Wednesday, September 16, 2009

50 Years of Doordarshan

50 Years is a long time indeed. It came as a pleasant surprise to see in the news today that the Grand Old Institution of Indian Visual Media – Doordarshan is celebrating its 50th year of existence. From a facility that started off with a modest aid by the UN with about 180 TV sets and a makeshift studio, Doordarshan has become a mammoth with more than 1400 terrestrial stations, over 40 studios and reaching to over 90% of the nations one billion people. An impressive growth indeed.

I never saw something called as a TV until in 1986 when I went to Agra to stay on a holiday with a close relative of my brother-in-law who lived in the vast Agra Cantonement. They had a table top 16” Texla black and white TV which was kept atop the standard steel locker provided by the MES in the largest bedroom of their living quarters which had been converted to a family living room. Half the room had been covered with an assortment of carpets and durries neatly arranged in sequence with a bunch of handmade soft pillows which are a standard find in any Army home. In the late evenings, the whole family and the guests (we totalled a decent nine including my then toddler nephew) would sit and chat together in the living room with the TV running in the background, the volume jumping the upper limit of about 10 only when a nice programme of music or drama was announced. I still remember the beautiful village songs that used to be presented those days at around 1945hrs in the run-up to the news bulletins at 2045hrs . The tape-recorder cum radio was still the hero of the house, even though our hosts were quite used to the ‘luxury’ of a TV for some years by then.

For my own home to possess a TV, I had to wait for another couple of years until 1988 when my mother – a simple teacher who taught Art at a nearby school - took a loan and bought a BPL core model Colour TV. It was our proud possession as only a few homes had a colour TV in our immediate neighbourhood. My mother had ruled that a TV would step in only I passed the SSLC exams. I had to watch my favourite matches of the 1986 Mexico World Cup at my class mate and neighbour Prashanth’s home, whose father was my Hindi tutor and himself and ardent fan of the world’s most beautiful game - football. I remember fondly that I had the liberty to walk into their home any time of the day or night and demand for the TV to be switched on during the World Cup Fever days. To dream of taking such a liberty in today’s shrinking nuclear society is simply ‘Forbidden’, as most of you would agree. Doordarshan transmissions were telecast only in the morning and in the evenings with the Gyan Darshan coming in as a boring drone in the afternoons. The TV soon became an uninvited guest to be mute witness to many of our living room discussions, decisions and fights. It might have smiled with us when my lovely niece was born and my nephew started grappling up with life as he grew up. It used to go silent when my father took ill and was laid up in the living room, which also doubled up as our master bedroom. I closely followed the whole of the Seoul Olympics, the World Cup at Italy, the Festival of USSR in India, the popular serials of Hum Log, Gul Gulshan Gulfam, Ramayana, Mahabharata, The Sword of Tipu Sultan, Black Hawk and many many more in the years that followed. The power of the Television was incredible.

It would not be inappropriate to also mention that despite the well-meaning intent, the telecast of Indian Epics like 'the Ramayana' and 'the Mahabharata' and the less-historic 'The Sword of Tipu Sultan' probably served more to stir-up communal disharmony than to take to the masses the essence of these works originally intended by the creators. There may be some of you who may disagree to this, but it would be prudent to reflect and realise that this is a shockingly true revelation.

I was an ardent listener of the Radio too, which had been the hero of our homes till the TV came into our lives in down south Kerala sometime in the mid-eighties. What I could not correlate through the radio, I started to correlate when relevant topics were discussed on various fora on the TV. Even when I started gaining interest in the TV, my father ensured that his old Phillips Major was fully functional. Soon we graduated to the National Panasonic, when the old Major had to resign to the sidelines – a piece which still holds its place on my bedside table. The Radio remained the fastest and the main source of news until probably 1992, when the Cable News Network (CNN) of the US introduced us to the magical world of cable TV. The first ever televised war – The Invasion of Kuwait by Iraq had made a big difference to the way the Indian sub-continent viewed the TV. The stereotyped nature of programming culture followed by the Doordarshan vis-à-vis the International programming methods were out in the open for people to see and a sudden realisation dawned on the people of urban India that the future of urban programming lied in cable networks. The inherent delays in the news updates that Doordarshan provided owing to the official nature of the Broadcaster was clear to the ordinary middle class man who had got wind of the new technology that was catching up. Soon a feeling of being left out started to grapple the psyche of the ordinary man, who had to take the decision whether to stand loyally by his favourite Doordarshan which came in for free or to give in to the fancy and entertaining sets of channels that were being made available to those who could afford by self-made private operators at a seemingly throw-away price. The procedural delays that resulted in a lot of filtering and political censoring of news and programme schedules which probably were existent in those days (and maybe even now) coupled with the back-door entry of CNN in big hotels and into the upper echelons of Indian society started to spell the doom of the future of Doordarshan.

