GOING LIVE ON SIVARATHRI
Sai Ram, Dear Reader!
I hope you are aware that this year, the Sivarathri proceedings were telecast live in India for three hours, from 5 PM to 8 PM. The editorial in an earlier issue made a mention of this. It was an amazing experience, considering that none of us have had any experience of this sort thing before. But then, that is the way things happen in Swami’s Mission.
The idea of a live telecast took root some months earlier when an effort was made to webcast, in a limited way that is, the last day of the Dasara proceedings. That is the day when the seven-day Yajna is brought to a grand finale in the Poorna Ahuti function. This webcast was not really done by us but by another group, and we merely provided a camera signal. The webcast was quite limited in scope, and to just the city of Madras/Chennai, where thousands of devotees gathered in the Sai Centre Sundaram saw live what was going on.
Came Birthday, and by now we were in the picture. This time, we taped the function, and later did a webcast in the evening for devotees in Sundaram, Madras, and subsequently to the US where the webcast was seen by many groups there. Of course it was a delayed webcast, but the viewers saw it within hours of the event and at a convenient time too, that is in the evening.
One more practice round of web streaming to the US and this was during Christmas. This too went off well. So much so, when Prof David Gries of Cornell University came here in early January for his annual stint of teaching in Swami’s Institute, we got together and worked out a road map for starting regular streaming service internationally, even as we now have international radio streaming service.
By this time, the Sivarathri fever was mounting, and Mr. Gopal Srinivasan who through his continued munificence has been driving many of our technical developments said: “Listen, you are already telecasting three times a week a TV program called SPIRITUAL BLOSSOMS FROM PRSHANTI NILAYAM on Sanskar TV channel. It is quite popular and eagerly looked forward to by thousands all across the country. Why not go live on SR day? In fact, we must!” One thing led to another and Gopal sought the Divine blessing, which was given. From that moment, there was no turning back.
So what does a live telecast mean
and what arrangements did we have to make? Quite a lot. First and
foremost, we had to line up four cameras to cover the scene. Fortunately,
we now have four good digital cameras and
managed to identify four choice locations that would enable us to have
good video coverage. Next, we had to pipe the signals to a central control
centre, complete with monitors. Seated at the control centre were three
persons, one of whom was the Director. The second person controlled the
video mixing and the third controlled the audio level. This was not
enough. We had to provide a talk-back system so that everyone could
communicate with everyone else. This was a hands-free system, the sort
pilots wear while piloting an aircraft; that is to say, there are
headphones, and a small attached mike. The Control system was established
inside the Mandir, yes, the place where normally we have Bhajans, with
Swami sitting in His chair. On an earlier occasion, to be precise on
Birthday of 2002, we did a live radio broadcast over Radio Sai. On that
day too we had set up our control facilities [much smaller than this time]
inside the Mandir. And you know what? After the morning functions were
over, Swami suddenly came inside the Mandir and He was quite surprised to
see a whole lot chaps who normally are not found there! There was a sort
of quizzical look in His eyes, and He just walked away. We were all
terribly scared! So this time, I took the precaution of telling Swami
several times in advance that we would be working from inside the Mandir.
Not only that, we all had special photo-badges that said in big bold
letters: MANDIR DUTY.
The arrangements did not stop here, and there were a number of other things that had to be done. We had already laid a fibre-optic line from the Mandir to our nerve centre in the IT Centre [we have described the inauguration of the IT Centre in an earlier issue of H2H]. This cable would carry the composite audio-video computer signal to the IT Centre, from where it would go by a leased 2 MBPS line to Bangalore. This line is available to us all the time and used by many here. However, for this function, we blocked all other users at our end.
Bangalore was not our destination but Bombay/Mumbai. Sanskar does its uplink in Bombay, to the THAICOM satellite, which then beams the signal down on the country. So we had to lease a 2 MBPS line from Bangalore to Bombay. Thus, our signal was supposed to go from Prashanti Nilayam first to Bangalore and thence from there to Bombay.
All this sounds very simple and straight forward on paper but in practice, it turned out to be quite tricky. The first thing we realised was that when a service provider says that he is offering a 2 MBPS line, we ought not to take it literally; there is a lot of fine print, and in actual practice the throughput turns out to be much lower. We could not get anything more than 500 KBPS, which meant that the picture quality would take a beating. We discovered this to our horror while doing some preliminary trials. It was just about 10 days or so to D Day, and we had not yet established a firm link to Bombay. By the way, we from Prashanti Digital Studio were doing all the ground work here in Prashantinilayam, while Mr. Ramesh Babu, a senor associate of Mr. Gopal Srinivasan, did all the technical liaison at the uplink station in Bombay. Here I should not forget to mention the excellent logistic support given to Ramesh by devotees in Dharmakshetra – without the Sainet, the internet is nothing!
