Diwik Singh Chhalani, an advertising professional, quit his well-paying corporate job in Delhi to return to his ancestral home in Bikaner, in 2015. From the wreck of his abandoned old home, Chhalani brought back to the city an object he had carefully guarded over the years: his grandfather’s old radio.
“Each year, my mother would try and get rid of it during the Diwali cleaning, but I always had my eye on it and kept it safe,” he says. This small obsession soon turned into a full-time project, as Chhalani remained adamant on rescuing this acutely modern object from the dredges of history. Along with a carpenter and an electronic engineer, he began restoring the radio and turned it into a Bluetooth speaker, its original grace and aesthetic intact. Thus was born Diwiks, a modern version of the radios of yore.
India’s history is intertwined with the story of the radio. All India Radio was established before Independence. It has, even today, the greatest penetration, outdoing even cellular networks.
But more than ‘Akashwani’s’ coverage, it is the objects — these delicately crafted mechanisms of wood, plastic and metal — that we remember the past by.
Murphy Radio, which entered India in 1948, is perhaps the most popular brand. At least two generations of Indians grew up listening to it, and in most rural corners of the country, the practice probably continues.
Globalisation in the '90s quietly ushered in the end of the radio, with pre-recorded cassettes and discs taking over. Chhalani, therefore, doesn’t just collect radios — he collects stories. “I love collecting old radios as a hobby, and I have met a lot of amazing people along the way. One such radio aficionado is Mr Vyas. He repairs old tube radios and was very generous in letting me experiment with broken radios when I had just started out. We used to meet often and talk about amplifiers and speakers over tea and Mohammad Rafi. During one of those visits, I brought a Diwiks to his shop and we paired it with one of his old turntables. Soon, a little crowd had gathered outside his shop and he started telling them about our work and sound quality with so much pride! That was a very special moment for me,” Chhalani says.
The process of restoration is as much about sourcing as it is about paying close attention to detail. Now based out of Bikaner, Chhalani collaborates with local artisans Ustad Mainuddin and Manoj Suthar to revive these rectangular antiques that families have held onto, largely for sentimental reasons. The team usually works on one piece at a time. It’s not about maximising output, but rather micro-focusing. The restoration of a single unit can take anywhere between three to four months.
“The first step of every piece we create is reclaiming the wood. We collect it from all over in different forms, shapes, sizes and colours. On our pieces, you would not be able to tell. And that's the work of our craftsmen who meticulously prepare and match the grain and figures for each piece. We have little to no drawings for the structure, it's all very organic and free-flowing work, and things sort of take their own shape as we go! A lot of the times we change our design midway,” Chhalani says.
No restoration is complete without the team’s addition of a modern two-channel sound system that brings the antique piece, functionally, into the present. All without losing that old-world shape and feel.
Along the way, Chhalani has expanded the scope of his work to restoring and reclaiming other things in the service of making his pieces. Centered on sustainability, Chhalani and his team work with reclaimed wood, whether it is from the window of an old house or, as is the case with an ongoing project, the broken doors of a decrepit haveli. Luxury, Chhalani explains, need not come at the expense of the present and the future.
Diwiks is a confluence of nostalgia and pining for its modern retelling.
Chhalani found his calling at his old home, where his workshop is now set up. “The old structure that was our first home remained untouched, as if it was waiting for me to set up my workshop. For our first collection, I repurposed the old windows and doors to create the wooden casing for the speakers. Reclaimed wood has been a part of our story and inspiration ever since,” he says.
Though the idea for Diwiks was born out of a sense of nostalgia, Chhalani claims it is also a response to the lack of aesthetic plurality in design today. Every electronic object looks like the next one. If you can want a suit that is custom-made for you and only fits you, why not ask for the same from technology, which can reflect both your taste and history?
“When you look around at gadgets today, there is no plurality in design. Your phone looks like my phone. Every laptop is another version of the MacBook. Similarly, the speakers are all the same and often in plastic, whereas wood conducts sound so much better. I want to bring back that plurality in design by making unique pieces, using rich materials, engaging artisans in making them, creating stuff that lasts and can be passed on to the next generation. The wood will age and chip, maybe the sound will conk off one day, but I guess someone else will redesign these Diwiks and make them their own again,” Chhalani says.
All photographs courtesy of Diwiks and Nirali Naik