'I wanted to be a singer'
He is undoubtedly the most dynamic and unforgettable voice of radio. His introduction line, “Bhaiyon aur behno main Ameen Sayani bol raha hoon,” still rings in our ears. Reema Gehi meets the 75-year-old doyen of radio hosting to find out what he’s been up to:
Two months ago, you were invited by your friend, Sultan Arshad of Amateurs' Melodies Group to Karachi. What was the experience like?
(Smiles) Let me first tell you about Sultan Arshad. He has tremendous knowledge on old Indian film music. He used to have a music group and often conducted functions. Anil Biswas, OP Nayyar and Salil Chowdhury were a part of it.
When he returned to Karachi, he created his amateur group there too. He had invited me to a function to felicitate my radio show, Geetmala.
I spent a week in Karachi and was stunned to see how many people still remembered my programme which was heard all over Asia from the Radio Ceylon transmitters from 1952.. till around 1988. I was received with immense love there.. it was heart-warming.
What are you busy with right now?
I am exporting radio shows.. commercial jingles for the US, UAE, New Zealand and Canada. I am also trying to bring back my shows in South Africa, Mauritius and Fiji.
One of the very successful radio shows that I have done recently here and abroad is Sangeet Ke Sitaaron Ki Mehfil. I am trying to revive that.
Honestly, radio is not in very good shape at the moment.. it is the most fascinating medium in the world. You can get terribly involved or use it as a backdrop.
If well managed, radio ceases to be just an audio medium – you can ‘see’ it in all its glorious colours, ‘smell’ it’s lovely fragrance and feel its warmth.
Why can’t we have shows like Geetmala anymore?
Today a show like Geetmala will not work since practically every radio station has a countdown hit parade — so we can never tell which ratings are genuine ones. But I am working on a different kind of retrospect Geetmala programme and you’ll hear about it soon.
India will soon be completing 60 years of independence and I hear your family was deeply involved in the independence movement? What was your role in it?
(Chuckles) When India’s independence movement was on, I was a young, energetic and enthusiastic school boy. I was fortunately born into a family that was deeply nationalistic and committed to the development of free India.
I had the opportunity to listen to.. or sit at the feet of the greatest leaders of those days.. like Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad.
Also people like BG Kher, Morarji Desai and Aruna Asif Ali used to visit our home, since my mother was a shishya of Gandhiji and a dedicated social worker.
As a young boy, I could imbibe and inhale the entire atmosphere of a country moving toward independence.
Even the schools I went to — both the New Era in Mumbai and the Scindia School in Gwalior — further honed my “Naye Bharat ka Naujawan” enthusiasm.
What about your family’s influence in your work?
My mother.. at Gandhiji’s instance.. was publishing and editing a fortnightly journal for adult neo-literates in simple Hindustani from our residence.
That gave me my basic grounding in the simple, credible and sincere communication.
Is it true that as a young boy you wanted to pursue music?
Yes. I used to be a choir singer during my school days. I also learnt classical music. But when I reached the age of 13, my voice cracked and I could never get a single note correct thereafter.
Every time I tried to sing somebody or the other would whack me on my back and say ‘
Oye besurey..chup kar
!’ That totally stopped me from singing. But my love for singing continued and to my good fortune, I came into a profession that dealt with music.
One doesn't see you on stage anymore. Why?
Yes, there was a long period when I used to do stage shows. I have compered all kinds of shows — trade and variety shows, beauty contests, award functions.
But a stage presentation involves a lot of effort, and even though I still work for 10-12 hours a day.. I am trying to take things easy now. I am 75 years old and now prefer to sit in the audience and watch.
What’s your take on the commercial excessiveness dominating the radio business today?
The number of independent radio stations has gone up.. so much that many of them are starved of adequate business.
They all have to create programming that’s different from the rest. It is the monotony in style and content that is coming in the way of their potential success.
How important is it to have a rich voice to pursue a career in this field?
I don’t think it is terribly vital. I never had a rich voice. I only tried to be clear, interesting and correct.
Coming from a background of Gujarati and English, I had to take a lot of trouble to speak correct Hindustani, it took a quite a number of years to straighten up and hone my skills in that language.
Your advice to the young guns of radio.
(Smiles) One must keep this in mind that a radio person is not a star, but becomes a part of the family. You should sound sincere and nobody should feel that you are telling a lie.
Unless you are sincere and believe in what you are saying, honesty and sagacity will never become evident.
Radio is perhaps the only medium in which half the work is done by the audience — you give your best and then the listeners take over to create their own images according to their own individual aspirations and ambitions.