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DD news anchors in 80s and 90s
From left: Sarla Maheshwari, Salma Sultan, Sheila Chaman, Minu Talwar

Once upon a time they were stars of the small screen. No, they were not actors in TV serials where emotional quotient was the key to success. Here, it was the opposite. Lack of emotion made you a star. Yes, we are talking about the news readers of Doordarshan, India’s only public service broadcaster. They had a huge fan base and ruled our mindscape from the 80s to the late 90s. One of them, Gitanjali Aiyar, 76, passed away on 7 June 2023.

Aiyar represented an era where news readers read from typewritten sheets in impeccable English or Hindi. Auto cues and teleprompters came much later. There was a fixed schedule for English and Hindi news bulletins. This was the age of pre-24×7 news channels. So the question of “Breaking News” every hour did not arise. News clippings were few and far between. Naturally, the viewers’ gaze was transfixed on the news reader. What he or she wore, what he or she said and how, the hairstyle, the voice and the habit. Often, the head of the family would watch news only when his favourite newsreader was on air. Aiyar’s peer Minu Talwar put it wonderfully in an interview for a television channel, “We were heart-throbs of the nation and Salma Sultan was the queen of hearts.” 

Gitanjali Aiyar DD news anchor
Gitanjali Aiyar reading a bulletin

For Aiyar, her short haircut was her style statement. She was also the brand ambassador of Solidaire TV and Marmite bread spread. For Hindi news reader Salma Sultan, it was the red rose in her hair and the saree pallu placed in a triangular drape. For Shobhna Jagdish and Sarla Maheshwari, it was the saree pallu worn from left to right. Voice and flawless pronunciation were the hallmark for Rini Simon Khanna and Neethi Ravindran. While flowing, black hair was the USP for Komal G B Singh, one could hardly take one’s eyes off the drop-dead-gorgeous looks of Usha Albuquerque.

With the menfolk, it was the voice and of course, the beard. For Tejeshwar Singh, it was both. For Sunit Tandon, Preet K S Bedi and Shashi Kumar, the beard was the clincher. In Hindi, the show-stealers were Shammi Narang, J V Raman and Ved Prakash. Narang had a habit of putting his pen back in his shirt pocket once the news was over. It soon became his style statement. Interestingly, Raman, who spoke Telugu, cleared his audition in both English and Hindi and chose the latter as his preferred medium.

Here is a piece of trivia. When Doordarshan started its colour transmission and national network programme on August 15, 1982, the first news readers were Shashi Kumar & Neethi Ravindran in English and Salma Sultan & J V Raman in Hindi. That was the beginning of a two-decade long, nationwide cheer-leadership.

Not all of them were full-timers. Raman taught economics at a Delhi college, Bedi held topmost positions in advertising agencies like Lintas and Rediffusion, Tejeshwar was co-founder and managing director, Sage Publications, Usha was a renowned career counsellor and wrote books on the subject. Gitanjali and Tejeshwar dabbled in acting too, with stints in TV serial ‘Khandaan’ and Bollywood potboiler ‘Jalwa’, respectively. Tandon was a top boss at IIMC and later NFDC. After quitting Doordarshan, Shashi Kumar held top positions in India’s first satellite channel Asianet and the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. Shammi and Rini did voiceovers for various audio-visual projects, including Delhi Metro. On the other hand, Salma Sultan and Minu Talwar remained Doordarshan employees for over three decades.

These news anchors were no news gatherers or news hunters like a modern-day Ravish Kumar or Rajdeep Sardesai who do both in tandem. However, all of them had their historic moments. Usha was on air when Operation Blue Star happened on June 4, 1984. Salma informed the nation about the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984. Komal was always a member of the commentary team during the Republic Day parade and Independence Day celebrations at Rajpath and Red Fort, respectively. She anchored events as varied as the swearing-in of two Presidents of India and the funeral of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.  

Doordarshan Bhawan New Delhi
Doordarshan Bhawan, New Delhi

In this star cast of hulks and prima donnas, there was a Bong connection too. Kaveri Mukherjee, who had been a Doordarshan news anchor for two decades, is now an independent media consultant. Averee Dutta Chaurey, a regular in the ‘Parliament News’ slot, is a busy stage actor in New Delhi. Before marriage, she was a lead actor with the Bohurupee theatre group in Kolkata. She also starred in the classic Bengali film ‘Ekti Jibon’ in 1987. There was Bhaskar Bhattacharya too, a well-known quiz master, who died young.

