Back to the future:Reminiscences about Nepal Television in the 90s

Features Issue 174 May, 2016
Text by Bijaya Adhikari

Television is under threat with the popularity of the internet and social media ever on the rise; but how were the beginnings? 

It is just like every other happy-go-lucky summer evening. I, a 5-year-old boy, am seated on the edge of our living room’s window sill—neck stretched out towards the roof, while hanging on to the frame of the window. One of my eyes is glued to the 32 inch Sony inside the room, and the other to the aluminum rods serving as television antenna above. 

The white noise on the Sony flickers and a hint of red color can be seen. I collect all the strength I can into my lungs, and shout at the top of my voice, “It’s here, it’s here”. But by the time my voice reaches to the roof, the red vanishes and the static of the white noise resumes. I shout again, “It’s gone!” There is an evident gloom in my voice. 

The Sony suddenly jumps to life, and the familiar face of newsreader Pravin Giri with his deep baritone voice echoes through the room. I don’t take another chance to take a pause, and admire the visual. I shout, “Leave it. Leave it! It’s here”. 

A warm 1989 summer evening thus becomes an eventful one. The antenna on the roof has been adjusted; we will have to go over that same routine tomorrow. But, for now, we get to enjoy a good few hours immersing ourselves in the only channel that we could enjoy–Nepal Television!

A babe called Nepal Television

Nepal Television first began televising its shows in 1984, marking then King Birendra’s birthday. Durga Nath Sharma, one of the frontrunners to bring Nepal Television channel to life, remembers, “If it was not for the king, television in Nepal would still have had to wait for another decade or so. He put this idea in front of National Panchayat, saying that television would be an effective medium to bring awareness among people, to give them percepts. From that very day, Nir Shah had started working to bring Nepal Television to the masses.”

Sharma remembers, “It was during 1984 when the king was visiting Australia, and we were all geared up to go there and make a program out of it. I was roped in from Gorkhapatra, and had little or no clue of how television programs were even supposed to be made. Our cinematographer, Shyam Chitrakar, was actually oblivious to what he was supposed to do with the new technology camera that he got hold of in Australia.      

“We visited Australian Broadcast Company and edited a half-hour-long program called ‘Glimpses of Australia’, and edited another half-hour-long program of the king’s visit. That hour-long program was sent back to Nepal. It took some days for us to receive the news that the program we drafted in Australia had received ovation all around. There, sitting in a pub in Canberra, we took a long sigh of relief, and said, ‘Now we make Nepal Television’.”

Nepal Television initially broadcast only an hour-long program, from 6 to 7 p.m., which consisted mostly on news. Sharma says matter-of-factly, “Who was there with us that time? People would come to us and quizzically ask whether we would ever be able to bring a new source of information that people believed would replace radio altogether! I was program producer, director, editor, reporter, and even the presenter at that time. A handful of people working in a small room: that was all Nepal Television was.”

A couple from the Netherlands, representatives of World View International Foundation, trained the employees of Nepal Television for two months, and hence a few innovations could be ventured upon. Gradually, Nepal Television became a member of Asian Broadcasting Union, and then member of European Union Broadcasting. Trainings came much later, and even further down the line came shows. It was not until 1990 that the first Nepali soap opera, Laya Sangraula’s “Prithivi Narayan Shah”, could be televised.

Adding spice to the curry

While Nir Shah, Durga Nath Sharma, Shyam Chitrakar, and the others were making the ends of day and night meet, a counterpart from German Embassy provided Sharma with a cassette. The German television program showcased news that would otherwise be discarded as trivial. “But it was ‘information’, and the way they presented it—it was just to fantastic,” says Sharma, as he comes to the point where he reminisces the conception of one of the most loved television programs in Nepali television’s history: Bishwa Ghatana.

“I contacted sources from the American, Japanese, and British embassies. They were ready to provide me with any footage that I required. You see, in an age where there was no internet, no international broadcasting, and no network television, coming up with this sort of conglomerate program proved to be not just worth it, but highly influential too,” he says.

Sharma remembers a particular incident about the program that he fathered and ran for 12 years, “I was once in a taxi. The driver said that he would rush home at 8:30 p.m. and sit in front of the television for the 9 p.m. show of Bishwa Ghatana. It was then I realized that I was able to bring not just meal onto the viewers’ platter, but add spice to the curry: just too delicious for people to not go for it.”