OK, we were bowled out in the first round on this link from Bangalore to Bombay. How did we come through? This is where the yeoman work done by Ramesh needs special mention. He huddled with the technical experts of the service provider, and arranged what was constantly referred to as a “tunnel” on the communication link. Frankly, I don’t quite know what this tunnel is but believe me, it sure did make us see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel!
The clock was ticking and we were inching towards D Day. While things were generally under control back here, there was still a lot of nail-biting going on regarding the Bangalore-Bombay link.
Tests were being done all the time, and slowly our figure crept up to 1 MBPS and thence on to 1.2MBPS audio signal included. We were streaming video signals all the time from Prashanti Studio to Bombay and found that 1.2 MBPS was the best we could get. It was a take-it-or-leave-it situation. We just grabbed it – no other choice, since the expectations of viewers had been raised sky high. What about picture quality? Not bad; quite good; not the very best but OK.
Three days before D day, at midnight, a 20 minute program on tape was streamed from our Studio and actually telecast! This was a trial. We taped the program as received in TV receiver, and things seemed to be OK. We were now beginning to feel more confident.
D Day minus one, that is, Tuesday, 17th February. On Tuesdays, there is a regular Sanskar telecast of our program at 9 PM. We had already sent the digital tape for this program to Sanskar TV ten days earlier [by courier] but decided to try out a live telecast from our studio. It was done but there were one or two minor glitches. One of these had to do with getting the proper signal from Bombay for us to switch on and come on the air. To be more precise, the countdown procedure we had adopted earlier was forgotten! The glitches were minor but they taught us a lesson for the next day.
Finally, the big day was here! From three days or rather nights before this, our boys and several people here who were helping, were slogging, and believe me it was truly hectic. For not only were we telecasting live but we were also providing video viewing in and around the Sai Kulwant Hall. We had established 120 TV monitors on CCTV network so that everyone in every nook and corner of Sai Kulwant Hall could watch the proceedings comfortably. Besides this, four big screens had been set up to enable people gathered on roads also to watch. All this was done to prevent the crowd surges that were witnessed in earlier years. It was a lot of work but it paid off. One elderly lady whom I met after the event said that thanks to CCTV she was able to sit comfortably in the Poornachandra Hall and witness the proceedings – yes there were 20 monitors in the PC Hall too! By Swami’s Grace we were able to offer this unique service which has never been done before. What I am trying to convey is that there was a lot we had to do and there was practically no rest during the preceding four days and nights – they were absolutely hectic. Please understand, we had to work within very restricted slots, that is, a couple of hours in the afternoon between end of morning Darshan and commencement of evening Darshan. And that meant, most of the work had to be done at night.
Oh yes, I should not forget to mention that we had to set up a TV antenna on top of the Mandir. This was a tricky business because Mandir access is highly restricted especially on account of security. Finally, we got the antenna and the receiver going at 1 AM on Tuesday morning! By the way, connecting 120 TV sets by cable is no joke; one crew was working on this for three nights, for that is when they could work. I hope all this gives you some idea of the slogging that has to go on in the background.
Finally, D Day! The morning function was over and it was announced that the evening function would commence at 4 PM. We were all in the Mandir by 2 PM, tense, anxious and biting our nails, figuratively that is! Though we were to go on air at 5 PM, we started the streaming trials from 3 PM itself just to make sure all the necessary adjustments at the Bombay end could be done in advance. This was one of the lessons we had learnt from earlier trials. We had mobiles all over the place and were in constant touch with Bombay. We worked out a count down procedure – 30 seconds before air time, a person from Bombay would tell us, “You will be on air 30 seconds from now.” At 20 seconds he would say, “20 seconds to go!” Meanwhile, we were watching the regular Sanskar program on a TV tuned to receive that channel. Imagine that! A TV set inside the Mandir!! We had to keep an eye on our monitors also.
There was a slightly tricky element here. You see that though TV signals travel with the speed of light, there is a 10 second delay in the conversion of our camera signal into a computer signal ready for transmission. Thus our signal reaches Bombay 10 seconds after our cameras produce them. Next, at Bombay end there is another delay of 10 seconds before our signal goes through the computer there to the satellite. So, in the end, there is a 20 second between what people in SK hall see and what people see on their TV screens. We had to keep that in mind. In other words, we had to start 20 seconds before the preceding TV program ended. By Swami’s Grace and mobile phones and all that, we did it perfectly, and the net result was there was absolutely no blank screen. When the previous TV program ended, ours came on just like that! Boy, were we relieved!
