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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 17 April 2024

Ameen Sayani: The radio presenter who elevated Hindi film song to the status of an art form

What made Binaca Geetmala on AIR special was not just Sayani’s voice but his erudition which he wore ever so lightly

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri Calcutta Published 26.02.24, 05:12 PM
Ameen Sayani

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The voice. Picture this: The early 1980s. A cold winter night in Shillong. Two young preteen boys huddled over the radio. Tuned into the march of songs almost spurred on by a voice that seemed to be speaking only to you — ‘Behno aur bhaiyon…’ It was only later that I learnt how it was always ‘behno aur bhaiyon’, the woman first, never the other way round.

It did not strike me at the time that it was a conscious decision. Only years later would I realise the subversive element to it. It did not matter in those more innocent times. What mattered was the voice, and the sense of excitement it generated as it went about the countdown. In his voice you could almost visualise the songs climbing up and down the ‘paydaan’, and the song of the week wearing the ‘sartaaj’.

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For generations of Indians growing up during the 1950s-80s, Ameen Sayani and Binaca Geetmala were a weekly getaway to music and entertainment before television and Chitrahaar changed the way we looked at both. Forty years after I last listened to the radio on a regular basis, the voice remains unparalleled.

It all began thanks to a government ban. In 1952, India’s federal minister of information and broadcasting B.V. Keskar banned Hindi film songs from the airwaves for the threat they posed to Indian culture and classical music. As Hindustani and Carnatic classical music replaced film songs, and announcements were increasingly Sanskritised, Radio Ceylon moved in to fill the gap. They got Binaca toothpaste as a sponsor and asked Hamid Sayani, studio owner and producer and Ameen’s elder brother, to conceptualise the show.

Hamid was already presenting a show of English songs on Radio Ceylon which was doing very well. There was a catch, however. The salary would be only Rs 25 per episode for researching, writing and presenting. Hamid in turn turned to his 20-year-old brother.

The birth of Binaca Geetmala

On December 3, 1952, the first episode with seven songs was aired with Ameen Sayani’s cheery voice: ‘Behno aur bhaiyon, aap ki khidmat mein Ameen Sayani ka adaab.’ Indian radio would never be the same again. The show ran for an astounding 42 years.

Binaca Geetmala was, however, not Ameen’s first brush with the radio. Hamid had initiated Ameen into the world of radio at the age of seven as a casual artist in the Bombay station of AIR. With time he would introduce the young man to commercial broadcasting for Radio Ceylon.

A weekly radio show sponsored by the makers of Ovaltine became Ameen’s break on radio as announcer. The audition did not go well as Ameen, probably because it was a health drink, read out the announcement a tad too enthusiastically prompting the producer to ask Ameen to lower his volume. Following this, Ameen passed the audition and landed his first assignment. He would not be paid, however. His remuneration: a tin of Ovaltine every week.

Born to Kulsum Patel and Dr Jaan Mohamad Sayani, Ameen assisted his mother in editing and printing Rahber, a fortnightly journal, from 1945 to 1960. Initiated by Mahatma Gandhi, the journal was published in Devanagari, Urdu and Gujarati. Mahatma Gandhi would later write to his mother: ‘I like the mission of Rahber to unite Hindi and Urdu. May it succeed.’ The work on this journal provided Ameen with the education he needed in simple communication and the confluence of the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb – a hallmark of Binaca Geetmala and other radio shows he hosted, including the weekly Bournvita Quiz Contest, which he took over after Hamid passed away, and the extremely popular S. Kumar Ka Filmi Muqaddama.

Binaca Geetmala, which became Cibaca Geetmala and then Colgate-Cibaca Geetmala, shifted to AIR’s Vividh Bharati in 1989, became a hit show from the first episode which received 9,000 letters. By the end of the first year that number had touched 60,000 letters a week. In 1954, the original competition format was jettisoned in favour of a one-hour hit parade. The new format garnered a listenership of over 10 crore. Ameen Sayani single-handedly elevated the Hindi film song to the status of an art form.

The letters from Jhumri Telaiya

It was Ameen Sayani who popularised the almost mythical Jhumri Telaiya on Indian radio. Sayani asked listeners of the show to write to him with their favourite songs and rankings, and then read out some of these letters. Writing to Binaca Geetmala became a national pastime, with the town of Jhumri Telaiya (now in Jharkhand) taking the lead. Many listeners thought that the name was a figment of Sayani’s imagination, a joke, but letters from Jhumri Telaiya assumed tsunami proportions and Sayani would often read these out. Jhumri Telaiya entered the cultural map of the country.

What made Binaca Geetmala special was not just Sayani’s voice but his erudition which he wore ever so lightly. He not only introduced the countdown format on Indian radio (predating Casey Kasem, the US presenter of the American Top 40 show, by a couple of decades), he also offered little-known peculiarities and nuggets of information about the songs he was privy to. He was a storyteller, elevating a countdown show to something aspirational, giving it the feel of a fireside chat.

Over a glittering career, he worked on over 50,000 radio programmes, countless jingles and TV shows. He played a brief role in Mehmood’s Bhoot Bangla and announced the cast in Dev Anand’s Teen Deviyan. He also forayed into writing dialogues for Sawan Kumar Tak’s Hawas but the experience left him bitter enough not to attempt it again.

Ameen Sayani belongs to an array of radio presenters in India that included stalwarts like Birendra Krishna Bhadra, Surajit Sen, Melville de Mellow, Barun Haldar, Jasdev Singh, Sushil Doshi. No one possibly knew the art of radio announcement as well as he did. His velvety voice, by turns playful, instructive and cajoling, and inherent adaab charmed listeners across ages for decades, including two young boys on a cold night in Shillong 40 years ago. It was a voice that came from the heart. And so spoke to the heart.

(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film and music buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer)

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