Farewell, Chaman, the legendary East African broadcaster – your fragrance will live on forever

Volume 16, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/06/2019


The UK’s East African diaspora mourned the passing on of Chaman Lal Chaman, the iconic East African broadcaster, poet, Bollywood film lyricist, and a war correspondent who died in London on 4 February, aged 85. He was ailing for some time.

Chaman’s funeral, attended by his family, relatives and many fans was held on 12 February, at the South West Middlesex Crematorium in Hounslow Road, Hanworth, west London.

Fondly called the King of Airwaves, Chaman won the hearts of thousands of fans with the magic of his soothing voice behind the radio mike. His 63-years career spanned Asia, Africa and the UK.

Chaman ruled the air waves for decades in Kenya where he broadcast in the Asian service of Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (later Voice of Kenya) and made an indelible mark continuing his career in the United Kingdom after leaving Nairobi.

His last assignment was as the lead presenter at the Punjabi Radio in the largely-Asian dominated suburb of Southall in west London.

As soon as the news of his death circulated in the community circles, there was a torrent of tributes from his close friends, media colleagues and multitude of fans in the UK, Kenya, Canada, India, Pakistan and the USA.

Chaman’s biographer, the prominent former Daily Nation journalist, author and family friend Kul Bhushan recorded the iconic broadcaster’s career in his book the Fragrance of Chaman, paid an emotional tribute to him. “A legend in Kenya, he also made a name in the UK as a broadcaster and presenter. A poet, lyricist, writer, orator, author and, above all, a sincere person oozing with love and laughter. He lives forever in the minds and hearts of thousands of his listeners and fans. He was close to all of us.”

Chaman was a very humble and simple man – a true gentleman. He had no airs about his fame. I had the privilege and honour of crossing his path and meeting and interviewing him for The Indian magazine in Hong Kong in 1979 We first met in Fleet Street, the heart of London’s newspapers, where I worked. We remained friends and met many times.

At 20, Chaman left India after his University in 1953. He passed Kenya Civil Service and joined Posts and Telecoms. Three years later after his teacher training, in 1956, he started his broadcasting career as an announcer and news reader in the Asian Service of the Cable & Wireless in Nairobi.

On eve of Kenya’s independence, he was appointed a Senior Programme Assistant in the newly-established Kenya Broadcasting Service, in 1962, later renamed the Voice of Kenya (VoK).

Besides his relentless energy and appetite for broadcasting was his love for Punjabi and Urdu poetry of which he was a master in his own right. He joined the Punjabi Kavi Sabha for poets and rose to be its secretary and chairperson in 1974.

His path crossed with Swami Krishnanand Saraswati who inspired him for social service to help less fortune people.

After undergoing a short BBC Radio production course in 1961, Chaman was promoted as Assistant Producer – Radio and TV – for KBS.

He returned to India as a war correspondent in 1962 to cover the Chinese invasion of India filing daily news reports. He interviewed top Indian politicians including Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru.

On his return, he launched an appeal to raise Shs 100.000 for the Indian Prime Minister’s defence Fund.

In 1963, he covered the Kenya Independence as a live commentator from Uhuru Park for the VoK. He penned and delivered a film commentary – the only documentary about this event- with fellow broadcasters Musa Ayub and Sharad Patel.

His career rose like a phoenix when he was promoted KBC’s Producer (Radio and TV) and then to the Head of Radio Operations with responsibility for overall programming in English, Kiswahili and 16 Kenyan languages.

In 1974, the East African Standard invited him to write on films, drama and music.

Chaman migrated with his family to the UK in 1974 after 21 years in Kenya. He joined the BBC’s Hindi Service.

Chaman’s big break came when he became the presenter of Geet Mala. Broadcasting history was made here because this was the first commercial radio programme in London Broadcasting Company (LBC). There was another unique first in Asian broadcasting – he introduced live phone-in The Asian diaspora, fed up of a force-fed boring diet of Asian education programmes on the BBC TV loved Geet Mala which ran for five years.

Speaking to me then, Chaman said, “I have every reason to be thankful to the then Programme Director LBC, Keith Belcher, who gave me a lot of encouragement to start this programme.”

There were further more significant breaks for this iconic broadcaster. In 1979, the famous Indian Ghazal singer and Bollywood icon Jagjit Singh, who is also known to have worked in Kenyan broadcasting in his earlier years, sang Saun da Mahina, which was penned by Chaman.

Another feather was added to Chama’s career when he joined BBC Radio 4 as a presenter and interviewer. The handsome, tall man who was up to now only famous for his voice behind the microphone and unseen by his fans, joined BBC-1 Television and was seen on the screen presenting his programmes in his inimitable style.

His first book, Guthli, a collection of Punjabi poems was published in 1991.

International recognition rolled in. Chaman bagged the Movie International Appreciation Award for his valuable contributions to radio broadcasting.

He officially retired in 1999 at the age of 65, but the airwaves still beckoned him. Fans were missing his broadcasts. He broadcast on Sunrise Radio for several years. He left from there for Punjab Radio, a 24-hour-radio station as a regular presenter.

He won the Millennium Adeeb Award for contribution to Urdu language and literature and social harmony and human dignity.

In 2003, the famous, Nairobi-born film producer Gurinder Chadda invited him to write lyrics of a Bhangra song for her new British film Bride and Prejudice. He also met the super star Aishwarya Rai on the sets in London.   

His second book ‘Sabrang’ was published in 2004 and his song Zindagi ko sanwar de Maula, sung by Kavita Seth, was used in the Bollywood film Waada.

Kenya did not forget Chaman. In 2005 – over 30 years after he had left East Africa, Chaman was awarded the Kalidas Gupta Riza Award for promoting Urdu in Kenya.

Amazingly, even the British Parliament took note of his priceless contributions to the promotion of Punjabi culture in the UK. He was awarded the All Party Parliamentary Group Cultural Award in 2006.

The powerful fragrance of Chaman lingered on, and even though he had reduced his engagements due to age-related health condition, this tireless showman showed his ever-green nature by attending poetry events and also the Voices of Kenya, the annual event held for veteran Kenyan broadcasters in the UK.


Last modified on Friday, 07 June 2019 23:53

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