Farewell Ameen Sayani - The Superstar Of Radio Broadcasting

Millions of fans secretly nursed an ambition to be able to speak like Ameen Sayani or imitate his style, recollects Bhuvan Lall

At 8 p.m. on the evening of 3 December 1952, Radio sets across India from the major metros to the distant Rajnandgaon and Jhumri Taliya tuned to Radio Ceylon and heard a soft, suave, and gentle voice that instantly captivated millions of listeners. With the characteristic opening lines, “Namaskar Behenon aur bhaiyyon aapka dost Ameen Sayani bol raha hoon (Hello, sisters and brothers, this is your friend Ameen Sayani speaking) a legend was born.

Ameen Sayani the less than twenty-year-old broadcaster presented ‘Binaca Geet Mala’, a countdown of the top Hindi music hits on India’s first-of-its-kind program. For thirty minutes the show listed seven popular Hindi film songs in the order of popularity and was presented in the syncretistic simple Hindustani language of the Hindi film industry. The first episode brought in 9,000 letters and within a year the local post office was receiving 65,000 a week. Due to the enormous popularity, the duration of the show was eventually increased to one hour. Wednesday nights came to be known as Geet Mala days. Week after week on Wednesday nights at 8, life would come to a standstill all over the country, markets would shut down, and streets would be empty as households would sit spellbound and listen to Sayani's resounding voice. Millions of fans secretly nursed an ambition to be able to speak like Ameen Sayani or imitate his style. At its peak, Geet Mala had a listenership of over 120 million and unified the nation through the barriers of region, language, religion, and culture like never before over the Radio. The immensely popular music program even crossed national borders and reached many parts of Africa.

Ameen Sayani was born on 21 December 1932 to a family of freedom fighters. His mother, Kulsum Sayani, edited a fortnightly journal in Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati called “Rahber”, which was initiated by Mahatma Gandhi, and his father Janmohammed Sayani, was a medical doctor. Ameen assisted his mother with her literary journal becoming proficient in communicating in Hindustani. He attended New Era School (Mumbai) and Scindia School (Gwalior) and graduated from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai where he first displayed his talent for performing arts. Filmmaker Goldie Anand and Cricketer Farrok Engineer were his contemporaries at Xavier’s.

In 1952, the idiosyncratic state broadcaster All India Radio the only source of music and news, was directed by the Union Minister Balkrishna Vishwanath Keskar to ban film music. This was to be the turning point for Radio broadcasting in India. Using two powerful World War 2 short-wave transmitters left behind by the Americans in Ceylon (Sri Lanka now), Radio Ceylon started beaming programs to India and the neighborhood. Under the leadership of Clifford Dodd, the Australian administrator and broadcasting expert, and Dan Molina, an American entrepreneur, Ceylon Radio’s Radio Advertising Services operated from the Colaba area of downtown Mumbai to attract advertising revenue and recruit professional broadcasters.

Prodded by his brother Hamid Sayani the eminent English broadcaster gifted with a soothing voice, Ameen Sayani began his stint with Radio Ceylon in 1951. His colleagues at Radio Advertising Service included Gopal Sharma and Balraj Dutt who became a film star later well-known known by his screen name Sunil Dutt. For just Rs. 25 a week, Sayani had to produce a show titled Geet Mala sponsored by a Swiss company named CIBA. He singlehandedly selected the songs, wrote the script, and compered the half-hour competition program. As an alternative to the strict BBC formal style and tone of the All-India Radio broadcasters, Sayani employed a conversational and informal presentation technique peppered with colloquial language. The audio spool of the final recording was flown to Colombo on Saturday for broadcasting on Wednesday. The program was hit on arrival and the presenter’s affable manner and gripping voice endeared him to the masses. The show ran for nearly forty-five years. Eventually, All India Radio lifted the ban on film music by launching the Vividh Bharti service to cater to popular tastes and more importantly to counter the colossal popularity of Ameen Sayani.

By then Sayani was already breaking records. In a career in the media and entertainment sector spanning more than six decades, Sayani produced and presented an unbelievable 54,000 radio programs and provided voice-overs for over 19,000 advertisements and jingles holding an unbeatable record in the Limca Book of Records. After the untimely death of his brother, Hamid, in 1975, Sayani took over as the host of the Bournvita Quiz Contest and ran the show for eight years. Every Sunday at noon in his golden voice, he announced ‘It's the Bournvita Quiz Contest’; and families rushed to their radio sets to hear the host, quizzing school students from the metropolitan cities in his unmatched style. In addition to his work over the airwaves, he appeared in about ten films like Bhoot Bungla, Teen Devian, Boxer, and Qatl, as an announcer or interviewer. Additionally, Sayani presented over 2,000 stage functions in India and overseas including music shows and film festival closing ceremonies. By the time private Radio broadcasting was launched in India in 2000, Sayani had been an institution by himself and one of the most imitated broadcasters in India.

The ever-smiling extremely down-to-earth person with an old-school dignified charm was awarded the ‘Hindi Ratna Puraskaar’ by the prestigious Hindi Bhavan of New Delhi in 2007. The broadcaster who earned titles like ‘Awaaz ke jadugar’, and ‘Awaaz ki duniya ke Badshah’, was bestowed the Padma Shri in 2009. In May 2007 he was invited to Pakistan and Ceylon Radio fans of all ages gathered in the Arts Council auditorium in Karachi to finally see and hear the legendary Ameen Sayani. Back in India, he continued to be admired by many generations of listeners and attract crowds as fans scaled walls to catch a glimpse of one of the pioneers of Indian Radio.

On 21 February 2024, eight days after International Radio Day, the sweet warm, and friendly voice that defined India’s radio broadcasting and was heard all over the world for seven decades went silent. Ameen Sayani was no more. He was 91.

In the words of poet Allama Iqbal,

“hazāroñ saal nargis apnī be-nūrī pe rotī hai

baḌī mushkil se hotā hai chaman meñ dīda-var paidā”

(For a thousand years the narcissus has been lamenting its blindness;

With great difficulty the one with true vision is born in the garden).

Ameen Sayani’s famous words ‘Bahenon aur Bhaiyon’ are embedded in the cultural heritage of India winning the hearts and minds of millions across generations in our motherland. And for his fans who grew listening to him, his velvety voice will continue to resonate ad infinitum with the famous closing lines, “Agle saptah phir milenge, tab tak ke liye apne dost Ameen Sayani ko ijazat dijiye, namaskar, shubh ratri, shabba khair” (We will meet next week, till then your friend Ameen Sayani takes your leave. Greetings. Good night).

Farewell Ameen Sayani, the superstar of Radio broadcasting.

(Bhuvan Lall is an award-winning filmmaker, international entrepreneur, motivational speaker and author.)

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