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A voice that continues to charm…

Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Commentary Guru: Veteran Hindi commentator Jasdev Singh in New Delhi.

To a nation that thrives on cricket, commentator Jasdev Singh’s voice has been a special asset. Mr. Singh takes Kunal Diwan down the memory lane, to the times when his exciting trip first started.

For a person described by a European publication as one who “eats, drinks and sleeps commentary”, it comes as a surprise that popular commentator Jasdev Singh was not quite proficient in the chosen language of his calling till well into his teens.

Primarily educated in the Urdu medium, Mr. Singh, whose mellifluous intonations are inextricably engrained in the psyche of the Doordarshan generation, decided to pursue his “obsession” with Hindi commentary after hearing veteran radioperson Melville De Mellow’s live narration of Mahatma Gandhi’s last journey.

“My family had just purchased a G.E. radio set and as I sat listening to De Mellow’s hypnotic commentary, I couldn’t help think that the same thing could be done in Hindi as well,” says a reminiscing Mr. Singh who has been awarded the Padma Bhushan this year for his immense contributions in the realm of broadcast media.

Leafing religiously through dog-eared volumes of Premchand and translations of Tagore’s works at a public library in Jaipur one whole summer nearly 60 years ago, Mr. Singh took his rookie steps towards professional oratory when he was chosen to propagate a National Cadet Corps event in Jaipur that was being attended by Field Marshal K. M. Cariappa. Speaking over a megaphone from behind a hastily put up curtain in the back of an Army truck that travelled across Jaipur, he says he was too shy to address the crowd directly.

In a life full of myriad experiences, Mr. Singh still considers his voyage aboard the S. S. Alcantara to Paris to attend a jamboree as a boy scout an unforgettable outing.

“Paris at that time was a city ravaged by war and its associated depletion of resources. Even though the entire country was on rationing, the presence of our team of scouts was never begrudged and we were accorded a grand welcome,” says Mr. Singh who was possibly one of the first of his generation to have visited Europe, little knowing then that fate had in store for him extensive, globetrotting plans in future.

Rejected at his first audition for announcer at All India Radio in the early 1950s, Singh finally cracked into the granddaddy of Indian broadcasting organisations when he was recruited for Radio Jaipur in 1955 at a salary of Rs.200 a month.

Moving to New Delhi after eight years in Jaipur, Mr. Singh’s evolution in his preferred area of expertise coincided with the broadcast medium’s growing stature in the country. Over the years, his characteristic, aptly descriptive and insightful revelations from various significant sporting and cultural events forged a direct, communicative link with thousands of listeners.

His incisive, sometimes poetic, and always well-informed remarks formed the backdrop at nine Olympics, six Asian Games, eight hockey World Cups and numerous other sporting events besides occasions such as the Republic Day Parade and Independence Day.

“Before embarking on any sporting event, I used to spend days on end with coaches and experts, poring over rule books and trying to master the technical nuances associated with each sport. What helped me most were the endless hours I spent watching live sport during my college years,” he says.

Considering his expansive experience in broadcasting sport, it is a little surprising that Mr. Singh was never really involved in the cricket boom that has stormed the country since the early 1990s and has always had the arcane aura of Doordarshan surrounding him in these cut-throat days of modern-day media sensibilities.

Though he was invited to Singapore by a reputed television channel a decade ago to commentate on a sporting event, Mr. Singh says he was rather put off by the working conditions. “I am not the kind of commentator who can sit in a claustrophobic room and comment on the proceedings being beamed on to a television set while the match is taking place a thousand miles away. I need to be at the scene of action to take in the ambience and then convey it to my listeners,” he explains.

In the box seat for most of the golden period of Indian hockey, Mr. Singh is perhaps the best person to comment on its decline and the resultant administrative spats that have been given precedence over the actual sport.

“Europeans are streets ahead of us in the game, mainly because it has changed so much. The shift to astroturf has shifted the focus from stick artistry to brute force. It is the administration that is to be blamed. Professional coaching is the order of the day and one cannot continue to live in a shell of smugness or complacency in modern sport,” he says.

A resident of Jaipur who frequents Delhi for work or leisure, he is gratified when his trademark tone is recognised on foreign shores. Like the time a New York cabbie refused to accept payment after hearing him speak from the backseat. A man to whom the entire nation has lent its ears, Mr. Singh knows his voice is his most potent magical charm.

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