Not many people are welcomed into their first job with the words, “Get out,” only to eventually work their way to the top. But that is exactly what happened to P.V. Krishnamurthy (PVK). In 1942, PVK’s family had fled from Burma, trekking through jungles to reach India. PVK and his brother Subbudu (the famous music critic) had done some radio programmes in Burma. So PVK tried for a position in All India Radio. His father was manager of Kalakshetra and Rukminidevi Arundale, gave him a letter of introduction, with just two lines — “PVK is from a cultured family. He says he has broadcasting experience.”
PVK was interviewed and appointed as newsreader in Delhi station, by Sarukkai Gopalan, who retired as Deputy Director General. “I was to read the evening news, but lost my way in Delhi, and when I arrived at broadcasting house, the news bulletin was already under way. ‘Get out,’ said my colleague. Producer Suvi Raj Grubb said that I was unfit for the job. I decided that day that I would prove myself in broadcasting,” says 97-year-old PVK, who went on to become the first Director General of Doordarshan.
“My life in broadcasting has been a vast learning experience,” says PVK. When he was Station director of AIR Kozhikode, a coconut seller came to his doorstep, and PVK found that his coconuts cost more than the rate announced on radio that day. When PVK pointed this out, the coconut seller retorted, “Then buy your coconuts from the radio station!” That’s when PVK realised that although AIR did check the price of commodities, he had to do a double check. “So, it was a humble coconut seller, who taught me the importance of credibility in broadcasting.”
PVK gives an example to show that a producer must know his audience. When the Government launched a propaganda on the importance of breast feeding, PVK wanted to check audience response to a programme. So, he played the recording to a tribal community. The programme was good, but the tribals paid no attention. A tribal girl said, “We breast feed our babies. But we do not know how to wean them.”
When AIR Cuttack faced trouble due to student unrest, PVK was sent there to douse the fire, which he did, and many of the students ended up attending AIR’s programmes. One of the students was Nandini Satpathy, who later became the Chief Minister of Orissa. PVK found that AIR Cuttack did not have any instrument players, and sent letters to all other stations asking if they could suggest any. He had a reply from Allahabad, that there was a flautist, a B grade artiste, who played for children’s programmes. PVK asked him to report to AIR Cuttack.
The flautist landed at the studio, five in the morning and waited till PVK arrived at nine. PVK told the flautist that he could stay in the room next to the library. This was against the rules, but PVK believed that exceptions could be made, for he could see that the man was a genius. He told the flautist that he could listen to the many hours of recordings in AIR’s archives and could practise in vacant studios. “That flautist was Hariprasad Chaurasia! When I turned ninety, Chaurasia surprised me by coming to Chennai with his family. He played ‘Happy Birthday to you!’” says PVK. While in Cuttack, PVK worked with Kelucharan Mohapatra, in the latter’s productions such as Krushna Gatha.
PVK had an eye and an ear for spotting talent. He enriched Kozhikode AIR station by appointing Udayabhanu, who later became a playback singer and music director and was awarded a Padma Shri; Mahakavi Akkitham, whose literary works won him many awards and Kakkad, who became an award-winning poet. He persuaded the Kottakkal Kathakali Sangha to perform Buddha Charitam. Smita Patil was rejected by the Doordarshan audition committee, but PVK selected her. When he was Station Director, AIR Calcutta, he conducted programmes by many singers including Sandhya Mukherjee and Shyamal Mitra.
What was Subbudu’s response to the many music programmes PVK produced? “He never wrote reviews of my programmes. I once did a national programme — a chorus of the folk music of various States, and Subbudu said, ‘PVK, your obsession with orchestration persists!’”
PVK rubbed shoulders with some of the well-known names in broadcasting. Melville de Mellow, known for his commentaries on important events, once asked PVK for a recording of the howling of a skulk of foxes, which came to a street in Delhi at midnight! “That night, a recording engineer and I waited, but the foxes didn’t turn up. Just as we began to pack up, they arrived and set up a mighty howl, which we recorded for de Mellow.”
