The Knight who walked Punjabi television industry from quotidian to quixotic

Punjabi cultural landscape’s off-radar low-profile giant: Rabindra Narayan

At a time when the Republic of India — with its 1.5 billion people speaking in 780 languages and writing in 86 different scripts — is exploding along some intractable and frightful linguistic faultlines, the language, songs, dance, food and the entire cornucopia of culture from one tiny state and its rather miniscule minority are holding their own – proudly, unabashedly and without any fear of being swamped.

If Punjabi entertainment, culture, movies, theatre, songs, cuisine are not only ruling the vast public mind-space across the northern cow belt but even prying open the hitherto closed Dravidian territories currently blistering with an anti-Hindi resistance politics, one man can legitimately claim the lion’s share of the credit.

And strangely, to many Punjabis, his name doesn’t even sound like a Punjabi one: Rabindra Narayan. “I got Punjabiyat in my dowry!” he often jokes. With an array of television channels catering to diverse demographics, tastes, needs and niche consumers, his house of PTC branded channels today claims an impressive 80% share in the Punjabi mass media market. Besides, he sits over a vault full of diverse programming and helms a pool of talent bursting at the seams. But to gauge his real impact on the cultural landscape, cold media market statistics, no matter how impressive, would be of little help. Getting the measure of a man has always been a matter of some exercise in discernment, particularly when it comes to impacting mass culture.

While the field of Indian media studies woke up too late to realise the extent of the burgeoning 1990s expansion in print journalism, jolted out of its complacency by Robin Jeffrey’s ‘India’s Newspaper Revolution’ (1999), Rabindra Narayan was quick on the take in that decade itself.

The world was changing. The end of cold war, coupled with an India decisively ushered into an era of liberalisation and globalisation, presented new possibilities. It was the era of ideas and entrepreneurship. As info-tech advances opened new pastures and India took its first gingerly steps into the pleasures of cable television, Narayan saw what the future could mean.

The country was already on the cusp of change, and the 50-year-celebrations of Independence were a momentous marker of that turn. This was the moment in time when Narayan tasted what a concoction of technology, media and culture could do to the masses’ palette. He conceived and executed a son et lumière “Azadi De Taraaney,” a Punjabi multi-media stage show that couldn’t have found a more monumental setting for its premiere, the Red Fort.

Looking back, it seems like a proclamation made from the ramparts of an old India that the world should be prepared to deal with a new Punjab — one that was going to be proud of its culture, will showcase its talent, will no more harbour an inferiority complex about its vernacular and has a million gifts to share with not just fellow Indians but the comity of discerning audiences around the globe.

Hindi or English knowing viewers had already started feasting upon Star Plus, Star News and many other media outlets but Punjabi viewers were still condemned to the staid Doordarshan that insisted on placid programming. It was in this milieu that Narayan became a saviour with first-ever Punjabi satellite TV channel, Punjabi World, and then ETC Punjabi.

Narayan had come equipped to the field; he had studied English literature at the Delhi University, acquired domain know-how in journalism and mass communication, had not just been a theatre buff but had actually straddled the stage in umpteen dramas, was a core team member of the Delhi-based Collegiate Drama Society, and had also dabbled in direction. Besides, he had a rather peculiar obsession: he would always want to know everything about every department in a complex production venture. Back then, it meant you knew the job of the light man, had an opinion about the costumes, wanted to tweak the camera angles and could climb that ladder to fix the overhead light. That’s the kind of Masters in Business and Administration that they don’t even teach at Harvard!

To the entrepreneur in this soft-spoken man, whose eyes and mind are forever darting to catch the whiff of a new idea, one thing was clear: Punjabi satellite television now needed a primal force that could provide that decisive push. He served as business head of ETC Punjabi, Zee Punjabi and Alpha ETC Punjabi but then decided to become that primal force himself. This was a decision that was destined to shape his life, and the cultural life of the media-consuming Punjabis.

In the late aughts was born the idea of PTC. And no one else could have been trusted to be a midwife to nurture it into a force of nature. The channel took the Punjabi media landscape with a storm and soon negotiated its reach into varied domains. Narayan, if not religious, was either spiritual or simply gifted to sense even before Mira Nanda that there was a god market. Thanks to his perceptive understanding of the Sikh and Punjabi ethos, he knew that Gurbani was the fountainhead from which the spirit of Punjabiyat drew its essential kernel of life. After all, among the demands that marked the more than a decade long insurgency in Punjab was one for transmission of Gurbani from Sri Darbar Sahib, Amritsar.

It was an almost quixotic dream since it needed massive capital injection, could only be a public service, and the transmission couldn’t accommodate any advertisement. Clearly, it wasn’t a very wise business decision. But Rabindra Narayan knew how all things in life do not mean business. One has to be a bit of Cerventes’ Man of la Manchato aim for the impossible even when equipped most inadequately in terms of resources.

“This was the word of God. Gurbani is at the heart of not just Sikhism, but also Punjabiyat, and the dream signified our message of universal welfare, the spirit of Punjab. There was no way I could have factored in the profits and losses. This was beyond the balance sheets,” Narayan now recalls.