In a short time, many cable operators commenced operations in every nook and cranny of urban India that had a sizeable population which saw them laying their own cables and catering to a small group of homes or offices around a nodal point where a sizeable dish antenna could be accommodated with a clear view to the sky. However despite a bouquet of channels that the small time players could offer, Doordarshan’s reputation and its popularity did not wane so easily. Authentic news was always attributable to the standard national programme bulletins of both the All India Radio and Doordarshan. News readers like Gitanjali Iyer, Tejeshwar Singh, Sashi Kumar, Sunit Tandon, Neethi Ravindran, Rini Simon, Sarala Maheshwari – the most elegant of the lot and many more were popular names in all households. Though they were miles away and we would never ever have any chance of meeting them or chatting with them, they were so much part of our family. I still remember my mother being very upset when Rini Simon got married and became Rini Khanna and then started to bloat up. A sense of disbelief and surprise would always come over her when she would see the lean Gitanjali and then wonder how she managed to be slim and trim for ever, while I used to wonder how she was maintaining the tight upper-lip pose always and every-time.

It is important to note that notwithstanding the foray of cable TV operators and the subsequent opening up of bandwidth for private players; Doordarshan did put up a very good fight before going down in the fight for supremacy, which was once its monopoly. In its efforts to put up with the changing requirements of its urban viewers, Doordarshan came up with news magazines of comparable international standards like ‘Aankhon Dekhi’ by Nalini Singh, ‘Newstrack’ and the ‘The World This Week' by Prannoy Roy. The earliest mega shows with popular participation which was a fore-runner of today’s ‘Reality Shows’ is the esteemed musical show ‘Meri Aawas Suno’ which was aired sometime in the mid nineties. This show brought forth the now popular Sunidhi Chauhan, who was then an adolescent. We owe it to Doordarshan for the immense support it provided to budding artistes and youth cultural movements who were given ample opportunity to showcase their talents at the regional or national levels. Informative Digests like Living on the Edge, Lonely Planet etc. were so engrossing and well programmed that a lot many youngsters like me have benefited out of the knowledge it provided. Prof. Yashpal’s science programmes, Shyam Benegal’s series based on Nehru’s Discovery of India, Siddharth Kak’s ‘Surabhi’ which brought to our homes the million watt smile of the homely Renuka Shahane, who was instantly welcomed into the living rooms and into the hearts of many urban homes are unforgettable contributions to the Indian middle class. Also, Doordarshan was the only TV telecaster who concentrated on programmes on agriculture through its most famous series called ‘Krishi Darshan’.

I did my first TV programme in 1992 and I still have fond memories of our train trip to Trivandrum, the stay at a popular hotel in the middle of the city, the picturesque premises of Doordarshan Kendra, Trivandrum and the chance to meet some of the popular media personalities of Kerala of that time viz., John Ulahannan, Maya and the very real Shyamaprasad who was the Floor Manager and Programme Executive for our recording. Mr. Shyamaprasad had joined back after a coveted training programme at the BBC and was a known friend of our choir master Prof. Lancelot Thomas who had done a few recordings earlier.

It is also nice to reflect and realise that most of the founders of successful private cable operators of owe their origins to Doordarshan, which in many ways is also their Alma Mater.

Although many would be excited in discussing whether this communication behemoth should be laid to rest or revived to its lost glory, if not surpassing it, with, of course, solid efforts; I personally feel that Doordarshan hasn’t let its loss in its fight for popularity over-rule quality and maturity of its programming. The public-sector ‘Prasar Bharti’ which replaced Doordarshan still does have immense talents within its restricted walls and has an enviable set of quality brains. On many occasions when the relatively young cable channels have got over-excited on trivial issues and on other occasions have blown out of control issues that had to be handled delicately, Doordarshan has demonstrated a very high standard of self control and maturity in handling such issues. The only sad part is that probably its upper leadership hasn’t been able to take a strong and independent stand with a view to make it the Voice of Asia as veteran media person Shashi Kumar once dreamt it to be. His dream was a reasonable one as despite the diversity in our cultural composition, we have had the immense power to stay united over many centuries. We have had very high standards of freedom for the press in free India and the Fourth Estate on many occasions have guided the formulation of key policy decisions which India has taken as an Independent Nation. Financial Independence with accountability to the Public (through the Parliament) and Operational Independence with no accountability to the Parliament but only to the common man is what, I feel would turn around the tide for Doordarshan.

With an illustrious 50 years behind its back, I sincerely hope that the shepherds of this great Institution which has, no doubt shaped the destiny of India would keep a faithful watch over it and rear it to the fore once again, regaining all lost glory and make it the proud dream of every Indian – A name that would identify him all around the globe with a single phrase: TV means Doordarshan.

High hopes!! Is it? I think it’s workable.

1 comment:

Vinayak Razdan said...

Nice read! They should not try to compete with the private players. No point in that. That way they can concentrate on quality.