One of the earliest personalities in Malayalam television, Maya Sreekumar talks about reading the news through the decades and different technologies.

A television screen in which Maya Sreekumar in white Kerala Sari and reed blouse reads the news on the right is Doordarshan icon and in the back a grey curtainMaya Sreekumar in Doordarshan in the 1980s
Features Interview Friday, April 16, 2021 - 14:56

It happened suddenly, without warning – a coughing spell that wouldn’t stop. Maya Sreekumar was on air, live, in Singapore, reading the evening news bulletin for Asianet. At the end of the dreaded coughing spell, her voice just disappeared, she couldn’t get a word out. It was thankfully the late 1990s and the technicians could cover up the screen with other visuals. During the break, Pramod Raman took over the news reading and Maya was free. It was only a sore throat but it scared the lives out of her family back home in Kerala. Mobile phones were not so common and it was not easy to reach a relative abroad.

“It all turned out fine in the end,” says Maya, more than two decades later, calmly, pleasantly.

Maya is easily one of those who sees a glass half full than empty. Through her 33-year-old career in Malayalam television, she seems to have picked up memories of only the good days and left the rest behind. Even the rare bad days come out looking good in Maya’s telling.

“It was January 1985 when I got the job as a casual reader. I hadn’t even seen a television, I didn’t have any role models to follow. I read the news like they told me to, I didn’t know what the consequences would be,” she says of her first days in Doordarshan.

It was when the criticism came, both from within the organisation and outside, that she realised what she was doing wrong. “If the voice modulation was wrong, we’d get firing from inside (the office). There’d also be weekly reviews of the bulletins by critics in newspapers. Everything from your pronunciation to your clothes was critiqued!” Maya says.

Once one of the newsreaders was wearing a colourful sari and had to read the news of a prominent leader’s death. The weekly review criticised the insensitive dressing of the reader while announcing a tragedy.

“That was another lesson. From then, we’d carry a sari as back-up in case we needed to change,” Maya says. It was all simple clothes and accessories back then. Even then they were not free of scrutiny.

Within the organisation too, there were weekly reviews when the bulletin would be shown to readers in the presence of the Doordarshan director, editors and the rest of the staff. “That’s when we saw how it is played and how it sounded. The seniors would point out mistakes, and this proved to be good because we’d never repeat it,” says the ever-positive Maya.

The readers were trained not to betray any emotion on their faces – whatever the news they read. Maya remembers the shock she had when she read out the news of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s death in 1991. But she followed the rules and remained impassive while her heart skipped a beat.

Eleven years after joining Doordarshan Maya came to work in Asianet, as a staff member. Founder Sasikumar Menon had different rules for news reading. “That’s when I experienced a lot of freedom in my job. Earlier, it was so strict that you’d pray hard every time before reading the news that you’d not make a mistake. In Asianet, Sasikumar sir said news-reading should be casual like a conversation, he told us to talk freely and unlearn what I had known so far. There was also freedom in choosing your clothes, accessories, etc.”

It was still saris but Maya found it easier to work without a hundred rules in her head. Only catch was that she had to move to Singapore. The Union government had not allowed uplinking for private channels yet and Asianet’s studio was then in Singapore.

Maya had until then never stepped out of Kerala. Growing up in Thrissur’s Chelakkara, she moved to Thiruvananthapuram after getting married to Sreekumar, a bank official. She hadn’t even thought of a career back then, even as she excelled in academics and extracurricular activities. She was active in dance, drama and sports. She was part of her school and college volleyball team, playing at the University level. She was a rank-holder for her Bachelor’s Degree and then did her Masters in Sociology. “All I thought then and think now is that I should give my best in whatever I’m doing at the moment. Back then it was studies, then it was work, family, and now it is retired life,” she says joyfully.

Maya can’t thank Sreekumar enough for taking a year’s leave from the bank to go with her to Singapore back in the mid-1990s. But Maya learnt to be on her own after a few months and began enjoying her stint with Asianet. Two to three years later, she moved back when Asianet could run programmes from the country.

Around 10-11 years later, she moved to Amrita TV when Neelan, who was earlier her editor at Asianet, called her. “Neelan sir once corrected my pronunciation when I kept reading mayakka marunnu (drugs) for mayakku marunnu. He made me write imposition for 100 times. But it ensured that I never made that mistake again,” Maya says with her trademark jubilance.

Mistakes on air have been many, as is part of any newsreader’s life, she says. In her Doordarshan days, she had to prefix all (male) names with Shri and read the prefix and first name separately. Once when she had to read Shriharikotta – the place – she read it as ‘Shri Harikotta’, like Harikotta was a person’s name!

But through all of this, she enjoyed every bulletin she read, Maya says with a certain honesty. Even through all the changes she had to adapt to at every new juncture. In Amrita TV, where filmmaker Shyamaprasad was part of the management, women anchors could wear kurtas or pants and tops, with each bulletin having a dress code. Maya found that she could be very adaptive and comfortable in the new attires.

She also took to changing technologies easily. In the 80s and early 90s, newsreaders read from papers pinned on a cardboard and changed cardboards manually, one after another. So they looked down to the cardboards frequently and then up at the screen. When the teleprompter finally came – two years after Maya joined Asianet – it was first controlled manually, which made it difficult to take down any sudden instructions from the desk. Then it became leg-controlled and easier. Later came the laptops.

Now there are remote controls, she says, admiring the new technology. But Maya being Maya, she does not miss that part of her life which she is now done with. “People ask me if I’m bored and how I pass my time. There is a lot to do in your home and am quite happy attending to it all. My daughter and family live on another floor of the same apartment complex as us. Dhanya and Suresh (son-in-law) are both doctors and my grandchild Diya is in Class 9, a Kalathilakam who excels in dance and drama.” Much like her grandmother once did.

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