Ameen Sayani, the ebullient voice of a harmonious India, goes silent

The iconic radio presenter broke away from the starched traditions of broadcasting and spoke the language of the common Indian

Updated - February 21, 2024 09:01 pm IST

Published - February 21, 2024 01:55 pm IST

Ameen Sayani. File photo: Special Arrangement

Ameen Sayani. File photo: Special Arrangement

The radio lost its spirited friend as Ameen Sayani, the ebullient voice of a harmonious India, passed away on Tuesday at 91. The iconic radio presenter became a household name in the early 1950s with Binaca Geetmala where he introduced popular Hindi film songs to a young, liberated India with his inimitable voice modulation, flowery language and engaging style. Listeners switched on for film songs but stayed tuned because of Sayani’s spell. Breaking away from the starched traditions of broadcasting, Sayani sounded spontaneous and spoke the language of the common Indian. His popularity refused to diminish even when television nudged radio out of living rooms or when the strings of Geetmala could not be woven by one music company or for that matter when broadcasting was reduced to narrowcasting with the advent of FM stations.

Born to noted Gandhian and literacy activist Kulsum Sayani and physician Jan Mohammad Sayani, the young Sayani grew up in Mumbai in a family devoted to the freedom movement. His mother brought out the popular newspaper Rahber in the 1940s that steered clear of Sanskritised Hindi and Persianised Urdu to have a dialogue with its readers in Hindustani. This inclusive approach towards language and culture echoed in Sayani’s voice when he picked up the microphone for Radio Ceylon at the insistence of his elder brother and eminent broadcaster Hamid Sayani.

Binaca Geetmala, one of the most abiding partnerships of a sponsor and a product, emerged on Radio Ceylon after All India Radio banned commercial Hindi film songs for allegedly corrupting young Indians. Those were the days when Hindi film stars and playback singers remained in a self-defined orbit and composers and lyricists didn’t find much space in the glossies. Laced with wit and self-deprecatory humour, Sayani brought them closer to their fans with interviews and tidbits on their craft and relationships in between songs.

With its pan-Asian reach that later spread up to East Africa, Geetmala took Hindi film songs beyond geographical boundaries to non-Hindi speakers. At its peak, the show garnered a viewership of nine to 12 crores and played a significant role in integrating a multi-lingual country. Every home has a story of how their parents sat next to the radio with their list of probables that would top the Binaca Geetmala charts.

Exuberant style

A product of syncretic ethos, Sayani used a seamless blend of Hindi and Urdu that synchronised with the ethos of the Bombay film industry. Moreover, his exuberant style matched the tonality of a young India that had just emerged out of the yoke of colonial rule and was in no mood to be bound by musty mores. Once rejected by the AIR for his Gujarati accent, the behemoth had to eventually embrace Geetmala and it had had a glorious run on Vivid Bharati.

Filmmakers came up with offers for acting but Sayani only accepted those roles where he was to play a presenter. Equally popular for voicing jingles and a much sought after emcee, Sayani compered the concert tours of Kishore Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan in North America and was a regular host for Miss India pageants.

Over the years as the equipment improved and the audience became attuned to visual medium, Sayani toned down the punch in his voice to make it sound more matter-of-fact but his breezy style remained a benchmark for radio jockeys. When Saregama launched CDs of Geetmala, came up with Caravan in 2018 and Sayani returned with Sangeet Ke Sitaron Ki Mehfil on a private FM station, his voice stirred a wave of nostalgia that refused to abate.

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