For 46 years, Narendra Sheth has given his listeners the delight of the longest-running Bollywood music radio program in the state of Michigan — Geetmala — literally meaning “a garland of melodies.” Every Saturday on AM 1460 (also streamed through the internet at www.WPON.com) from 10 am to 1 pm, you’ll hear evergreen Bollywood classics such as “Yeh Reshmi Zulfein” and “Ek Ladki Beegi Bhagi Si.”
But what started his radio journey? “It was the year 1974 when I had organized a variety entertainment local concert in Michigan, and we had the audio recording of that show. A friend of mine was doing a radio program sporadically at the time and he invited me to present that recording of the concert to the listeners and that’s where it all began,” says Sheth. He hasn’t stopped since.
Sheth’s connection to music goes back many years to the 1950s, when he first came across the harmonica during his college days in Mumbai and had an instant connection to the instrument. As time went by, his love for music kept growing. “One day I just saw someone playing the harmonica and I was so intrigued that I went ahead and bought one. I used to practice the harmonica so much that sometimes the corner of my mouth would start bleeding,” he says.
Though Sheth’s personal musical influences come from maestros such as Shankar Jaikishan, Madan Mohan, S.D. Burman and Lata Mangeshkar among others, the idea behind his radio program is not just sharing beautiful music; but also sharing thought provoking conversations with the guests he invites. He’s interviewed many celebrities over the decades including Amitabh Bachchan, Asha Bhosle, Shah Rukh Khan and Dilip Kumar, but the segments can be hard-hitting too. Sheth has invited on several Senators and Congressmen, and he recently had a panel of 10 specialist doctors to discuss and share relevant information and precautions to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. “As long as I feel like I’m contributing in a meaningful way, I will continue to host the show,” says the 82-year-old Sheth, who often still plays the harmonica in his free time and in concerts.
Born and raised in Gujarat’s town of Ranpur, Sheth grew up with five brothers and five sisters. “We lived about 80 miles from Ahmedabad and life was simple like any small town living,” he says.
After a brief stay in Ahmedabad for education, he enrolled in Mumbai’s Jai Hind college to complete his degree in Mathematics and Physics followed by Masters in Applied Mathematics. It was also where he met his future wife Suhas, who was studying Arts at the time in the same college. “We met in college and respectfully consulted our parents and they agreed to our wedding but only on the condition that she wouldn’t stay back in India while I came to the States to pursue my engineering studies,” says Sheth.
In 1961, he, along with his wife, moved to Ann Arbor on a student visa, where he attended the University of Michigan’s School of Engineering. (Still a true Wolverine, Sheth enjoys watching college football and never misses a chance to cheer “Go Blue.”) “Life as a student was challenging. But my wife has been my backbone through it all. We used to live in a rented apartment and apart from school, we worked some odd jobs too. But the one thing I always remember is how hard it was to get Indian groceries,” he says, with a chuckle.
“We would have to take a ride with a friend all the way to Detroit, downtown, which had the only Indian store there was in the vicinity, at the time in the ‘60s,” he says. “Things have really come a long way in the past five decades.” Sheth worked as research fellow at Michigan for four years and then started at Ford in 1968, where he spent the next 34 years before retiring in 2002 as their chief statistician. With a former professor, he co-authored a book, Statistical Design and Analysis of Engineering Experiments, in 1973.
But engineer and broadcaster are only two of the many hats he wears. Sheth is also an avid philanthropist and brings music to the forefront when raising funds for the humanitarian causes he feels compelled to serve. He has been recognized for his service by the International Rotary Club, the state of Michigan and from the United States Congress.
“My parents in India used to be very involved in community services like building temples, so I feel it is my duty to do whatever I can to make a difference in the society,” says Sheth, who began his own non-profit organization called Geetmala Foundation of Michigan in 2004.
Over the years, Sheth, through the Foundation, has collaborated with the nationally acclaimed Michigan Philharmonic, and currently serves on its board as vice president. “It was a chance meeting with the conductor, Nan Washburn, some 10 to 12 years ago and it gave me the idea of a first ever Bollywood concert performed by the orchestra,” Sheth says. “I asked Nan if the Michigan Philharmonic Orchestra would be interested in playing Bollywood music along with the Indian singers and musicians on stage at a concert and things just snowballed from there.”
Sheth had musicians in India write music for the Philharmonic performers and a series of concerts played by the orchestra had 40 to 50 musicians playing songs like “Yeh Kahan Aa Gaye Hum” from the movie Silsilaand “Aa Ab Laut Chalen” from Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai. “I like to say it was the perfect fusion concert, where American musicians were playing Hindi songs during the concert,” says Sheth. The collaboration with Michigan Philharmonic has lasted for years; they still work together in raising awareness and funds for different causes.
Putting passion into action, year after year, is a daunting task for anyone. Sheth, guided and inspired by the people he’s met, has managed to stay the course. “There are three things I learned over the years that has always helped me from getting distracted from my purpose in life. I was interviewing Amitabh Bachhan once and he said, ‘No matter which field you’re in, one has to put blood and sweat to make a difference successfully.’” The singer Lata Mangeshkar’s words of advice — that “one must never stop learning, no matter the age” have driven him to try something new every day. And it was a university professor who once told him, “It’s not necessary to be perfect but it is important to be organized to be able to do your best.”
Sheth finds relaxation in cooking and learning card tricks. But his bucket list is as creative as he is. “I want to document my life’s journey but through the eyes of my family members,” says Sheth, a father of two and grandfather of three. “I want to bring to the forefront that a person can excel in many areas. My vision is to have nine chapters encompassing nine different aspects of my life.”
What lessons can you expect to find in that book? “Stop being a couch potato and you will find so much time to indulge in your hobbies and passions that are otherwise hard to find time for,” he says, promptly, with a smile. Spoiler alert: he’s done just that.