Lekin. It was a simple Hindi word that came up in Jasdev Singh’s hockey commentary often. But the word ‘but’ — lekin’s equivalent in English — just couldn’t carry the same sense of breathless dismay, drama and denouement that Jasdev’s ‘lekin’ did when talking of a missed goal. It made the Indians collectively sighed, like they collectively cheered when the Voice of Hockey built up a crescendo of the 1975 World Cup: “Ashok Kumar wahi taiyyar khade hai… ab gend ko roka Ajitpal ne… Aslam ne phir hit karni chahi…bounce hoke gayi phirse Ashok ke paas…Philip ja rahe hai goal ke paas… aur pass karke… Ashok ki gend goal mein.”
It wasn’t exactly the frenzy of the South American football commentator, but it could span the delirium and the disappointment of the goals and misses perfectly. Nothing though could match the ‘Lekin’, about the legendary broadcaster who passed away after prolonged illness on Tuesday. He was 87 and is survived by his son and daughter.
“We all tried to copy that ‘lekin’,” recalls DD sports commentator Milind Wagle, “but nobody could say that word like Jasdev Singh.” A career in voicing history as it unfolded on a sporting field, that started in 1968, finished with an illustrious haul of 9 Olympics, 6 Asian Games and 8 Hockey worlds – ranging from radio to colour television. Jasdev also brought into living rooms the mild lump in throat moments of the Republic Day parade without getting overtly jingoistic, though he was at hand to convey the sentiment of a united nation in the aftermath of the 1962 China war at the subsequent parade.
“People had chuckled that calling matches in Hindi in games like hockey and cricket would be weird and Jasdev was told this many times,” recalls another known voice Sushil Doshi. “Skeptics wondered how he would convey dribble kiya and pass kiya and 22 yards. But he understood very well that hockey played by men coming from villages and sons of farmers needed to reach their families. Kisaan aur gharelu mahilaayein – un tak khel pahunchaya Jasdev ne,” Doshi reiterates. The fellow Hindi commentator says all from his ilk are indebted to the joyous voice from Jaipur to give them the confidence to talk sport in Hindi.
Inspired by Melwyl D’Mello’s narration of Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral which he heard alongside his mother, Jasdev had made up his mind to become a broadcaster. “He used simple words – nothing roundabout, but was authentic, and spoke from the heart and to the heart,” Doshi says, adding that he laid special emphasis on perfect Hindi, quoting philosophers who stressed that the loss of grammar was the first step towards destruction of a nation.
Jasdev’s voice carried the lilt of jingling bangles, Doshi says, and as India started ceding dominance to Pakistan in late 70s and early 80s, his modulating voice and precise choice of words would soften the blow, as he would offer the cushioning ready excuse for listeners and viewers, post a loss. He remained the presiding voice of the 1982 Asian Games and 1987 World Cup.
Hockey legend Balbir Singh though recalls Jasdev’s voice in the golden years – especially the 19 December, 1966 Asiad final against Pakistan from Bangkok, and how he had returned to hear of the description of the move initiated by him. “There were 4 of us from my village in that team. And the speed of his calling was so fast that everyone in India could visualise what was happening. But most of all we were all very proud that though he was a Khalsa Sardar, his Hindi was so completely free of any accent. He was a pleasure to hear,” he recalls.
Narottam Puri who called matches with Jasdev – who had also been his father’s co-commentator – pins it down to three aspects – Jasdev’s cultured voice, his command over Hindi and knowledge of the medium. “There was clarity in his voice, and he was so fluent in Hindi that he didn’t need a takiakalaam (pet phrase) to stand out. Unlike today’s generation that keeps using the word ‘like’, Jasdev’s commentary would flow smoothly,” Puri says. “Not many could carry off the poignancy of a funeral of a state head or the grandeur of a Republic day parade like him,” he says of the consummate broadcaster, who was also around when India won its first Test in West Indies.
While Ajitpal Singh recalls how Jasdev knew the nuances about every hockey player, Balbir remembers sitting in the stadium once and listening to him on radio. “When we would return from competitions, people would tell us how it felt like watching the match when they heard his vivid commentary,” former star Govinda adds.
While Doshi insists that Jasdev’s was the most original style, his achievement was to always ‘stay with the ball’ and retain his dulcet voice. Though the story goes that at the German embassy he was once asked to open his mouth wide, as they joked that there was “no motor inside”. “Unme chup rehne ki kala thi. His pauses built drama,” Doshi adds, stressing that the mix of Urdu and Hindi which he mastered living in Jaipur greatly contributed to his charm.
He always landed an hour and half before the start of the game, and would have diligently done his background homework before every match – a habit that juniors at DD caught on.
Perhaps lesser known is his calling of athletics at the Games. “100m is not easy to cover. And in those days there was no action replay. He would take off at the right juncture and 9 times out of 10 would call the winner right even when races were close which they almost always were,” recalls Wagle, who found a mentor and a mine of words in Jasdev.
The ‘lekin’ would often bring down the crescendo of expectations as the hockey move fizzled out. On Tuesday the final whistle rang out. Like Jasdev Singh would’ve inimitably said: “Yeh hooter iss baat ka sanket ki 70 minutes samapat ho gaye hain aur Bharat is match ko …”