Remembering Gitanjali Aiyar: A nostalgic journey into the golden days of Doordarshan
On Wednesday, India bid farewell to Gitanjali Aiyar, one of the first female English news presenters on its national broadcaster, Doordarshan. Aiyar, who passed away at the age of 71, was battling Parkinson’s disease. In her illustrious career as a prime-time English news anchor in the 1970s and 1980s, Aiyar had become a household name, having acquired a dedicated following with her composed demeanour and articulate delivery.
Her journey in journalism began after graduating from Loreto College, Calcutta. She pursued a diploma degree from the School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, honing her skills and deepening her understanding of the power of storytelling. Her early career found her at All India Radio (AIR), where she hosted the popular show ‘A Date With You,’ charming audiences by taking English song requests on Friday nights.
A portal to the world
In the 1960s, when the gentle glow of a television started illuminating homes across the nation, Doordarshan took up the mantle of delivering credible news to an eager nation. In the decades that followed, as the clock struck the designated hour, families would huddle together in anticipation, forming a tight-knit circle around the television set, their eyes fixated on the screen.
The news bulletins in the last quarter of the 20th century were more than mere sources of information; they were a gateway to the pulse of the nation and the world. They became a communal experience; we awaited the familiar cadence of the newsreader’s voice, resonating with authority and trust. Each news bulletin brought stories from worlds afar, keeping families informed and connected. News anchors became trusted figures, embodying the power of a medium that ignited a sense of shared experience.
Television arrived in India on September 15, 1959, with experimental transmissions from Delhi, marking the humble beginnings of a transformative era. With makeshift studios, limited transmission power, and a mere 21 community television sets, it was a modest start, but one that laid the foundation for a revolution in broadcasting.
Driven by the expertise of professionals from All India Radio (AIR), TV services gradually expanded their reach. In 1965, a daily one-hour news bulletin was introduced, bringing current affairs to the screens of Indian households. The momentum continued to build, and by 1972, television services reached Mumbai, followed by stations in Calcutta, Chennai, Srinagar, Amritsar, and Lucknow in subsequent years.
Amidst the crackling sounds of the news bulletin, a symphony of emotions echoed within those living rooms. From moments of elation to somber reflections, the news became a conductor of feelings, stirring hearts and awakening a sense of collective consciousness. It was a time when the nation stood together, unified in the pursuit of progress and knowledge.
A celebrity anchor
Aiyar belonged to a clutch of remarkable individuals who became synonymous with the realm of television news in its nascent stage. The included the likes of Manjari Joshi, Minu Talwar, Neethi Ravindran, Rini Simon, Salma Sultan, Usha Albuquerque, Sarla Maheshwari, Tejeshwar Singh, JB Raman, Ramu Damodaran, and Sunit Tandon.
Aiyar’s love for the medium of broadcasting was nurtured by the influential figures she encountered early on, such as Surojit Sen and Pamela Singh, who read news on the radio. Their passion and dedication left an indelible impression on her, shaping her own approach to news presentation. Aiyar joined Doordarshan in 1971, becoming a celebrity anchor in the national broadcaster’s heyday.
For those who experienced the era of Doordarshan, there was a distinct allure that accompanied the 9 pm news bulletin. Aiyar, with her impeccable English, and attractive and stylish presence, epitomized this era of dignified television journalism. Her perfectly coiffured hair, elegantly draped saree, and soft, modulated voice created an image that transcended the limitations of Doordarshan’s black-and-white, grainy pictures. Viewers would remain engaged until the very end, without feeling the need to switch off their television sets in dismay —a phenomenon all too common today. Her parting words, a polite ‘Goodnight’ coupled with the gentlest hint of a smile, provided a personal and gratifying closure.
The impact of Aiyar’s work was not lost on the industry, as she earned the distinction of being named the best anchor on four occasions. In recognition of her exceptional talent and dedicated service, she was honoured with the prestigious Indira Gandhi Priyadarshini Award for Outstanding Women in 1989.
A stark contrast
In stark contrast to the bedlam and cacophony that pervades contemporary newsrooms, the newsreaders of Doordarshan possessed genteelness and impassive expressions. Aiyar and her contemporaries approached their craft with utmost professionalism, forsaking any desire to overshadow the news itself. They presented the facts with unadulterated sincerity, eschewing bombast, finger-wagging, or thunderous pontification, leaving viewers to form their own opinions.
Alas! In today’s media landscape, the principles of objectivity, factual reporting, and non-partisanship have given way to the theatrics and divisive narratives perpetuated by certain segments of the media, commonly referred to as ‘Godi Media.’ Today, the disregard for factual reporting has become dishearteningly common. Driven by biases and ulterior motives, the TV channels peddle the ruling party’s narrative, often manipulating facts and cherry-picking information to fit predetermined narratives — compromising the audience’s trust and the credibility of journalism itself.
The quest for higher ratings and increased viewership has led to the prioritization of sensational headlines, clickbait, and emotionally charged debates, rather than substantive and informative content. This shift has contributed to a fragmented society, with media channels amplifying communal tensions and pushing divisive agendas, further eroding the foundations of a unified society.
The advent of social media and digital platforms has significantly transformed the media landscape. While they have opened up new avenues for information dissemination and citizen journalism, they have also given rise to echo chambers and filter bubbles. Algorithms tailored to individual preferences and biases further reinforce pre-existing beliefs, leading to a polarization of opinions.
Aiyar’s contributions to Indian television, particularly in breaking gender barriers, will forever be remembered.