In the parlance of market-led TV media industry, the Doordarshan age is generally recalled as one of state monopoly with little or no scope for ‘creativity’ and ‘autonomy’ in programming and presentation. The voice of Hindi sports commentator Jasdev Singh, who passed away on September 25 after prolonged illness, defied this notion throughout his career.
His mesmerising voice, relaxed tone and unique style of narration helped Hindi acquire a distinct status in an English-dominated sporting world, helping it become a genre of its own. His demise, in many ways, is loss of an institution which shaped sporting imagination for decades.
The active career and life-trajectory of Singh coincided with one of most transformative phases of Indian media. He joined All India radio (AIR) at a time when there was huge uncertainty over the state broadcaster’s language policy. Two different approaches shaped this debate. The first approach was largely developed during the tenure of AIR’s first director-general Sir Syed Ahmed Shah Bokhari. Bokhari established the authority of ‘spoken’ words over ‘written’ ones, but remained sceptical of providing it a literary orientation.
After the first general election in 1952, the third Information and Broadcast (IB) minister B.V. Keskar proposed another approach. He appointed senior Hindi litterateurs in key positions and minimised the role of bureaucracy in programme operations. His proposal of Sanskritising AIR’s language was met with strong criticism. However, in 1962, Keskar’s language policy was adopted with minor tweaks. Throughout this period, the style and functioning of state broadcasting were, therefore, characterised by bureaucratic control and political restrictions. This was unfortunate as it shrank the space for vernacular aspirations to flourish through public broadcasting. The dominance and grip of English press further marginalised the growth of vernacular domain.
During this period, Singh, however, carved a niche for himself through his simple but refined and fluent Hindi commentary. He described enthralling and sensational sporting moments with great ease and simplicity. Singh maintained a fine balance between colloquial and standardised Hindi and gave it a form that was capable of transcending the limitations of both approaches.
Ability to invent new vocabulary for Hindi commentary
His ability to blend metaphors and minute details of an event made his commentary a living phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s. What made his contribution valuable was his ability to invent new vocabulary for Hindi commentary. He was also able to vernacularise technical terms in sports such as hockey and cricket with precision and skill that many of his contemporaries lacked. This helped Hindi commentary, at least in radio, shed its image of being a ‘surrogate’ version of English Commentary.
Moreover, many socio-political changes also fuelled the popularity of Hindi as a written and spoken language during the 1970s and 1980s. Although this change is largely attributed to the dramatic growth of Indian language newspapers, the contribution of Hindi commentary was no less. The live broadcast of sporting events with English and Hindi commentary helped the latter achieve a wider reach across diverse sections of Indian society.
While Singh personified the increased influence of Hindi during this period, unlike the Hindi press, he did not provide a ‘Hindu’ touch to the language. With the increasing participation of Hindu nationalists in Indian politics, the tendency to narrate failure or success of sporting events through the lens of Hindu nationalist fervour was gaining prominence. It was during this period that the Hindi press started giving India-Pakistan matches a Hindu nationalist orientation. Singh, however, refused to be guided by such impulses during his commentary.
Singh’s columns elucidated complexities
Although most of us remember him as a charismatic Hindi commentator and broadcaster, in the early 1980s, he also earned popularity through his famous sports column ‘Bari Jasdev Singh Ki’ in prestigious Hindi weekly Dharamyug. The magazine featured his in-depth understanding of a variety of sporting issues. Like his Hindi commentary, Singh’s columns also created a vibrant Hindi sports readership. Here again, his ability to elucidate complex sports terminologies of hockey, cricket and football in simple, colloquial terms provided his column an unparalleled popularity. One can recall the discussions he initiated on the limitations of AstroTurfs, an artificial grass surface which was introduced for the first time in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
- With the increasing participation of Hindu nationalists in Indian politics, the tendency to narrate failure or success of sporting events through the lens of Hindu nationalist fervour was gaining prominence.
His columns became an encyclopedia on Olympics for Hindi readers. Singh also attempted to infuse a true cosmopolitan sense in his readers through his commentary on Olympic Games. Through his columns, he regularly shared his memories with overseas sports icons. Singh never interviewed them rigidly. He, instead, adopted a unique style of narrating their sporting achievements with interesting biographical details. His columns, very often, contained an analysis of sporting aspects that were rarely covered. For example, in one of his columns on May 30, 1976, he expressed his concerns for the players who either injured themselves on the ground or lost their lives while playing. In the same column, he stressed upon the need to insure players.
With the expansion of satellite TV industry in the 1990s, radio and Hindi sports commentary soon lost its charm. Subsequently, many eminent personalities of the Doordarshan era, including Singh, disappeared from broadcasting operations. The introduction of sophisticated audio-visual techniques further transformed the business. The authority of spoken words declined steeply and it was no longer possible for Hindi commentators to enjoy the same degree of popularity they did in the 1960s or 1970s.
Growth of cricket as a sporting commodity
The post-liberalisation period also saw an exponential growth of cricket as a sporting commodity. This resulted in the proliferation of private sports broadcasters dedicated to exclusive live coverage of cricketing events. The upsurge of these broadcasters was once again characterised by the dominance of English. The Hindi commentary survived only in poorly planned live broadcasts of Doordarshan and AIR.
Recently, this has changed and several leading sports broadcasters, realising the potential of vernacular markets, now have Hindi channels. These markets have expanded in the post-liberalisation era, but are not a product of same period. In fact, the growing commercial success of Hindi in the broadcasting business should be seen in the context of huge popularity that it gained during the era of state monopoly. Marketers, thus, owe a lot to Singh for taking the genre of Hindi commentary to a new level.
Abhinava Srivastava is an independent media researcher and consultant at Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi.