Guest post by MONOBINA GUPTA
A profile of Ravish Kumar, this post tells the story of the media from a uniquely interesting vantage point – even as it presents before us a slice of contemporary social conflicts.
Five days a week at 9 PM, Ravish Kumar begins his news programme, Prime Time, on NDTV India with “namashkaar, main Ravish Kumar…” At the same time when English news channel anchors scramble over each other for ratings, putting on display wild (often unsubstantial) discussions on the day’s events, Prime Time – in style and news content – strikes a very different note.
Ravish starts his programme with a 5-minute introduction, which is its unique selling point and also one of the highlights of the show. Packaging the topic of debate with a well-researched perspective, Ravish speaks in lucid, eloquent Hindi, interspersed with subtle and witty asides. Meticulously, he references the news reports, analyses, blog posts and opinion pieces he has swotted over during the day. In his mindful reference to every author whose work he has accessed through both mainstream and social media, Ravish has created a new media morality. The cutthroat universe of corporate media is more dedicated to grabbing information first rather than acknowledging sources or granting space to insights generated by others.
“Firstpost.com is our rival but whenever I take any news or analysis from the website, I acknowledge it. You could say this is NDTV India’s inherent culture. English channels don’t have that system. But they can have it if they want to. I do that consciously. I want viewers (a lot of them are students) to follow up these references,” Ravish told me.
His viewers – at least a good many of them – keep in touch with him: “I have built up these contacts over the last ten years of reporting. I used to leave my contact numbers where ever I went”. He talks about how he began his journalistic stint sorting out mail at NDTV. He was passionate about reporting and finally started on the journey that brought him to his present position. His programme Ravish Ki Report became one of the most talked about and popular ones to move away from conventional reporting. The ordinary lives of ordinary people – sex workers at G B Road, Kapashera garment factory workers – found prominent place on that show. Lutyens’ journalism focussed on the lives of powerful people, politicians, MPs, ministers, never interested Ravish. The lives of others did. And he made this his brand.
“When I take the Metro people just come up to me and chat. They do not always compliment me. Sometimes I am also at the receiving end of gaalis. I listen to their complaints,” he tells me.
Listening is important, especially for TV anchors who are so often accused of loving their own voices. “Sometimes in the midst of my programme a judge would SMS me: ‘you are wrong. You don’t understand the legality of this issue.’ Imagine my consternation being taken to task in the middle of my programme!”
Among the many ironies of Prime Time, the one that strikes you most is that its success runs against the grain of popular media wisdom. Sustained propaganda would have us believe that viewers and readers of Hindi language media prefer lowbrow entertainment peddled as news; that Hindi speaking consumers of news do not want information so much as entertainment. Market pundits have painstakingly drilled this falsehood into the minds of proprietors, editors and viewers at large.
On a hot and humid evening in May, as Mahmood Farooqui and Danish Hussain’s dastangoi team was performing before a large gathering of activists, artistes and academics at Varanasi’s Kabir Kala Manch, a sudden flutter broke out on the other side of the courtyard. Turning my head, I saw some among the audience leaving their seats and greeting Ravish. As the performance ended to warm applause, a crowd of admirers surrounded him. Cell-phone cameras went up in the air, taking his picture and some admirers edged closer to the TV celebrity to be photographed alongside him. The adoring crowds were not just a one-time aberration.
Over the next couple of days, images of adoration played out over and over wherever Ravish and his team went: at the Aam Aadmi Party office in a by-lane, volunteers crowded around him, cameras flashing; at the Lanka Gate outside the Banaras Hindu University campus, Ravish was a star among the surging masses protesting the administration’s cancellation of Modi’s rally through the city. Young men rushed towards him, snapping his photo on their phones. Some even urged him to contest the elections. “Itna photo, itna photo, kya kiya jaye?” (So many photos, what can one do,) a somewhat sheepish Ravish later told me on the phone.
Images of admiring fans mobbing popular TV celebrities in public places – even those not enamoured of the media – are hardly unusual. Ravish, no doubt, occupies a seat at the high table of TV luminaries. But his novelty lies in the unmaking of the conventional brand image of a media icon and the making of an unconventional one. Ravish happens to be a star with cerebral appeal; an anchor with an ear to the ground. His personality is critical to the crafting of Prime Time and building it as a unique brand.
