AIR news: Where words matter

By Ranjana Narayan

Their voices are a part of the everyday life of the people of India, and some have lent their voice to history – to announce the independence of the country, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, India winning the 1983 cricket World Cup. Veteran All India Radio (AIR) newscasters are familiar household names who continue to share a special bond with their listeners.
Remember the likes of Devaki Nandan Pandey, Melville de Mello, Surajit Sen, Sushil Jhaveri, Lotika Ratnam and Pamela Singh? Many of them are not around any more or have faded into oblivion. Even so, some veterans remain, and a group of them, belonging to the Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Gujarat streams, were honoured at a function here recently.
R.S. Venkatraman, 88, was the first to announce over AIR that India had gained its independence. “Inthiya naadu indru sudandiram petrathu” (India became independent today) were approximately the words the Tamil newscaster read out during the early morning bulletin of Aug 15, 1947.
Venkatraman, who later became head of the Tamil unit in Delhi, was 25 at that time and was reading the 5.35 a.m. bulletin for AIR’s external services division. He was among the 14 veteran newscasters honoured at a special event here recently to celebrate 75 years of AIR’s news transmission in the four languages.
“It was a thrilling moment, a historical moment, I am fortunate to have been the first to make the announcement,” Venkatraman, who retired in 1985 but continued on a casual basis till 2007, said.
Saroj Narayanaswami recalls having read the news about Indira Gandhi’s assassination. An ardent admirer of the then prime minister, including sharing the latter’s keenness in solving cryptic crosswords, Narayanaswami says she found it difficult to keep out the emotion from her voice while making the announcement on Oct 31, 1984, on Tamil news. “We are supposed to be objective while reading news, but when Indira Gandhi died I was emotional,” the veteran newscaster told IANS.
She also remembers reading the news of India winning the 1983 ICC Cricket World Cup under Kapil Dev.
Narayanaswami, 79, who has a deep voice and is a very well known figure among Tamil households in India and the diaspora, says a newscaster needs to pay attention to intonation, diction, presentation and pronunciation to excel in the profession.
“Whenever there was a French word in the news I would contact the French embassy in order to get the pronunciation right. I was also careful to modulate my voice according to the news, and knew exactly where to make a pause. These things are very important in making for good news reading,” said Narayanaswami, whose English diction is equally good.
P Rajaram, another veteran Tamil newscaster who was honoured, says the 5.35 a.m. bulletin is keenly heard by Tamil listeners in Southeast Asia.
Giving an example of the close link between newscasters and listeners, Rajaram said once while reading the news his voice got caught midway, and he asked his colleague to continue reading. “As soon as the bulletin ended, there was a flood of phone calls, including from Chennai, asking if I was all right,” Rajaram said.
He recalls having read the breaking news for the 5.35 a.m. bulletin when M.G. Ramachandran died on Dec 24, 1987. It was a particularly challenging moment as there was no prepared text for an orbituary. Being familiar with details of the late actor-politician’s life since he had written about it, Rajaram was able to read out an impromptu small obit on the bulletin.
“You have to have peace of mind. You can’t afford to be tense. If you make a mistake, you must continue reading. If you fumble while reading, just continue; that is the mantra,” Rajaram said.
Deepak Dholakia, a veteran of the Gujarati unit, remembers reading the news when Indira Gandhi was defeated in the 1977 general elections.
“I have seen so many prime ministers – from Indira Gandhi to Deve Gowda,” said Dholakia, adding he had taken up the issue of employees and was for “genuine autonomy” for Prasar Bharti, the public broadcaster under which AIR and Doordarshan function.
News reading, according to Dholakia, is not just about knowing the language. “You have to enter into the language, into each and every word” in order to make what you read matter to your listeners.
(The writer can be contacted at [email protected])