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Ameen Sayani: The man who romanced the radio, took it to dizzying heights

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His was the voice that ruled the airwaves for decades and will forever echo through the winding roads of nostalgia. Ameen Sayani, who invited millions each week to tune into Binaca Geetmala, was India’s radio man for the ages – and will continue to be.

Sayani, who died in Mumbai at 91 following a heart attack on Tuesday, was not a singer or an orator. He was but the presenter of a programme on Hindi film songs but one so compelling and so hugely popular that no history of Indian radio can ever be written without his contribution.

That voice, the deep timbre radiating cheer and warmth, has fallen silent but the refrain of that unforgettable “Namaste behno aur bhaiyo, main aapka dost Ameen Sayani bol raha hoon” will long ring loud and clear. Intertwined with childhood and teen memories and rewind to a quieter, simpler era when the radio was all.

Sayani’s inimitable greeting reached countless homes as Hindi film song aficionados tuned in week after week to Binaca Geetmala on Radio Ceylon from 1952 to 1988.

The programme moved to All India Radio’s Vividh Bharti in 1989 but its popularity did not wane thanks to the connect that Sayani had established with his listeners. There were several name changes as the toothpaste manufacturer went from Binaca to Cibaca and the show was also rechristened to Colgate Cibaca Geetmala. The listeners though kept listening in right till 1994 when it ended.

Sayani’s association was not just limited to this widely popular programme. During his long association with radio, Sayani compered and presented over 50,000 programmes and was associated with over 19,000 jingles and ads. Besides interviewing legends such as Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi, he hosted the Bournvita Quiz Contest for eight years, filling in after the death of his brother Hamid Sayani.

Sayani was born in Mumbai in a multilingual family on December 21, 1932. He was educated in Mumbai’s New Era school and Gwalior’s Scindia School and completed his college from St Xavier’s in Mumbai.

His family was closely involved in India’s independence movement. His mother Kulsum Sayani was a Gandhian who ran a fortnightly journal ‘Rahber’ and Sayani started assisting his mother from 1945 and continued till 1960.

Sayani was interested in radio right from his childhood, appearing on children’s programmes on All India Radio, Bombay.

Elder brother Hamid, already a well-known broadcaster in English, was his guru. He mentored the young Ameen from a young age into writing, compering and direction before introducing him to AIR Bombay.

The tryst with fame – and Radio Ceylon — came a few years later and at just Rs 25 a week.

In what is a part of broadcasting history, Hindi film songs were banned from AIR in 1952 by then information and broadcasting minister B V Keskar who felt they were morally corrupting.

Around that time, Radio Ceylon, which was founded by the British, started becoming popular for its programmes in English, Tamil and Hindi. Broadcast from Colombo, Radio Ceylon began in 1949.

Hamid was hired to run Radio Ceylon’s production arm. Radio Ceylon saw an opportunity in Keskar’s ban and began ‘Geetmala’ as an experimental weekly jackpot show based on a random selection of songs.

Hamid approached his younger brother and he lapped it up. For Rs 25 a week, the young Ameen would select the songs, write, produce and compere the programme and also go through the fan mail.

They did not expect the programme to pick up so fast. Within a year, the fan mail poured in in the thousands.

The jackpot competition had to be abandoned in 1954 and was replaced with an hour-long countdown programme, which also became an instant hit. At one point, the programme drew 120 million listeners from different parts of Asia.

AIR tried to counter the programme’s popularity by introducing Vividh Bharti in 1957 but Sayani’s loyal fanbase remained intact.

Sayani, despite his massive contributions to revolutionising radio in India, remained humble.

“You say that this voice is a gift from god, but I will let you on in a secret my voice was not good… I try to speak from my heart and the attempt is that ‘dil ki baat, dil se dil tak pahunche’,” he famously said in a media interview.

Sometime in the late 60s, Sayani recalled in an interview with PTI, he encountered a lanky, tall man but he was busy running 20 shows a week and just did not have time to meet the stranger.

“I had not a second to spare for this thin man. He waited and left and came back a few more times. But I could not see him and kept telling him through my receptionist to take an appointment and come,” Sayani told PTI in an interview. And yes, the young man was Amitabh Bachchan, the superstar with the deep baritone.

“Today, though I regret denying him an audition, I realise that what happened was for the best for both of us. I would have been on the streets and he would have got so much work on radio that Indian cinema would have lost its biggest star,” Sayani told PTI in a 2014 interview.

Sayani and Bachchan, who has often spoken of the incident, had a good laugh over how events turned out to be.

The Binaca Geetmala man was the true king of radio but he also had brief stints in movies such as Bhoot Bungla, Teen Devian, and Qatl.

Sayani had a few rules for radio presenting, which he spoke about in the book “Let’s Talk on Air: Conversations with Radio Presenters”.

According to the legendary radio personality, a presenter should abide by correct pronunciation and should speak the truth in a simple, clear and natural voice.

The man is gone, but the voice stays on.

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