In the history of news reading, the role of Calcutta Doordarshan needs a fresh look. It was rechristened DD Bangla much later. When TV debuted in Kolkata on August 9, 1975 on Band 1, Channel 4, its showtime was a mere three hours, from 6:30 to 9:30 pm. In this short span, it catered to various groups. ‘Chiching Phank’ and ‘Harekarakamba’ were for the teeny-weeny, ‘Tarunder Janye’for the youth, ‘Pallikatha’ for the rural folk, ‘Shilpa Jagat’ for the industrial classes and ‘Desh Bidesher Khela’ for sports enthusiasts.

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However, two programmes viewers rarely missed were Bangla Sangbad at 8 pm and the English news at 9:20 pm. While DD banked on All India Radio stalwarts like Chhanda Sen, Tarun Chakraborty, Soumen Chowdhury and Shankar Ghosh for the Bengali news bulletin, for the English news bulletin, it reached out to people from several walks of life. The numero uno among them was Professor N. Vishwanathan of St Xavier’s College who was also a distinguished film actor. Others included noted actor Jayant Kripalani, Sarmistha Guha, Leena Sen Chowdhury, AIR veteran Jija Bhattacharya, linguist Aditi Lahiri, journalist and later Sheriff of Kolkata Utpal Chatterjee. They all became household names in due course.

DD news anchors
From left: Gitanjali Aiyar, Minu Talwar, Neethi Ravindran and Salma Sultan in 2019

Reminiscing about the glorious past, noted communications consultant Rita Bhimani said: “It all happened out of the blue. No auditions were held. I was then working with an MNC but had some experience of radio broadcasting. It was after-office work for me but once we started, there was no looking back. Reading English news in the august company of Prof Vishwanathan was daunting too. His accent was perfect. My style was a mix of neutral accent and perfect pronunciation of names and places.”

No less daunting was the task of the news editor, who had to squeeze in, with proper verification of local, national and international news in just 10 minutes. Whenever there were transmission issues, the poster “Sorry for the interruption” proved handy.

These news anchors were no news gatherers or news hunters like a modern-day Ravish Kumar or Rajdeep Sardesai who do both in tandem. However, all of them had their historic moments. Usha was on air when Operation Blue Star happened on June 4, 1984. Salma informed the nation about the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984. Komal was always a member of the commentary team during the Republic Day parade and Independence Day celebrations at Rajpath.

On her Doordarshan stint, Bhimani fondly recalled, “We had to reach Radha Studio in Tollygunge, at least two hours prior to the black & white live telecast. In those days there were no special gadgets or auto readers to make our task easier. We had to read type-written sheets given by the news editor. We used to read two lines ahead and then look up and down. Each sheet was attached with three gem clips. If you jumped a page, the result could be embarrassing. We were paid a princely sum of Rs 75 per appearance but the instant recognition we got was priceless.”

Rita Bhimani DD news reader
Rita Bhimani used to be a DD news anchor

Green crusader and film producer Purnima Dutta was another popular face among Kolkata news readers. In the mid-70s she was teaching at Modern High School, Kolkata when the offer landed at her doorstep. She said: “We were all pleasantly dressed with little makeup.” However, it was her spine-chilling experience of one day, which also threw light on the credibility of a responsible public service broadcaster.

Let’s turn to Dutta in her own words. “I don’t remember the year. It was late in the evening. I was driving alone to the Doordarshan studio, then in Tollygunge, for my English news bulletin. It was very dark and the road was blocked. I realised it was a serious law and order issue. Somebody asked me to make a detour through Panchanantala. As soon as I reached the area, six or seven young boys, torches in hand, stopped my car and started making inquiries. I told them, “Look, I have to  reach the Doordarshan studio and read the English news.” Realising my predicament, they called two boys on cycles and asked them to escort me to the studio. I had no choice and followed them blindly. Once I reached the studio, the boys came up to me and asked, “Didi, thik ache toh? (Is everything OK?)” I just nodded and walked to the studio, literally shaking.”

Purnima Dutta ex DD news anchor
Purnima Dutta ex DD news anchor

Just when the party was about to end on August 15, 1982 with the arrival of the national network, local daily ‘The Telegraph’ did a cover story on these news readers for its Sunday magazine with a sentimental caption, ‘Is that the end of The News?’ with Vishwanathan and three of his peers on cover. The news certainly did not end there and Kolkata still features in it, almost everyday. 

Images courtesy: Abhijit Sen, Twitter, https://rajrewal.in/, Doordarshan National Facebook Page

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