Looking at how the 2014 general elections played out on Prime Time is instructive in this regard. TV reportage of the event, especially of the showdown between Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi in Banaras was generic and followed a set template: all the celebrity anchors of the televisual world descended on Banaras’ fabled ghats where they conducted discussions which moved from land to the waters of the Ganga. Collecting the city’s notables and the hoi poloi, anchors weighed the pros and cons of the Modi vs. Kejriwal fight; they picked dry the binary between religiosity and development. The themes discussed nearly always intoned each other, and those being interviewed hopped from channel to channel, moving from boat to boat, finding little to say that was new or interesting. These endless, protracted arguments served to veil the true depthlessness of the spectacle on display. A lot of time was spent in disseminating very little information. This is the vacuum Ravish Kumar filled.
Rather than join his colleagues on the ghats, he reached areas which usually escape the glare of TV cameras. The inhabitants of Katari village on the outskirts of Banaras haven’t visited the ghats for years. Their gruelling existential routine leaves them with no time to visit the place that, for most, is synonymous with the city itself. Chhedi Lal, a dalit villager, told Ravish about the persistence of caste in his locality. “Discrimination, though less, still continues. There are still some people in the village who keep separate vessels for Dalits. Upper castes still don’t eat with us.” Have politicians visited the village? “No, nobody comes here. Not Modi, not anybody else.”
During his election coverage, Ravish foregrounded the bewildering paradoxes of Indian politics and society. His show was a guidebook for how to report from the ground, evading opinion-makers and delving into the fabric of everyday life. It is this approach that sets Prime Time apart on a regular basis. What is novel about the programme is its motivation to probe deeper than the top layer.
This motivation was on display more recently when, on the occasion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s glitzy interaction with students on Teacher’s Day, Ravish did something different from most. As most prime time news programmes filled viewers’ homes with debate, discussion and distraction, Ravish spent an hour chronicling the ritual and reception of the speech in a government school in Delhi. His hour long interaction with teachers and students showed how the speech had been received very differently in places where English news channels didn’t bother to venture. Instead of enthralled masses, Prime Time beamed visuals of bored kids and disciplinarian teachers.
If a narrative in this vein seems too celebratory, we would do well to remember that Ravish is the product of particular histories – specifically his own as well as that of Hindi language journalism in India. Both these histories have to be acknowledged in understanding the niche Prime Time has carved out for itself.
Talking to Ravish in his NDTV India office, I realised why Prime Time has acquired such a distinctive voice and why it has been able to put together a refreshing template for news. Initially Ravish comes through as an author and a poet – shy yet confident. These very personality traits in many ways reflect his journey from a district in Bihar to the heart of Delhi. It’s that eventful – even troublesome – journey from a feudal backdrop to urbane modernity that has shaped much of Ravish’s understanding of news, his choice of it and the style of presentation.
Ravish spent his early childhood in Motihari village in Bihar’s Champaran district. His father, an agriculturist, also did a lower level government job. “I migrated to Patna before the 1990s. I studied in the city’s Loyola school,” he told me. Laughing, he said, “Frankly, it was sheer mugging that got me through the school examinations.” At home, the atmosphere was stiflingly conservative. “I was surrounded by people who were used to defining wrong as right, and bad actions as good. It was a messy situation back then with my relatives constantly fighting over land. The atmosphere was nasty.”
The desire to get away held fast and one day Ravish and his close friend Anurag – about whom he has penned a moving blog post on his celebrated bog Nai Sadak – decided to leave. “We took a train and landed in Delhi. Anurag took admission in history in Deshbandhhu College.” Ravish candidly admits that he followed Anurag in whatever he did; even in choosing the subject for his Bachelor’s degree. “In Anurag’s footsteps, I too, chose History Honours. My dependence on Anurag was that strong.” Laughing, he adds, “Had Anurag opted for Sanskrit I too would have picked Sanskrit.”
The post on Nai Sadak reads: “Woh mera dost nahin hai. Mera ek aur main hain. Ham ek hi class se sarakte bhatakte chale aa rahe hain. Girte parte. Paanchvi se. Wo nahi aata to mein nahin aata” (he was not my friend. He was my other self. From class five we were journeying together, slipping, wavering, stumbling, falling. If he hadn’t come, neither would have I). The same post manifests his deep sense of disconnect with his familial surroundings at home in Bihar.
