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Telly talk

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Take it or leave it, television is an indispensable part of our lives. Today, TV dictates our evenings and we’d rather skip meeting people than miss our favourite show. On the occasion of World TV Day this Friday, Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy get nostalgic about the years before the telly invaded our living rooms.

Imagine a world without Internet, life without cable TV, and a day without mobile phones. Yet, not too long ago, before we got used to a life enabled by gadgets, there was a time untarnished by technology...

Terrestrial television in India started on September 15, 1959 with an experimental telecast in Delhi using a small transmitter in a makeshift studio. Daily transmission began in 1965 as part of All India Radio and the service was extended to Bombay and Amritsar in 1972. Up until 1975, only seven Indian cities had television service. They were separated from radio in 1976 and national telecasts were introduced in 1982. It was the same year India hosted the Delhi Asiad, triggering the first push for TV sales. But it was still considered a luxury. 

Back in those days, the TV was a shared neighbourhood asset, like the landline. Remember trunk calls and PP numbers (Phone Passby, incidentally), where you received a call at a friendly home next door? Who can forget community watching at the neighbours’ with craned necks — from the funeral of Indira Gandhi in 1984 to Ramayana and Mahabharata on Sundays after granny had her bath and lit incense in front of the TV? Deprived of visual content, in those early days we voraciously consumed everything from Krishi Darshan (the first programme on Indian TV) to Chitrahaar, serials like Hum Log, Buniyaad, Ye Jo Hai Zindagi to rare treats of international programming like I Love Lucy and TransTel Cologne’s The Old Fox and Didi’s Comedy Show. It was a time when newsreaders like Komal GB Singh and Salma Sultan, with a rose tucked in her hair, set the bar on fashion.

Slowly life turned from black and white to colour as Cable TV, remote controls and TRPs invaded our living rooms. Until then, even getting decent reception was a challenge. Whenever the set got snowy, somebody would be dispatched to the terrace like a rocket to inspect the antenna. “Must be a crow,” someone would sagely pipe in. And then, a bizarre series of actions would unfold that might befuddle anybody who did not grow up in India in the 80s. “Has it come?” a loud voice would ring out from the terrace. “No,” the person glued to the TV would reply. “Now?” “No!”.

“Noooo...w?” “Little Better”... the saga would go on till the TV was fine-tuned to its original clarity... or, the lack of it! Programmes would be disrupted suddenly with the screen stuck with the all too familiar words — ‘Rukavat ke liye khed hai/Sorry for the Interruption’. Long before the dawn of computers, hackers in those dark days specialised in pulling out a connection on the sly from antenna cables using pins and wire. Despite these early challenges and the giant leap to the 800+ channels today across multiple languages, there was life before TV.

Before the slow rotating orbs of Doordarshan hypnotised us and permanently glued our eyes to the screen, it was the haunting tune of Akashvani and Ceylon Radio that kept us awake on late nights. The BBC brought news of faraway tidings into our lives with dispassionate calm. Unaware of the impending clutter of FM stations, life lazily oscillated between the frequencies of medium and short waves and Fauji Bhaiyon ke Liye and the familiar drone of Ameen Sayani on Binaca Geetmala. Despite the fact that you couldn’t see sporting events, live commentary made the experience even more dramatic! If it was Miandad’s six at Sharjah that broke hearts on TV, it was Milkha’s loss at the Olympics that shattered the country over radio. 

As American TV entertainer and host of The Tonight Show Johnny Carson said, “If it weren’t for Philo T Farnsworth, inventor of television, we’d still be eating frozen radio dinners.” It was as ironic as prophetic that the first song to be telecast on MTV on the midnight of August 1, 1981 was Video killed the radio star by The Buggles.  

We have been sucked into the tube. Today, TV dictates our evenings and we’d rather skip meeting people than miss our favourite show. As a surreptitious time invader, it sneaked in and python-like, gobbled us whole right in our bedrooms. We broke down the walls to our various living spaces as we brought the kitchen into the living room — knives out, we cut our vegetables and rolled out chapatis without missing a glance of our favourite show. Soon, we learnt to order in and stay put on the couch, rather than waste time cooking or going out. Now, with mobile phones, teleshopping can be done without moving from the sofa. With 24 hour programming and multiple TVs in some homes, each member remains isolated in their chosen world of sports, news or entertainment. Earlier our conversations were long and engaging. Now, we have learnt to speak in ad breaks and short bursts of 30 seconds, lest we miss the continuous flow of infotainment. 

The good old days...

