By Manik Sharma Aug. 03, 2019
Ravish Kumar exists beyond the TV screen, but speaks as if seated on the couch next to you, rarely talking down to your wisdom. The Ramon Magsaysay award winner has changed Indian news by refusing to perform for it, by declining to withdraw from his image, his roots, his Bihari tongue and identity.
Growing up in Himachal my first and perhaps defining encounter with the cult of the Bihari, was through the state’s export of manual labourers. We saw these men as hard-headed craftsmen, men who could graft wood, pummel cement into shape, but couldn’t perform the more rarefied functions of life, like maybe speak in an anglophone tenor or rid self of their nativity. “Bihar se hai kya” we often said to each other in school (unaware of our biases), a convent school mind you, when the film of trained colonial sophistication was unintentionally punctured. The Bihari accent was considered dire, an emblem of what was culturally wrong with India, what set it years behind nations that had inadvertently made civilisation inaccessible to those who wouldn’t follow. That is until, Ravish Kumar, who has been awarded this year’s Ramon Magsaysay award, stepped into an Indian newsroom and turned his Bihari roots, into his greatest, natural strength.
Ravish Kumar’s journalism, his commitment to substance rather than sensation is hardly arguable, but given the times, his tenacious questioning of power makes him liable to abuse, if not criticism, whatever is easier to spread and circulate. But even his staunchest critics, people who disagree with his journalism must consider the aural revolution Kumar’s diction, his dispassionate, musical reading of the news has brought to India’s newsroom. Kumar doesn’t just read his lines, he tunes them, often with the off-handed intonation of a street-side conversation. His investment has refused to become the casualty of the Indian newsroom’s redecoration of language. Kumar exists beyond the TV screen, but speaks as if seated on the couch next to you, rarely talking down to your wisdom. Often, for example, he begins his show by requesting people to watch less TV news, given its decadent state. At other times he tries to go deeper, make sense of the world rather than just tell you what happens in it. All because the man appears unintimidating, suited yet accessible, wise yet vulnerable. Practically, Kumar changed Indian news by refusing to perform for it, by declining to withdraw from his image, his roots, his Bihari tongue and identity.
Kumar’s ascent, though lone on television news, hasn’t been an isolated phenomenon in the wider scheme of things. Pankaj Tripathi, another man from Bihar, an equally erudite yet humble presence on screen, has risen in Indian cinema particularly through his equanimity, a quality he replicates in the characters he plays. Both Kumar and Tripathi are as enjoyable to listen to off-screen as they are on-screen. Largely, because neither seems short-changed by the proprietorship of their personal histories, histories that most would consider baggage. India’s finest journalist and perhaps one of its finest actors have carried their home, their origins within them. Through their impossibly pleasing Everyman countenance they touch more people than anyone else. More than stars or superstars with PR teams behind them. Kumar, most crucially, has become that rare Hindi language anchor who is lauded by India’s English-speaking elites, a group that imprudently assumes big ideas are a product of language rather than the mind.
On November 4, 2016, Kumar orchestrated a socio-cultural coup, radicalising a space known primarily for the banality of format and noise. After his channel was banned for a day for its “irresponsible” broadcast in the aftermath of the Pathankot terror attack by the ruling government, Kumar had a pretend-chat with mime artists, on national primetime television. He bought art, to the otherwise rigid and shallow space of primetime Hindi TV news; a feat most English-speaking, urban viewers would deem fit for upscale mediums rather than the self-effacing, massy medium of Hindi news. Crucially, Kumar stayed himself, ever the average man.
Kumar has been brave enough to critique his own industry and call out its trivialisation of a historically important profession.
In February that year, Kumar ran a primetime show, without any footage, just a monologue and a black screen. “Yeh andhera hi aaj ki TV ki tasveer hai (this darkness is the picture of television today),” he began as he questioned the ethically bottomless pit of television journalism, the madness of directionless primetime debates and the modus operandi of nonsensically loud anchors. Kumar has been brave enough to critique his own industry and call out its trivialisation of a historically important profession. Through the commotion of worthless, depthless newsmaking, Kumar has kept his calm and devoted himself to voicing reason, over everything else.
His interview with the comedian Kunal Kamra in September 2018 is indicative of how the man sees himself. “Hum Noam Chomsky thori na hai jo ideology btaenge (I’m not Noam Chomsky that I will tell you about my ideology),” he says, when asked about his political ideology is. Kumar knows, ideology is moot in the face of survival. And that is pretty much all he fights, speaks, and raises his voice for. His contribution to journalism or at least what remains of it in Indian television news is important. His upgrade in the mannerism of India’s anchors perhaps even more. Kumar, speaks in a language that most want to abandon, about things that most need to pay attention to. His focus on the plight of Indian education has almost been a lone quest, seldom supported by his peers.
Kumar has proved that method is not the message. There is more to class than the hubris of big-name schools and deep-pocketed backgrounds. There is at its core, he tries to remind us every day, reason; the ability to think, rationalise and question.
That Kumar has been awarded for “harnessing journalism to give voice to the voiceless” is an endorsement of his spine. That he has normalised and modernised a language, a certain diction that was previously derided should surely become his eventual legacy. Never again will I make the mistake of thinking of Bihar and considering it the birthplace of hunger, poverty and rough edges alone. Never again will I tell myself that Bihar can only offer need and greed. In Ravish Kumar, Bihar has given us the sincerest image of India, unpretentious, unapologetic; 100 per cent desi, 100 per cent refined, and 100 per cent worth everyone’s while.
Manik Sharma writes on Arts and Culture.
He tweets at @Manik1Sharma