In many ways coming to Delhi was the turning point in Ravish’s life. With several other students shared a room in Kalkaji’s Govindpuri area. He walked a tight rope, financially as well as socially. The city overwhelmed him. “I didn’t speak much. Everybody thought I was a shy person.” Almost in one stroke, the social world changed. Delhi was overwhelming. “I lived in apprehension. Suddenly some girl would come and say: hi, happy birthday! I wouldn’t know what to say. We never celebrated birthdays at home. On top of that, I was thrown into full blown history lessons. I felt myself drowning under the weight of world history, the French and Russian revolutions. It was unnerving.”
Ravish’s teachers – truly extraordinary in his words – played a key role in his life. Professor Anil Sethi, now with Azim Premji University, hugely contributed to his development as a student. “He would ask me ‘why do you sit in the last row?’ One day he wanted us to write an essay on what ails the Indian society. I kept staring at the word ‘ails’ which I was encountering for the first time in my life. And I thought: what is this ‘ails’ – it must be ‘snail’ suggesting the slow pace of Indian society!”
Ravish admits difficulties with the transition to English. He came from a Hindi medium background, both in terms of education and social life, and the world of Delhi’s English speaking chattering classes was unknown, unfamiliar to him. Many the shapes of this alien world took him by surprise. “None of the English authors whose quotes regularly appeared in articles were familiar to me. I asked a friend ‘who is this Oscar Wilde?’ Shakespeare was another name commonly dropped in all circles. Even Pranab Mukherjee, in his speech, would refer to something like Shakespeare’s Tempest. Finally, I bought an abridged version of Shakespeare’s works. I am still to get down to reading it though. Why Shakespeare and Wilde? Don’t we have any Indian equivalents of these writers?”
Anil Sethi plainly told him that he would have to go back to Bihar if he did not want to learn the English language. “So my friend Chandrashekhar and I, we decided to go back to Patna. We reached the station. But at the last moment I stayed and Chandrashekhar went back.”
With Sethi’s permission Ravish started writing in English. “Bit by bit, I learned the language. In this period I came into contact with with ‘world class teachers’ like Rana Behal, Suvrita Khatri and Pradeep Chowdhary. Rana Behal told us about how he used to be an auto mechanic before going to JNU where he learnt English. “These teachers took a great deal of personal interest in their students: for instance, they would take separate classes for some Hindi language students. We started becoming familiar with the subject of history.”
These professors paid Ravish and his friends visit at their home. “Anil Sethi taught me dining table etiquettes. For the first time in my life I ate sitting at a dining table. We did have a dining table at home. But nobody used to eat at that table. We would take the plates in our hands and eat. Our dining table became a dining table only when guests came. I stayed for 10 days at Prof Sethi’s home who personally groomed me and taught me how to find my way in society. For the first time, at his house, I had tea served from a trolley.” One day, Sethi took Ravish to Lady Shri Ram College to initiate him into the culture of talking to girls.
“My wife Nayana Dasgupta is the main inspiration,” Ravish says, referring to his consciousness of issues related to gender. Nayana teaches history in Lady Shri Ram College and when they first met, Ravish was working on his MPhil dissertation on the jajmani system under Sumit Sarkar’s supervision. But the thesis fell victim to more important matters of the heart. Soon Ravish fell and Nayana tied the knot, an event which sparked off a storm back home among his relatives. Ravish describes the development as a “feudal war.” His inter-caste, interregional marriage disrupted Bihar’s caste structure. But at another level, as the war petered out, even though conviviality was never to be attained between Ravish and his relatives, many other couples in love followed in his footsteps, breaching boundaries of caste.
A lot has happened between then and now. Today Ravish is at the pinnacle of his professional glory, wooed by celebrities and the masses alike. Yet you can still detect the hurt and anger in him as he rewinds the clock. “My father had to undergo a lot of social humiliation because of my marriage. Though from the same stifling social background, my parents gradually accepted my marriage. My father moved beyond such narrow social constrictions. But relatives stopped inviting them.” But that however hasn’t prevented them from using Ravish’s name to serve their interest. “Till today, my relatives do not accept me. It is something that hurts me. Maybe it’s because of my personal experience that I hit back so hard on social issues on my programme.”
Following the December 16 gangrape of a young para-medical student in Delhi in the winter of 2012, Prime Time ran a series of particularly outstanding discussions around gender and violence. “When the December 16 incident happened, I took it as an opportunity to address viewers like me. Discussing how the male gaze works and how it is constructed in our society. I often used to say during my programme that uncles watching my presentation with their families may simply switch the television off. It was an opportunity to explain deeper meanings underlying gender constructs. Simply talking about law and order was the job of people like (then Home Minister) Sushil Kumar Shinde. But when people are angry in society it’s then necessary to tell men that perhaps you have not committed the rape yourself but you have contributed to making society like this.”
