As the curtain comes down on Anton Chekov’s play ‘The Cherry Orchard’, a distant, painful sound can be heard, as if from the sky, of a string breaking. I felt it this morning when I heard that Barun Haldar, the legendary voice of All India Radio (AIR), is no more.
Smarting from a WhatsApp faux pas last month that Barunda, as we fondly called him, had passed away in Dehra Dun, I frantically searched the web and stumbled on this bland headline on the official website of News Services Division of All India Radio. ‘AIR’s former newsreader Barun Haldar passes away’, it said.
Was he just a ‘former newsreader’ who retired as Chief News Reader? Never. “This is All India Radio, the news, read by Barun Haldar,” was not just a statement. A perfectionist to the core, his baritone voice and impeccable pronunciation made news stories come alive as visuals in the listeners’ mind.
It was not just about pronunciation, either. Even when you rushed to him with the latest piece of news pinned on to a cardboard, he would give a quizzical look, take his pen, underline the news item for the correct pauses, check for grammar and spelling, all in one go. If any foreign dignitary’s name was to go on air, he would personally ring up the embassy or consulate concerned and get the right pronunciation. He religiously maintained a pigeonhole in the newsroom where the correct pronunciations of words were alphabetically arranged.
There are avid radio listeners who took up to broadcasting, influenced by Barunda’s inimitable style. “Barun Haldar was an icon for both me and my father. We used to be enthralled by his baritone voice on AIR’s 9 p.m. bulletin during the late ’70s and ’80s,” says Pradip K Bagchi, Senior Editor, Times of India, who used to be a part-time newscaster in AIR during Barunda’s time. “It was a dream come true for me to work with my childhood icon when I joined AIR’s panel of newscasters in 1996. My father was perhaps happier. Barunda was always full of wit and humour. For any lack of modulation, he used to say ‘you are not there’. Every interaction was a learning.”
Barunda never ‘read’ news. His voice modulation, to say the least, was exemplary. “One day, I insisted to be with him in the broadcast room to see the genius at work. The emotion that he brought into the bulletin, sometimes even with gestures to get the right tone, was amazing. It was a lifetime experience for me,” recalls Bagchi.
He was an outstanding broadcaster and a wonderful personality. I starkly remember an incident in which his gentlemanly nature saved the day for the newsroom. I was the Editor-in-Charge in the General News Room of AIR in the graveyard shift in the height of winter. One of the guards came running in and asked me to rush back to the gate with him. It was the foulest time of the night and the sight was scary. A young woman newsreader (name withheld) stood surrounded by armed paramilitary forces, all wielding AK 47 rifles. It seems she had come in without a gate pass, and to make matters worse, insulted the paramilitary personnel when asked for it. Those were the days when there was no mobile phone. I just dashed to the nearest duty room and dialled Barunda. He asked me to stay put at the scene so that things don’t get out of hand. Within half-an-hour or so, he came to the spot, in a winter jacket, riding his bicycle! Mustering up whatever words he could in a northeast dialect, he defused the situation, banged me on the back and went back smiling.
A tall man, easily a six-footer, he had an excellent constitution and was always full of energy. He never put on airs being the ‘Chief News Reader’ and was always easily accessible even to a fresh newscaster. When Raja Rao of ‘The Serpent and the Rope’ died in 2006 I was the Editor-in-Charge in the morning shift. I was at a loss as I didn’t know who to contact to get a soundbite on Rao for the morning bulletin. When I spoke to Barunda about my predicament, he told me to contact Khushwant Singh as both of them were the first ‘Talks Officers’ of AIR’s Current Affairs programming unit.
'A great colleague to work with'
Vijay Daniels, Barun Haldar’s former colleague, and a freelance journalist/filmmaker based in Darwin, Australia, remembers: Barun was a great colleague to work with over a span of two decades. As old Calcuttans we had many memories of the city we grew up in. Often after a shift we would reminisce of the good old days over a cup of Telu Ram’s chai. As news broadcasters we believed firmly in certain unwritten principles - punctuality and good rehearsals before going on air. We were very territorial about our space when rehearsing our script before the 9 pm news to the extent that one would have considered us unfriendly and rude. Often during a shift we would sit in the monitoring unit NSD and listen to a BBC news broadcast and enjoy the nuances of the spoken word. Both of us admired DeMellow and considered him a doyen of broadcasting. On a different note my wife recalls even until today that Barun used to ring once a week and enquire after the family and me while I was away for four months in London on a BBC training programme. I will always have fond memories of Barun as a colleague and friend.
Born on June 23, 1935, Barunda did his high school in Darjeeling and university education in Kolkata. His daughter Tania Haldar’s Facebook post says that theatre was an integral part of his growing up and shows pictures of Barunda playing the role of Julius Caesar in the Shakespearean play. He joined AIR Calcutta as an announcer in the western music section in 1960 and later on joined All India Radio (News Service Division) as a newsreader in Delhi. He retired from service on June 22, 1998. He breathed his last in Kolkata early on July 4, 2019, at the age of 85. He is survived by his wife and two daughters.
“Barunda was a household name, with his deep and familiar voice delivering the news on the radio over a large part of the ’80s and ’90s. Synonymous with high standards of professionalism, dedication and passion for his work, he trained an entire generation of English newscasters, to meet not just the high parameters of work ethics, but also loyalty to the organization,” says Valsa Williams, a newscaster of AIR, who was fortunate to work with him.
“A thorough and polished gentleman, he is fondly remembered by friends, colleagues and those he trained, for both his professional competence, as well as being amicable, approachable, down-to-earth and ever ready to help or stand up for all who worked with him. Barun Haldar’s passing away signifies the end of an era… and a personal loss, for me. Barunda, you are cherished and deeply missed,” Valsa signs off. “Barunda has been one of the greatest influencers in my life. May his noble soul rest in peace, always!” wishes Bagchi.
Let’s go back to the last scene of ‘Cherry Orchard’. The sound of axe falling on the trees. A big tree falls down. What follows is silence.
The author is a Delhi-based senior journalist who earlier worked in AIR