Yet, life was simple before TV. We spent quality time with family and our community. We met often. We knew our neighbours, exchanged notes on the day’s events and looked out for each other. We spent time in the garden and drove out to catch movies or go shopping. Those days, we didn’t watch Friends and Neighbours on TV; we would go and meet them instead! Today, one can easily lop off 4-5 hours of the day for TV viewing. Back then, those extra hours gave us plenty to do...

Parents sat in the balcony as children sharpened their identifying skills while counting cars and naming them from a distance. Children were a central part of all family activity. They were encouraged to perform for guests and relatives — and they would lose their inhibitions as they sang or recited what they learnt in school. They were encouraged to speak with the family instead of being cooped in their rooms. While a generation gap has always existed, communication within families has suffered gravely as TV has made adolescents more insular and aloof. 

Kids didn’t need Playstations, PSPs or fancy games to have a good time. When we tired of the outdoors, indoor games like Ludo, Chinese Checkers, Bagatelle and Brainvita took over, before someone introduced us to Monopoly, Scrabble and Pictionary. Posh ones played with video games like Tetris and Oil Panic. We all knew what a bioscope was. In fact, one toy that made it to the Hall of Fame was the View Master. Invented in 1939 by Harold Graves and William Gruber, children discovered the Wonders of the World via 3D postcard style colour slides and reels that were slipped into this funky contraption that seemed a cross between a stereoscope, camera and an embryonic TV! Rarely seen in a modern home, this vintage invention probably lies forlorn in antique stores and dusty attics. 

And if there were no board games, we played capitals, currencies, Name Place Animal Thing or full names of cricketers. This is why in one recess of the brain you can still remember Ravishankar Jayadritha Shastri and Syed Mujtaba Hussein Kirmani. Hell, kids even imitated run ups of famous bowlers. Malcolm Marshall, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Madan Lal were favourites. And if there was nothing else, there was at least Book Cricket... Another pastime would be to enact entire scenes from movies like Sholay and Deewar.

Students aspired to graduate from half pants to full pants, metallic geometry boxes to magnetic pencil boxes and boring erasers to colourful scented rubbers with cartoon figures. There was no concept of ‘use and throw’ pens. Fountain pens were tediously refilled, until the more practical ballpoint took over, even as parents rued that it spoiled the handwriting. Every home would have that sleek envelope of refills ready at hand. From the art of covering note books and texts with brown paper to sticking labels or polishing our shoes, everything used to be a ritual. The rare decoration in the kids’ room would be glossy centre-spreads from Sportstar or Target, before posters of Rambo and Schwarzenegger took over the walls and Samantha Fox or Madonna hid inside the cupboard.  

Time at our disposal

Our idea of time was different and we divided it liberally between family, spouse, children and self. People pursued hobbies like birdwatching, painting, reading, sewing, theatre, sports, travel and letter writing. While elders had ‘fast friends’ (as in thick, not loose), kids had ‘pen pals’. We eagerly anticipated the postman’s arrival with postcards, a money order or the odd telegram. If you wanted to speak to someone, you placed a trunk call. Time walked at a leisurely pace and we slept earlier or read a book for want of something to do. Kids spent time, not at malls, but at circulating libraries. Library cards were diligently maintained and a strict librarian fined you for not returning books on time! 

Comics were a big thing. We grew up on a staple of folktales and fables, Tinkle, Chandamama and Commando comics, as we laughed at the capers of Suppandi, Shikari Shambhu and Inspector Moochhwala, or envied the volumes of Archies at a cousin’s place. Before X-Men; our superheroes were Chacha Chaudhary, Sabu or the Indrajal pantheon of Bahadur, Mandrake and Phantom. Hell, we even had Hatnik Phantom sweet sticks with a red tip that looked like cigarettes. It took just a towel to transform into caped crusaders. Of course, there was no Harry Potter. We had to imagine the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven to Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys or Agatha Christie. And then one day, grandfather would get all your issues of Amar Chitra Katha hardbound for posterity.  

Kids collected stamps, coins, matchboxes, badges and even wet tissues from Air India flights that some high-flying uncle got home as a souvenir. Flying was unthinkable. For most of us, travel meant train journeys with packed food hurriedly prepared at home and leaky Milton water coolers. There was no bottled water — when the train stopped at a station, passengers ran for a refill, mobbing the water cooler on the platform like it was a superstar.

If the Oscars were our window to cinema, The Grammys was the only reference to the world of international music. Our aunts recall how our grandparents waltzed in the hall as a wind-up gramophone or ‘turntable’ in the corner hummed out Western tunes. In the 60s and 70s, when rock n roll hit India and right through the 80s, cities turned nocturnal as discos drew youngsters and adults to jive, hustle, cha-cha and boogie late into the night. 

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