Ravish’s personal journey is complemented by the larger arc of Hindi journalism, an indispensable frame for decoding the success of programmes like Prime Time. During the 1960s, Hindi journalism came into its own as mature, reflective as well as ‘newsy.’ Behind its efflorescence was the invaluable contribution of five Hindi publications brought out by the Times of India group. These were Dinmaan, Dharmayug, Madhuri, Paraag and Vama. “Dinmaan, a highbrow weekly, was like The Caravan magazine of today. The magazine did very well. University and college students vied with each other to have their pieces published in that weekly. Just one published article could catapult you in the eye of fame,” says veteran Hindi language journalist Urmilesh. He narrates a personal anecdote: “I was doing my Bachelor’s in Allahabad University in 1976 when Dinmaan published my article on Vivekananda. Suddenly the whole University got to know me. Before that I was only known as a member of the Student’s Federation of India (SFI). One article in Dinmaan and lo and behold, I was suddenly the cynosure of all eyes in the University.”
In a Times of India profile, educationist and former head of the National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT) Krishna Kumar spoke about how Dinmaan impacted his life and turned him into a ‘citizen-journalist.’ He had just been appointed lecturer in the English Department in Delhi’s Kirori Mal College. The year was 1971. Raghuvir Sahay, poet and editor of Dinmaan, was known for his democratic and open door editorial policy. Krishna Kumar recalled how every week Sahay would ask readers a question. To one such question (say “what is your school prayer?”) the magazine received four hundred responses. Sahay asked Kumar to put the responses together and write an accompanying piece. Soon Kumar’s articles became a regular feature.
Dharmayug, yet another landmark Hindi magazine, was originally published by Dalmia press just after independence in 1947. A year later, the Dalmia Group divested its stake to Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd. Dharmayug stayed with the Times of India group and became associated with legendary figures of Hindi culture. Under the editorship of the eminent Hindi poet and author Dharmvir Bharti, the magazine reached the zenith of its popularity in 1960. “Dharamyug was a family magazine – diverse features, articles on entertainment, films, lifestyle (not in the sense lifestyle is understood today),” says Urmilesh. A poet, author and playwright of immense acclaim, Bharti radicalised the product with his thinking and ideas.
In a society where the English language continues to be an important purveyor to status and influence, vernacular language journalists deal with hierarchies erected by the English speaking elites. This dynamic is as evident in the newsroom as elsewhere in Indian society today.
In an article in The Indian Express in 2007, political scientist Yogendra Yadav wrote “Not so long ago, it was not enough to know English; it was equally important not to know any other Indian language. Failing in Hindi was a mark of honour. Being at ease with a desi language defined you out of the monolingual English-speaking power elite. This power equation has altered a bit in the last decade or so. Your station in life is still determined by how well you speak English, but knowing Hindi is no more a disqualification.”
In the field of television, Yadav rightly claimed that it was Surendra Pratap Singh (better known as SP) who bridged the chasm between Hindi and English media. SP launched Aaj Tak initially as a half an hour news bulletin on Doordarshan, and then turned it into a household name as an independent TV channel. SP’s line at the end of every broadcast, “Yeh thi khabrein Aaj Tak. Intezaar kijiye kal tak,” became his signature catchphrase. According to Yadav: “Aaj Tak was for Hindi television news what Surf was for detergents or Xerox for photocopiers.”
It was a turning point in professional Hindi journalism. When entire North India worked itself up into a tizzy over Lord Ganesha’s milk drinking miracle – contrary to the belief that Hindi channels reinforces such irrationality – SP got a scientist to provide a rational explanation in his evening bulletin. Hindi journalism seemed to have come of age. But was that just a temporary and meteoric explosion of thoughtful analysis in a field that was soon to descend into sensationalist infotainment? Today, is it even possible to make distinctions between the sensationalism of journalism in different languages? English, Hindi or Bengali, a generic formula has come to dominate news. The desire to chase after seismic-scale events (or manufacture them) has diverted attention away from the everyday: that region which Ravish repeatedly excavates.
This is where Ravish’s journalism becomes significant – as a continuation of the tradition of Hindi language print media and SP Singh’s innovative television reportage. The blending of thought, analysis and an interest in the mundane is what sets Prime Time apart. The point is less to valorise Ravish or hold him up as a singular, flawless example than it is to throw light on other possibilities that continue to remain unexplored in the landscape of contemporary media.