Ameen Sayani is one of the most celebrated radio announcers in the country. Even at 83, his voice is as impressive as ever. Here, the veteran talks about his journey in AIR, which has completed 80 years, his popular show Geetmala, and more.
You were earlier known for your phenomenal work on Radio Ceylon. How did you get linked with All India Radio?
Although Radio Ceylon was the station that gave me all the fame and fortune in broadcasting, my birthplace of broadcasting was All India Radio. When I was about eight years old, my brother Hamid, who was a famous broadcaster in English, had taken me to the English section of AIR Mumbai station and got me in it. I became a famous broadcaster in English. My family had been deeply entrenched in the national moment. When Mahatma Gandhi passed away, I was totally broken, because he was very close to our family. So I told myself that I am naye bharat ka naya naujawan, and I will now broadcast in Hindi. Unfortunately, I didn’t know Hindi and Urdu too well. When I returned to Mumbai, I told AIR in Mumbai that I wanted to broadcast in Hindi. I was not allowed to become a Hindi broadcaster, because my accent was full of bit English and Gujarati. But I was determined. On the other hand, when Ceylon became independent soon after India, the British government gave its transmitters to Ceylon on which the commercial services of Radio Ceylon were built in Tamil, Sinhalese, English and Hindi. In 1951, when Dr BV Keskar became the minister for information and broadcasting, one of the first things he did was to ban Indian film music from AIR, which was a very funny and silly move, because Indian film music was in its golden period and one of the main mediums in India to express nationalism. Within two-three months, AIR became really dull. It used to be on par with BBC at one time, and one of the most renowned broadcasting organisations in the world. That when Radio Ceylon became popular, as it only played Indian film songs. I honed my skills, met people who knew Hindi and Urdu, and managed to get into Radio Ceylon. After spending some time there, my career took a turn when Binaca Geetmala started. Since Radio Ceylon had become popular and AIR was really struggling, the latter reintroduced Hindi film music in the late ’50s. During the independence moment, Aruna Asaf Ali, an independence activist, was our neighbour. After India became independent, she told me that “You should be ashamed of yourself. Since you belong to such a nationalist family, you should do something for AIR.” So, in 1970, the first sponsored program on Vividh Bharti was Saridon Ke Saathi was produced and presented by me. That’s how I got into AIR.
How do you think radio has evolved over the years?
The name Aakashwani for AIR meant the voice of the sky. It used to be really dignified. After Keskar went out, it started doing really well again. We used to say that a good radio station is the one you can see, and not just hear. AIR did a great job in that. Most of the announcers spoke in a very simple, Hindustani style. AIR became an epitome of Indian culture. It moved from tradition to tomorrow, from parampara to pragati, from tehzeeb to tarrakki… It was a great medium to keep the yesterdays alive. Everybody, very carefully, thought out what aspects of the past could be moulded into today. It didn’t become just the new bang bang. With time, even the music, in many cases, stopped having melody. It became all about bang bang, dhoom dhaam, because it was believed that the youngsters enjoy it. Slowly the tradition started vanishing. And that continues even today, unfortunately. There are some good stations. Some private stations have various areas in which they don’t play any retro music at all. All the announcers speak in that dhoom-dhaam style. Sometimes they are so loud that you can’t even understand that what they are telling. That is not good. Of course it’s good to have new things coming in, but the ideal way is to mix the past with the present.
Among all the hit programmes that you presented, which one is your all-time favourite?
The most thrilling is Geetmala. It started very funnily. There used to be a show on Radio Ceylon that used to have a competition. It was really popular. It was in English. In 1952, we were told that there should also be a similar program in Hindi for India. It started as an experiment and used to be a half-an-hour long show. We were told that the person who takes it up will have to produce it, script it, present it and check the mail. I was given that programme, because no one else was willing to work so hard for Rs25 a week. I took it up and put all my love for music and nationalism into it. When the first programme of Geetmala was broadcast, I got 9,000 letters. The mail doubled every week. Within a year, it had gone up to 65,000 in a week. All Indians were so glued to it.