The holy word of the Gurus was now available to the community and the world at large at no cost. Sometimes Narayan wonders if that is why the gods smiled upon his enterprise.

The secret to his success perhaps is the fact that the man who thought nothing of mopping the stage floor in theatre or running galley sheets by hand when working in a newspaper, knew the nuts and bolts of the industry by now. If he could fix a light, he could also write the ad copy or the promo line of a major production, and an hour later, could sit with the financiers to convince them to put in their money in his idea.

Now, with its seven flagship channels, the PTC Network is the largest Punjabi television network on the planet. PTC News has not only carved a space with its sharp news coverage and informed debates, but has also spawned some healthy competition, enriching a once staid field. PTC Punjabi is now the measure of an artist. PTC Dhol TV now streams 24×7 on Mark Zuckerberg’s playground. PTC Music is the stuff they groove to, from the bylanes of Malwa to the Bandra Bandstands of Bollywood and Canada’s British Columbia to Toronto. Punjabi cinema and PTC Gold have come of age hand in hand. The Chak De spirit in Narayan couldn’t do without a PTC Chak De, but then you could have bet that he would lose all the money in the world but would want PTC Simran to thrive.

Rabindra Narayan is married into a family that was itself married into the best of Punjabi culture. Theatre veterans of Delhi knew his late father-in-law, Dr CharanDass Sidhu, as the stocky, dark, bespectacled professor of English from Hans Raj College, Delhi University, who was an avid theatre connoisseur brought up on Bard and Bernard Shaw. Dass, with a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin and writer of celebrated plays like “Bhajno” and “Baba Bantu,” among many others, is often cited as an example of men of letters who received far less than their due, his SahityaAkademi Award notwithstanding.

“Sometimes I think Rabindra Narayan has picked up this trait from his father-in-law, with whom he has done many a play. While Dr CharanDass Sidhu remains unsung among the masses despite his momentous achievements, calibre and aesthetics that rejected the double entendre vaudevillian stage acts of his times, Rabindra Narayan has mastered the art of remained below the radar despite his lifetime impact on popular Punjabi culture,” said Gurbhajan Gill, Punjab’s leading poet and raconteur par excellence of the regional literary world. Now you understand how Punjabiyat made up for his dowry!

Awards have regularly punctuated Narayan’s career’s graph, be it the ‘Delhi State Punjabi Media Award’ or the Jewel of Punjab Honour bestowed by ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or the title of Asia One India’s Greatest Leaders 2019-20. He does find time to feature in Forbes India Marquee (2021) or for an occasional TEDx talk, but it is the world of mass media that consumes him 24×7. He is excited at having broken new ground with a daily Live 360 degree Virtual Reality telecast or is busy checking if all PTC’s ground events have a VR telecast. He wants the devout to be able to watch the live telecast of Gurbani from Sri Darbar Sahib through VR Gear, thus giving a being-there-experience-that feel via the PTC Play app or Jio TV. He is proud that the PTC Network now also owns a Record label, a Movie production and a distribution company and produces an original one-hour feature film every week, and can talk you nine to a dozen about his expansion plans deeper into the United States, the UK, Australia, Europe, New Zealand, and Canada where PTC already commands massive following.

“Why is Punjabi television still not up there on the cerebral scale?” Well, that’s a legitimate question coming from those with felicity in English or Hindi, brought up on The West Wing or Grey’s Anatomy and a taste for the likes of Aaron Sorkin or Shonda Rhimes or Werner Herzog or Ron Howard, but then, thanks to Rabindra Narayan’s cross-cultural understanding of people, markets and industry, he also knows the hard work that goes in travelling the distance from Othello to Omkara, Hamlet to Haider or Macbeth to Maqbool. He is prepared, and is Don Quixotic enough, to trudge that distance and nurture an audience that should be hungry for more evolved content. Several awards for PTC Play’s explosive political web-series, CHAUSAR are a testimony to this.

“Wait for our upcoming film venture: Baghi Di Dhee. Based on the story written by a former Akal Takht jathedar, a former chief minister and a former Congress leader and Parliamentarian, it talks of a Punjab whose soul was undivided. It was a Punjab where Marxist leftists met religious rightists with open arms, dreaming the big dream of a Punjab that could rightfully belong in the comity of the world cultures. The PTC Network is marching on, and we’ll reach there,” he says.

But talk to him about awards and his eyes start darting, trying to catch a new idea, the whiff of a new venture. Forever an observer of theatre featuring human beings, he knows time is limited and the burden of keeping the Punjabi culture flag flying too great; that’s why his eyes do not stop darting. In the old Doordarshan times, they would have said: This is the PTC Network. What’s next? That’s exactly what Rabindra Narayan, RN to his friends, still says: What’s Next?

(*The author, an Assistant Professor at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Symbiosis International University, Pune, Maharashtra, is a Masters in English Literature and a doctorate in New Media. She was born and brought up in Punjab and is well versed with the world of Punjabi literature and vernacular media.)

Also Read: IWMBuzz