from my audience has been the biggest motivating factor. There have been so many instances when the people I interacted with had no idea about who I was, but they were full of praises for the “Budhi Aama of Radio Nepal”. At one point in my career, outside of the news broadcasts, our show consistently held the record as Radio Nepal’s most-listened-to broadcast. The fact that we were able to strike the right social and psychological chord with the target audience—low-income farmers—and hold their interest for decades is a huge achievement. I was even given the moniker ‘The Amitabh Bachchan of Radio Nepal’. Evaluations of Radio Nepal broadcasts in 1974 and 1986 revealed that radio programmes about farming, including ours, were the most popular ones.

Share with us your unforgettable or memorable incidents. 
The most profound incident has to be getting kicked out of my home. That incident, however, didn’t break me; I feel that I became more independent after that. People still appreciate my work, and there are times when I’m travelling in a microbus and somebody recognises my voice. And they talk about their memories of listening to me when they were kids. And that to me is the most priceless thing. Like it or not, I’m a part of your childhood memory. And of course, they’ll all ask me to say “Hari Saranam” before we part ways. We’d once gone to Dhading, where we met this old gentleman who was planting pineapples. He told our team that the only reason he was farming this particular crop was due to the Budhi Aama of Radio Nepal, who’d inspired him to try out new things. When my boss told him that I was the radio presenter, the farmer didn’t believe me because I looked anything but old. But when he later heard me in my Budhi Aama avatar, he was overwhelmed. He presented me with a garland made of two-rupee notes. I still have those notes with me.

You never thought of leaving radio?
I have completed 52 years in this field, and it feels like I started just a year ago. I sometimes wish I could rewind life and do things all over again. But I’m happy with where I am in life. Radio is a powerful, emotional medium that creates a connection with the audience on a personal level. That’s the reason I stuck to radio. I have done quite a lot in television and movies as well, but nothing can eclipse the charm of radio. Also, working in radio is quite tough, as you just have your voice with which to put across information. So I’ve always tried to improve, and radio has always kept me on my toes. I’ve never felt bored. I think I will be doing radio till the day I die.

Is radio still a relevant medium?
I think new platforms do not replace the existing one; they enhance it. Radio’s reach continues to expand; this is evident from the huge number of online radio listeners. With regard to the show I host, Nepal is still an agriculture-based country, and shows such as ours, which provide information to farmers, play a very important role. 

(Photos by Govinda Maharjan)