On 15 September India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan (DD) celebrated its 63rd anniversary. Doordarshan started its first transmission on an experimental basis with a small transmitter and makeshift studio on 15 September 1959 when President Rajendra Prasad launched DD as a pilot project at AIR studio in Delhi. Its mandate was to telecasts 1-hour program on social education twice a week catering to viewers in and around Delhi.
At that time Doordarshan was a part of All India Radio and started transmitting a regular 5-minute daily news bulletin in the morning and evening in 1965. AIR had complete control over the overall production and content. Pratima Puri who started her carrier at the All India Radio (AIR) station in Shimla was specially transferred to Delhi and selected to be Doordarshan’s first newsreader in 1965 because of her simple look, and pleasant voice. She interviewed a number of prominent personalities like Yuri Gagarin (the first man in space) on Doordarshan before being replaced by a much younger Salma Sultan. Puri however continued to train aspiring anchors for Doordarshan.
In the initial stages, DD’s transmission was restricted to just one channel – that too for a few hours a day. Krishi Darshan was the first programme to be telecast on DD on Jan 26 in 1967 and the longest-running television show in India. It was targeted at the farmers and informed them about the best crops to grow in various seasons, as well as expert advice about how and when to sow the seeds as well as how to protect the crop from diseases and improve crop productivity. Initially, Doordarshan’s prime objective was public awareness. Hence a big chunk of the programs telecast by it comprised of documentaries and current affairs programs. The quota of entertainment was limited to a few Bollywood feature films and Chitrahaar a compilation of film songs – once or twice a week.
Till 1975, Doordarshan was the one and only public television broadcaster in India and had regular service in only 7 Indian cities including Mumbai and Amritsar. In 1976 DD aired its first TV serial, Ladoo Singh Taxiwala, starring Kanwarjit Paintal.
On 1 April 1976 DD cut the umbilical ‘chord’ with AIR and branched off on its own identity. The DD signature tune was composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Ahmed Hussain Khan in 1976.
The 9th Asian Games at New Delhi in 1982 was a significant landmark in the history of Doordarshan which overnight switched from black and white to colour transmission. On 15 August 1982, Doordarshan introduced a national colour telecast service from its own studio in Mandi House, Delhi using PAL Colour, and beamed the 35th Independence Day celebrations from Red Fort in full colour.
On 9 August 1984, Doordarshan launched its second channel for the metro audience and named it ‘DD2’, while the existing channel was renamed ‘DD1’ and started regular nationwide satellite broadcasts. In the same year, DD1 started telecasting sponsored TV serials, produced by veteran filmmakers. This eventually culminated in the age of sponsored TV serials.
Hum Log was India’s first soap opera on TV 38 years ago and also the first serial drama series revolving around a middle-class family’s struggles and aspirations. Conceptualised on the lines of Ven Conmigo (1975) a Mexican television series, it started being telecast on Doordarshan on July 7, 1984 and continued for 154 episodes over 17 months which was a big thing those days. Interestingly the inspiration behind the serial was Vasant Sathe the then Information and Broadcasting Minister who saw the Mexican television series called Ven Conmigo during a trip to Mexico in 1982 and suggested the concept to Manohar Shyam Joshi, who scripted the series, P. Kumar Vasudev, who directed the series. In 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi invited Miguel Sabido the scriptwriter of the Mexican television series to India and asked him to help give shape to the first serial drama series on the subcontinent. The cast of the serial would meet for rehearsals at Himachal Bhavan, near Mandi House in Delhi at 3 pm, from where a van would take them to a studio in Gurgaon where it was shot. At the end of every episode, veteran Hindi film actor Ashok Kumar discussed the situation with the audience using couplets and limericks. The serial was so popular that Ashok Kumar received over 400,000 letters mainly from youngsters who requested him to convince their parents to allow them to marry the boy or girl of their choice.
Soon other TV serials like Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1987-88), BR Chopra’s Mahabharat (1988-90), Buniyaad, Nukkad, Wagle ki Duniya, Malgudi Days, Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan, Karamchand, Shershah Suri, Chanakya, Chandrakanta, Dekh Bhai Dekh, Kahan Gaye Woh Log, Ulta Pulta, Flop Show, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani, Shrimaan Shrimati, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, and Zabaan Sambhalke became quite popular among the viewers – who at the end of the day had nothing else to entertain themselves. Ramayan was the most expensive, as well as the highest-rated TV drama in the 80s, while Shaktimaan, Shrimaan Shrimati, Circus, Byomkesh Bakshi, Dekh Bhai Dekh, and Jungle Book were some of the other all-time hits that kept the TV audience glued to their seats in the late 90s.
Ramayana, Sai Baba, Alif Laila, Vishnu Puran and BR Chopra’s Mahabharata were some of the hits which broke all TRP records.
Many people who didn’t have a TV set at home used to visit their friends, relatives or neighbours just to see their favourite programs. Of course, to ensure uninterrupted broadcast and signal clarity people had to adjust their TV antenna at least once or twice a week which was almost a ritual where one person would turn the antenna around while another would tell him to stop doing so by observing the picture clarity.
In 1989 Shah Rukh Khan, one of the most successful film stars in the world today and Badshah of Bollywood made his screen debut as an actor at the age of 24 in Col Raj Kapoor’s TV serials Fauji and Circus and Lekh Tandon’s Dil Dariya, telecast on DD National. There was no looking back for him since then.
Doordarshan despite its many limitations managed to secure a place in the people’s hearts and has revolutionised the Indian television industry. But DD’s popularity started waning with the advent of cable television in the early 1990s.
Today Doordarshan has 66 studio centres across India including 17 major centres in state capitals. It is today the largest terrestrial network in the world covering 92 per cent of the population and boasts of 5 national channels, 11 regional language satellite channels, 7 regional state networks and 1 international channel.
DD National (formerly DD1) the flagship channel of Doordarshan, is a state-owned public entertainment television channel in India. It is also India’s oldest and most widely available terrestrial television channel in India.