In May 1974, PVK was appointed Deputy Director General of Doordarshan. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told him that he would have to leave for Cape Kennedy right away, to witness the launch of ATS 6 satellite, which was to be used by India for its Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE). PVK was to produce 1,320 hours of software for SITE, in three languages, to be viewed in six States. PVK was flabbergasted. As Professor Chitnis remarked, this was more than what the feature film industry produced in a year, with all the facilities at its disposal. As for PVK, all he had were three modestly equipped studios.
In Florida, he hopefully asked one of the scientists, who later turned out to be Werner von Braun, the famous rocket scientist of World War II fame, whether there was a chance the launch would fail. Quoting Murphy’s law, Braun said, ‘If anything can go wrong, it will.’ But the next day, the launch was successful. Says PVK, “The satellite went up and my heart went down.”
When he began to produce programmes for SITE, however, PVK found that his fears were unfounded. While the facilities were minimal, the staff at the studios of Cuttack, Hyderabad and Delhi were highly motivated. “I stayed for weeks in each studio. The staff delivered. They produced do-it-yourself science programmes for children, programmes on agricultural innovations, family planning, a teacher training programme, and entertainment programmes based on folk arts. Remote villages were chosen for the experiment, and where there was no power supply, battery operated sets were used.” Representatives from 13 countries visited India and were unanimous in their praise of the Indian effort.
Talking about the inauguration of Bombay Doordarshan, in October 1972, PVK says, “Music Director Vasanth Desai suggested that Vani Jairam sing the opening song. I was afraid this would lead to criticism that Madrasi PVK had chosen a Madrasi singer. But Desai said he would answer critics. Seven Central Ministers came for the inaugural, but there was no sign of Governor Ali Yavar Jung, who was to give the inaugural speech. When I called him, I found he had the dates mixed up! I was on tenterhooks, but finally the Governor did make it. Asha Parekh and Gopikrishna were to do a Kathak duet, but Asha cut her foot on a shard of glass, and the wound bled profusely. I suggested that Gopi do a solo, but she bandaged her foot and went on to dance. During the dance, one of the cameras came down with a thud. But producer Sai Paranjpye managed with the remaining two.”
In 1975, Chennai Doordarshan was inaugurated. PVK arrived a few days before the event and discovered that Chief Minister Karunanidhi had not been invited. “I was aghast. He was responsible for getting the building completed. And common courtesy demands that you should invite the CM. I called Information and Broadcasting Minister V.C. Shukla, who said, ‘The CM is not to be invited. That is an order.’ At the inaugural, I anyway reserved a chair for the Chief Minister, hoping he would come. Halfway through the programme, Shukla and Governor K.K. Shah walked out, thinking the CM might come!
“A few days before the function, people were asked what they expected from DD, and one of the persons spoken to was Karunanidhi. So, we had a video clip of the CM speaking, which we telecast. After this experience, I decided not to attend inaugurals. I made arrangements and left the day before the inaugural.”
How were things like during Emergency? “Mrs. Gandhi appointed an Additional Director of Doordarshan, to take care of news, which was just as well, because I would never knowingly do something wrong. I was given the responsibility of starting TV stations in many cities. When Mrs. Gandhi was defeated in the elections, Prime Minister Morarji Desai appointed the Shah Commission to go into the excesses committed during the Emergency. Everyone from the media was hauled up before the Commission. I was the only one who was not, because I had always been on travel, and hardly been in Delhi during that period.”
What did he learn from his years in broadcasting? “I learnt that knowledge is not the prerogative of intellectuals,” he says.
PVK was Vice-Chairman of Sangeet Natak Akademi for five years and was elected Tagore Fellow of the Akademi. After retirement from DD as Director, he was media consultant for UNICEF, and a resource person for UNESCO, FAO, UNDP, and the Asian Institute of Broadcasting Development.