His current Facebook profile picture shows him cringing sharply, at what could only be perceived as the celebration of one of his childhood birthdays. Ashhar Farhan laughs heartily when pointed out.
“I do not know who put it up – perhaps my daughter, when I was inattentive and left my Facebook open. I do not even remember the picture or why I cringed like that, but, I must have been annoyed at the racket of cheers at one of my childhood birthdays,” he says.
The photograph in question perhaps describes Ashhar Farhan in one word: private. While his project, Lamakaan, remains the city’s quintessential socio-cultural-political hotspot, little is known about him outside his social circles. For instance, most people who know him are unaware of his antecedents – he is the only son of the pre-eminent Urdu novelist and short story writer Jeelani Bano, a Padma Shri awardee. Again, he lets slip out a full but soft laughter, and explains that the only time he entertains interviews, usually, is when Lamakaan holds its annual celebrations.
In May, Ashhar Farhan was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the international journal CQ Amateur Radio. In the basement lab of his Banjara Hills villa, he keeps his hands occupied, surrounded by dozens of radio station sets, hundreds of radio boards and microchips, and various kinds and sizes of saws, hammers, pliers and testers. There is a 3D printing machine by his desk, connected to his laptop so that small components can be manufactured instantly.
“There was a demonstration of amateur radio science at my school, when I was 12. It came as a huge revelation to me – I was awestruck to know that there are people who make radio sets by themselves. I kept following them and just never fell out of this hobby. I was 15 when I got my radio licence,” he says in a matter-of-fact way, as one of his employees sound-tests his micro BITX transceiver boards with a ringing ‘hello, hello, hello’.
Currently, he is working on developing a communication satellite the size of a coffee mug. The current satellites in space are as large and heavy as a truck each.
“When finished, it would be India’s first private satellite to reach space,” he says nonchalantly, as if he is just pointing out that the weather is hot – no big deal.
From his home lab, under the brand name of his small firm called HF Signals, the BITX transceiver set has reached more than 12,000 radio hams globally. It costs only $100, whereas it would take nothing less than 15 times that amount for developing it with conventional tools.
The Lamakaan Story
In 2016, the QRP Amateur Radio Club International honoured him as their Hall of Fame inductee. In the city, however, Ashhar Farhan is more commonly known as ‘Lamakaan owner’. He chucks the misconception with a chuckle.
“I would like to clarify that I am neither the owner nor the sole founder of Lamakaan. In 2010, I, along with my wife Humeira and friends Biju Mathew and Elahe Hiptoola, founded the cultural centre. The property belonged to my uncle Moyed Hasan, a prominent photographer and documentary filmmaker, and was later gifted to my mother. Lamakaan has a community of trustees, curators, managers and other workers. It works as an organisation in itself,” he explains.
Whether it is the liberal cultural space giving voice to budding artistes or the amateur radio transceiver sets he is exporting by the thousands, Ashhar Farhan is decidedly a force supporting the ‘small guys’.
Lamakaan in 2017 hosted more than 700 events. Through Daana, he is helping marginal organic farmers, bringing in technology to ensure they make a good living.