The grand old man of television

Thirty-five years after Doordarshan was separated from radio and became an independent entity, Bishwanath Ghosh meets its first director-general who just turned 90

June 02, 2011 06:44 pm | Updated August 17, 2016 11:41 am IST

Chennai, 24-05-2011: P.V.Krishnamoorthy, 90, retired announcer from All India Radio. Photo:S_R_Raghunathan

Chennai, 24-05-2011: P.V.Krishnamoorthy, 90, retired announcer from All India Radio. Photo:S_R_Raghunathan

“The greatest enemy of conversation is television,” declares P.V. Krishnamoorthy as he gently reaches for the remote to switch off the large LCD screen mounted on the wall, even though tension is beginning to build in the drawing room after Chennai Superkings lose two wickets to Royal Challengers in rapid succession.

Perhaps Krishnamoorthy occasionally forgets that he is one of the pioneers of television in India; though considering that he has a photographic memory, it is more likely that he wants you to relish the irony. He is being only wise in switching off the TV: you can't watch the action in Chepauk stadium and at the same time produce an action replay of the times that led to the birth of television in India.

“Doordarshan and I were both born on the same day, on April 1. All Fools' Day!” laughs Krishnamoorthy, who turned 90 this year. He was born in Rangoon in 1921; Doordarshan in New Delhi in 1976, when it was separated from All India Radio and established as a separate entity with Krishnamoorthy as its first director-general.

A memorable association

The association between him and Doordarshan goes back to 1960 when Krishnamoorthy, then the station director of AIR at Cuttack (where he had launched Hari Prasad Chaurasia's career as a flautist), was appointed the Officer on Special Duty for television. AIR engineers had just started a TV station with the help of a CCTV camera that was left behind by Phillips after an exhibition at the Pragati Maidan; and Krishnamoorthy, as the OSD, was sent to Canada and the U.S. to study the use of television in agriculture and education. Upon his return in 1961, the station, with help from UNESCO and the Ford Foundation, began relaying programmes on school education and social education for a limited audience.

“But for a very long time, television continued to be a toy in the hands of engineers. They kept on experimenting,” says Krishnamoorthy, who soon returned to radio and in the following years went on to set up the station at Kohima during the Chinese aggression in 1962 and serve twice as the station director of Calcutta. He happened to be in Calcutta in 1971 when the Government decided to replace the Tamilian with a Bengali in order to counter the anti-India propaganda during the Bangladesh war, and in the process Krishnamoorthy earned a “holiday posting” to Madras. But in 1972, when India built its first full-fledged TV studio in Bombay with German help, Krishnamoorthy was called to head it. The young man, whose life got disrupted at the age of 21 when he escaped from Burma to India along with his family during the Japanese bombings of 1942, had indeed come a long way.

“I was just a monthly-paid artiste when I joined the AIR as a Tamil announcer in 1944. My career, in fact, started with the words ‘Get out!' because I lost my way in Lutyens' Delhi (he had just arrived from Coimbatore) and reported late for work at the Broadcasting House. I then became a programme assistant, then a programme executive, then an assistant station director, then station director, then a deputy director-general, and finally, the director-general. All this, without any sifaarish {currying favour in Hindi},” laughs Krishnamoorthy.

Throughout the interview, Krishnamoorthy keeps laughing and cracking jokes, as if he is a friend your age — and not a 90-year-old — who is updating you on his career. That makes you wonder whether longevity is directly proportional to a cheerful disposition. Though one can't be sure how cheerful he was back then when he had Indira Gandhi and Vidya Charan Shukla as his bosses.

His stint in Bombay was extremely eventful. He not only started hugely-popular programmes such as the news-based ‘Parikrama' by Kamaleshwar and Tabassum's ‘Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan', which featured interviews of film stars and for which Krishnamoorthy had composed the title music himself, but also — quite unknowingly — launched the career of Smita Patil as an actress.

“One morning, a dusky woman barged into my office. She was in tears. She had auditioned for the job of a newsreader and had been rejected. She was pleading for fairness. From one look I could tell she was cut out for television. I made her go behind the camera again and gave her the job of an announcer. Soon Shyam Benegal spotted her and gave her a role in his film,” recalls Krishnamoorthy.

By then, Krishnamoorthy's reputation as the ‘television man' had been so firmly established that when Indira Gandhi decided to separate television from radio in 1976, he became the natural choice as the director-general of the newly-formed Doordarshan. “By the time I retired in 1979, Doordarshan had opened its stations in many small towns. Oh yes, I was also the one who started television commercials, and if my memory serves right, the very first commercial we aired was that of Gwalior Suitings,” recalls Krishamoorthy.

Krishnamoorthy today leads a quiet life is Chennai — a quiet that is interrupted on occasions such as his 90th birthday, when Hari Prasad Chaurasia flew down from Mumbai to play ‘Happy Birthday' on his flute during the celebrations.

“I have no quarrel with today's commercial channels, but they must have a social responsibility. They keep exposing scams, but there is life beyond the scams. At the same time, I think Doordarshan should also not try to ape these channels. Doordarshan runs on the taxpayers' money, and it should not feel ashamed in admitting the fact that it is a public broadcaster,” he says.

Krishnamoorthy, who has lived in Madras since 1982, serving as an adult education consultant for the UNICEF, lost his wife in 1999. “After she passed away, the Yamaha has been my wife,” he smiles, referring to the keyboard on which he practises Tagore's songs. “I go to sleep with the Yamaha,” says Krishnamoorthy, whose compositions can be still found in the archives of AIR. “And when I wake up in the morning, she is ready to be played again.”

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