Growing up in India as a kid, the television was reserved mostly for Saturday evening or Sunday morning entertainment. Those were the glory days of Doordarshan, the state-run TV station that had one (and later, two) channels during the height of socialist repression. That was it. One channel, with a couple of soap operas, a Kannada movie on Saturday, cartoons on Sunday morning, and a Hindi movie on Sunday. By the time cable TV made its appearance and started becoming popular (with Star TV, and some 10 other channels), I was practically through high-school.
Anyway, that’s digressing from the point.
In spite of being the sole channel on television, there surprisingly were a reasonable number of rather decent shows. And in one area, the state-run channel did rather well. They took their role as “educators of the nation” rather seriously, and so there were some very good science shows that we ended up watching.
As a kid, the first science show I watched (on the much-abused Doordarshan) was the wonderfully evocative Cosmos. I remember Carl Sagan’s voice, though at that time I had no idea who Sagan was, and probably didn’t even fully comprehend the series. The shoddy state run TV station continued to surprise, broadcasting a number of films from The National Geographic’s enviable collections. On Saturday mornings (I think), a series of films called Expeditions to the animal kingdom were aired, and as a kid, I could name and correctly identify more animal, bird, insect, crustacean or fish species than the rest of my family combined. Then there were the movies from Project tiger, the Indian government’s focused (and at the time successful) effort to save the tiger from extinction due to poaching and habitat loss.
On Saturday afternoons, the Universal Grants Commission (UGC) would air dull, amateur, but very informative documentaries on various topics of science and education. And perhaps the finest science show that was ever aired on Doordarshan remains the always enjoyable Turning point. I would wait with eager anticipation every week for Girish Karnad and Prof Yash Pal to show up and host that show, and watched with rapt attention as the great discoveries of science were unveiled and explained. To me, all those years ago, Prof. Yash Pal seemed like the most astounding mind on the planet. He seemed to know everything, and science as a career option almost seemed irresistible.
I mean, imagine being a fountain of knowledge talking science on TV!
It seems like kids today, thanks to a glut of sports, music, cartoons, entertainment, sitcoms, movies and the like, have less time to watch shows like these (that we “had” to watch, since there was nothing else on TV). It’s a pity. But, as I now continue to watch my favorite show on TV, Nova, I often nostalgically remember those old days, and thank Doordarshan for its science shows.