Laughter riot      

Watching television in the 90s: whether I write its history, or any other viewer, or a stenographer, or even a historian—they will not, and cannot miss out comedy. Comedy shows have become an essential ingredient to Nepali television, whether it be Nepal Television itself, or any other private channel that have walked the footsteps set.

The MaHa duo, comprising of Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bamsha Acharya, both theatre artists before the inception of Nepal Television, paved the way for comedy. While some of their popular television shows like “Pandhra Gathey”, “Bhakundey Bhoot”, “Chiranjivi”, “Dashain”, “Banpaley”, and others brought essential comic themes to Nepal Television, their shows were heavily lined with the undertones of social, political, civic, cultural, and humanitarian messages. Hari Bansha Acharya maintains, “We are entertainers. Our first motif is to provide people with a happy thought by the end of the show. But if we can deliver a social message through the lines we speak and the stories we tell, then why not?”

The MaHa duo’s “Raat”, “Kantipur”, “Sur Besur”, “Ashal Logne”, and many other shows that followed, hence were heavy on social dogmatic constructs, which were not ventured by other contemporary artists.

Artists like Harihar Sharma, whose influencing show “Janai Ko Saancho”, and another comedy show “Chaturey Ko Daupech”, adapted from a French play with Khem Sharma in the lead role, diversified the prospects of comedy in Nepal Television. 

But the main highlight in the latter half of the 90s was definitely Santosh Panta. With his show “Narisaunuhos Hai”, Panta brought in an entirely new genre: the situational comedy. When his even more popular show “Hijo Aja Ka Kura” began broadcasting, Nepali audience got their first taste of sitcom.

“Hijo Aja Ka Kura” introduced a pattern that was generally not in practice back then. It introduced an issue that was purely contemporary, sometimes even political, and sometimes controversial as well. Panta’s format brought regular housewives, doing their regular chores, and regular husbands and family members going about their Sisyphus life, but encountering uncommon subject matters every other week. This genre, the sitcom, sat so well with the audience that, “Hijo Aja Ka Kura” became one of the leading ‘non-seasonal’ shows of all time. 

Panta’s “Hijo Aja Ka Kura” became the pioneer of its genre and sustained Nepal Televison among its viewers, and then spawning another show “Tito Satya” by Deepak Raj Giri and Deepa Shree Niroula. After “Tito Satya”, shows like “Jeerey Khursani”, “Bhadragol”, “Titey Kareli”, “Dithha Saab” have headlined Nepali television and are still the reigning shows in television channels from Nepal.

Love from Pakistan

Doordarshan, the government-owned channel from India, with its signal frolicking all across South Asian region would occasionally be picked by televisions in Nepal. The mountains towards our north helped boost these signals, and hence our 90s were highlighted by BR Chopra Productions’ “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” epics. While there were other television programs that headlined a good part of the 90s, Indian television did not get dynamically diversified until Zee TV channel started its satellite signal.

“That was not the same case with television programs from Pakistan”, says Durga Nath Sharma. “We got a chance to witness a televised show from Pakistan, and the acting prowess seen from Pakistan gave me a good kick! Love wasn’t spoken out, it was expressed with eyes. Pain could be seen in the face. Emotions were running everywhere.”

A good part of Nepal Television in the 90s hence gave an opportunity for Pakistani television serials to make their market in Nepal. “Tanhayiaan” was one such show that made quite an impression amongst Nepali viewers. Sharma says, “It was bought at USD 5 per minute. Transaction of such sum during that time should be considered steep, but it was all worth it.”

A proud ancestry

Nepal’s television today has not changed much from the 90s. There has been much fuss and speculation to how television has become redundant after the advent of social media sharing, and introduction of hundreds of international channels. To an insurmountable degree, the fusses have been proven right, and the speculations have created threat to program producers of a handful of television channels today, but just like newspaper, radio, posters, and other traditional media, television will not die out easy.

Nepal Television has served not just as a mentor to Nepali channels today, but boasts of this proud ancestry that has given more meaning than meets the eye. With more number of people attracted towards international ‘season’ format of television shows, reality TV, game shows, and talent hunt programs, Nepali channels can surely answer back. It’s now time to go back to that future, which Nepal Television illustrated during the 90s, and maybe learn something out of it to create something substantial, qualitative, appreciative, and creative for the future?

Why not?