The story does not quite end here; in fact this is where it really begins. What did we show? Well, we did not exactly cut to SK Hall; we had a nice prologue that introduced the viewer to what Sivarathri is all about, the spiritual significance, the folklores associated with it etc. Also some vintage shots from yesteryears. All this was for about 20 minutes.
While we were on air, we had to constantly be alert, not only with respect to the telecast but also with respect to local problems. For example, soon after went on air, we discovered that despite all earlier trials and setting adjustments, the sound as received on the TV receiver was not good; there was some jarring sound. So Bombay had to be informed and adjustments made there. I had to run here and there and cueing people as needed. Especially with respect to the commentary, I had to signal these people what to say and when. The commentators were a bit uncomfortable to start with because they had to sit on the floor and there was a terrific ambient noise from the Public Address system. But we had to live with it. But this was not the end of our problem. People walked in and out of the Mandir as they pleased. For example just after Swami left, which was at about 7 PM, a large number of people started coming into the Mandir. They all wanted to worship there! I had a tough time keeping them out. They just would not understand that we were doing a live telecast and needed quiet! Almost everyone looked daggers at me even while I tried to function like a bouncer! Finally, I managed to bolt the door but my problems were not over; the Chief Minister of one State who had come was now making his exit and his Security wanted to use the Mandir as the gateway. So all these gun-toting chaps had to be let through!
OK, were our problems over? By no means! The moment Swami left, people just started getting up and leaving. I mean, how could we show thousands getting out! What would people outside think? This is where forward planning helped. We had ready, stuff taped from the morning. We just switched to that and the commentators were now allowed to have a field day. They were now in their elements and enjoyed every minute of it.
What about the high-point, that is, the Lingodbhavam? Well, we had done a lot of planning about that. We had arranged for each cameraman to send his tape immediately after the event to the control room. Here we were supposed to do the replay. Unfortunately since we did not have proper tape recorders, we used DV Cameras for that purpose, four of them! But it worked, and people all over the country saw the Lingodbhavam replays several times, in slow motion too.
A couple of juicy stories! During the telecast, one person came running from the SK Hall screaming, “CCTV off in our sector! Do something immediately!!” Crisis management! We sent a person and he found that when a fat devotee sat on it, the cable snapped! So the cable had to be repaired on the spot. Lesson – bury the cable! Hope to do that this summer when Swami is away!
Another incident. Suddenly, just before start of the afternoon proceedings, we hear that a team from a reputed TV news channel was here and had been permitted to video tape the event. We had worked out with security a spot for them to shot from. But you know what? These media people [there was one more from Delhi] are not only professional but very used to having their own way. So, they came, and said, “We don’t like this spot,” came to where our camera was, and just moved it aside! It was like a Western and we were getting pushed around in our own backyard! I had to rush and do some mediation, practicing all the virtues taught by Swami – this is when bookish knowledge had to be quickly translated into practical knowledge!
There were happier moments too. While the telecast was going on, one person came to me and said, “Sir, every shop in the village is showing the program and thousands are watching”. Another excitedly told me, “My wife who is in Calcutta called me just now on the mobile and told me that it is fantastic.” This was most gratifying.
One difficult moment. Just after Lingodbhavam, Swami suddenly leaned forward and for a second it seemed as if He was far from well. Knowing the anxiety this would cause to viewers, Gene Massey who was at the Director’s control, quickly switched to another camera view. Real fast thinking. We of course saw it all but the viewers in the country saw it for just a fraction of a second; but even that was enough for it led to so many mails and phone calls. Anyway, Swami was back in form in just five minutes and continued His Discourse. After that He sat for Bhajans and left. And you know what? He made a surprise visit at 1.40 AM. Attendance in the hall was thin but those who were present, students mostly, sang with fantastic gusto! There were no mikes and this was the most robust singing one can ever witness. I have seen this many times. Boy, do they beat the hell out of the drums to keep everyone awake?! Swami enjoyed it immensely, and luckily we have it all on tape.
And so, one more Sivarathri passes off into history. Perhaps some of you may recall we offered excerpts from old issues of Sanathana Sarathi in an earlier issue. Who knows? Decades from now, what you now read may be offered for devotees of that period in the same fashion!
Shakespeare said, “All that lives must die, passing from here to Eternity.” Hemmingway wrote a book with the tile “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY” which later became a classic movie starring Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift and several others. It also won Oscars I believe.
Why am I bringing this up? Because, at the basic level, Sivarathri is a reminder of the journey from here to Eternity. From Eternity we have come here; now that we are here, we must avoid being trapped here for eternity through the ‘birth again, death again’ syndrome! The eyes must be on the Road to Eternity and not on the Road to Bali or Road to Rio [old timers would know what I mean by this]!
Hope you liked this feature. Why don’t you write and tell us what you think, even if it is not favourable?!
Jai Sai Ram.