One of the most memorable broadcasts in the history of radio in India remains Melville de Mellow’s marathon seven-hour live radio commentary on the funeral procession of Mahatma Gandhi on January 31, 1948. His baritone captured the grief of an entire nation as he simply, yet poignantly, described the scenes unfolding in front of him.

“In the room, the scene was heartrending,” said de Mellow, his voice sombre. “The walls were white, the room was simply furnished...but these blue carpets contrasted with the white mattress upon which lay Mahatmaji. He was shrouded in spotless white khadi, from his feet to his abdomen.” And then de Mellow’s voice, steady thus far, softened, as he began to describe the Mahatma’s body. “His chest was bare, I could see the dark patches of the assassin’s bullets against the skin of his frail body. His eyes were closed, his face was a face of a man in prayer.”

As de Mellow turned to leave, “Pandit Nehru entered and stood near me. I stood silently beside Mahatmaji’s most beloved follower for 30 years. His fine-cut features were drawn in agony, his face looked grey, the muscles of his jaw moved as if he was fighting back a sob.” De Mellow paused, his pain evident in the next line: “Then I saw him lower his head and I saw a heartbroken prime minister weep.”

His commentary that day, as well as during Nehru’s funeral, not only moved a nation to tears but also influenced the careers of many broadcasters. They included the likes of Jasdev Singh, widely regarded as the doyen of Hindi radio sports commentary, Vijay Daniels, who believes that “Melville was for radio what Elvis Presley was for rock and roll”, and Sushil Javeri, who considered “de Mellow as the best newscaster in the world”.

Video courtesy: akashvaniair/YouTube.

De Mellow was one among the many broadcasters on Indian radio, whose voice held millions of Indians in thrall. Radio broadcasting had begun in India in the late 1920s. Homes across the country would switch on their radios at 8 am, not just to set their watches but also to listen to the news bulletins. Newscasters such as Roshan Menon, Devki Nandan Pandey, Lotika Ratnam, Surojit Sen, Pamela Singh, Barun Haldar, Indu Wahi and Rajendra Aggarwal, over the years, became household names, capturing their listeners’ attention with their authoritative and nuanced reading style. When they spoke – whether it was their commentaries on the 1965 India-Pakistan war or during important sporting tournaments – India listened with rapt attention. speaks to four radio news legends, whose voices left a lasting impact on Indians from the 1950s to the 1990s.

Sushil Javeri

Sushil Javeri was always a stickler for correct pronunciation. In 1980, when Prakash Padukone was plowing through opponents at the All England Badminton Championships on his way to victory, the newsreader and commentator got the Indian star to record the correct way of articulating his surname. Getting it wrong would have been sacrilegious for him.

Javeri started out in 1955 as a music presenter in Bombay, and became a newsreader in Delhi a year later. Despite his familiarity with the studio setup, he remembers being nervous in front of the microphone during the first few months – “After that, I was confident of going live.” Now 88, Javeri considers de Mellow the “best newscaster in the world”, Menon the “best in India”, and Pandey the “best reader of Hindi news”.

At times, he says, it was difficult to remain unaffected on air. “I remember getting nearly choked when reading the news about Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, but not letting it affect my performance.” He talks of another bulletin that erroneously pronounced Jaiprakash Narayan’s death. “This was after Morarji Desai announced it in Parliament. But halfway through, I had to read out an apology, saying that he was still alive. This happened because the prime minister had been misinformed by the ailing leader’s doctors.”

Javeri’s tenure is often remembered for his emphasis on the British accent. Apart from newsreading, he would hold extensive training sessions in which newsreaders were taught the British accent and their manner of reading checked. Though he now leads a retired life in Ahmedabad, Javeri continues to train youngsters on “how to speak English correctly”. There is still an emphasis on getting pronunciation right.

Ramanuj Prasad Singh

Ramanuj Prasad Singh says he was fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time in his career. He auditioned for the position of a Hindi newsreader in 1966 at the urging of a close relative – even though he was employed as a psychology lecturer in a college in Jehanabad, Bihar – and got the job. “I just took that as an indicator of what life had planned for me,” said Singh.

His deep voice and relaxed style of reading endeared him to All India Radio listeners almost from the beginning. “My wife tells me that this was the reason she [agreed] to marry me.” He shyly recounted the time when a group of youngsters in a Srinagar restaurant recognised him by his voice, when they heard him calling out to the server. “And to his great embarrassment, they insisted on autographs,” recalled his wife Manimala Singh, who was a newsreader in the Nepali service of All India Radio.

Such was his popularity that when travelling by train, Singh had to use his initials instead of his full name. On the few occasions that his full name did appear on the passengers’ list outside his compartment, some passengers would seek him out wondering if he was the same person they would hear on air.

After his retirement in 1995, Singh prefers spending time at home in Delhi. “I did not go back to the radio because I wanted to just relax,” the 86-year-old said. “So now, I spend my time going for early morning walks, reading the papers and watching television.” What about listening to the radio? “Well, that retired with me too,” he said with a smile. “In any case, gone is the relaxed pace of newsreading of my time. Now newsreaders [sound] as if they’re in a rush to catch the metro.”

Vinod Kashyap

There were times during the 1971 India-Pakistan war when the sound of the sirens would cause bedlam in Vinod Kashyap’s Jor Bagh home. As her children would be sent off to hide, Kashyap would rush off to the All India Radio studios for her news shift. “Work for me came first – I had no time to be afraid,” said Kashyap, whose buland awaaz, or strong voice, made her broadcasts riveting.

At 88 now, the veteran Hindi newsreader is bogged down by arthritis and asthma, but her voice remains the same.

Kashyap began working in radio as a voice actor in 1955 while she was still in college. A few years later, the Hindi News Service hired her. “Although I was used to the microphone as a drama artiste, newsreading was a different ball game,” recalled Kashyap. “You had to keep your voice fairly flat – after all, you cannot dramatise news.” Every day at work was a learning experience – reading news required a certain familiarity with current events and a degree of alertness. “We were responsible for each and every word that was broadcast,” Kashyap said.

After retiring around 28 years ago, Kashyap’s focus turned to her family and pursuing other interests, such as travelling, classical music and theatre – things she never had time for because of her work schedule. She now spends her days watching “educative and entertaining TV programmes”. Does she listen to radio? No, she says. She stopped enjoying it “because the style of newsreading has changed from the time I was there. And this saddens me a great deal.”

Vijay Daniels

When a young Vijay Daniels heard de Mellow’s radio commentary during Jawaharlal Nehru’s funeral, he was moved to tears. That was the day he first aspired to become a broadcaster. “Melville was for radio what Elvis Presley was for rock and roll,” said Daniels.

Daniels’ tryst with the All India Radio studios started not as a newsreader in 1970 but several years before, when he was selected to record a children’s play – Robinson Crusoe – for the Calcutta radio station. “The training that I got with them and later, with exposure to the news and cricket commentary of stalwarts like Pearson Surita and Sydney Friskon, helped me realise that [the] correct use of voice, pronunciation, tone and tenor were imperative for good broadcasting,” said Daniels. Once he joined All India Radio as an English newsreader in Delhi, Daniels became a familiar voice in the news slots and in newsreels and commentaries.

Post retirement, Daniels moved to Darwin in Australia in 2004, where he did a master’s. “Age has been no bar for me and I enjoyed life as a student once again.”He then started teaching English to adult migrants at the Charles Darwin University. The 70-year-old has also started making radio programmes and reading the news – “in my own original style without adopting any Australian accent”– for ABC Radio Darwin.