Ameen Sayani, legendary radio broadcaster whose sonorous voice was music to India’s ears, dies at 91 | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Ameen Sayani, legendary radio broadcaster whose sonorous voice was music to India’s ears, dies at 91

Feb 22, 2024 06:02 AM IST

Legendary broadcaster Ameen Sayani, known for Binaca Geetmala, passed away in Mumbai at 91. He revolutionized Indian radio with his unique style.

Mumbai Ameen Sayani, whose voice launched a radio revolution in India, died at a Mumbai hospital late on Tuesday night. The legendary broadcaster, 91, had been ailing for over a year.

Sayani hosted Binaca Geetmala from its launch in 1952 till it went off air in 1994. (HT Archive)
Sayani hosted Binaca Geetmala from its launch in 1952 till it went off air in 1994. (HT Archive)

Sayani, who was trained in broadcasting and theatre by his elder brother, the equally illustrious Hamid, became a cult figure with India’s first countdown show, Binaca Geetmala. The show launched in 1952 had an uninterrupted run until 1994, with Sayani as its weekly host. His was the perfect radio style — the chummy, intimate “behno aur bhaiyo” became an instantly recognised salutation across the country. Sayani ignored the purists and developed an Urdu and Hindi syntax that closely resembled the spoken language of the Hindi film industry of the 1950s and the 1960s. He skilfully wove in words like “paaydaan”, “sartaj” and “baharhaal” into his scripts — all of which were then widely used in cinema.

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“I wanted to speak in a language which the common man would understand and relate to. I chose Hindustani. After all, language is a pact between the speaker and the listener,” Sayani once told this reporter. He used the show to democratise the medium and nurture popular taste. The year Binaca Geetmala was launched was also the year that Nehru won India’s first general elections and appointed Balkrishna Vishwanath Keskar as information & broadcasting minister. A man of great whimsy and puritanical streak, Keskar briefly banned cricket commentary on All India Radio and also Hindi film music, which he believed did great disservice to classical music. Keskar’s disastrous decision became the biggest boon for Sayani. An American entrepreneur Daniel Molina set up a company to produce programmes for Radio Ceylon, and he hired the two Sayani brothers.

The launch of Binaca Geetmala also coincided with the high noon of Hindi film music. Exquisite songs in films such as Anarkali, Awara, Naya Daur, Guide, Paying Guest to name but a few, scored by maestros such as Naushad Ali, Shankar-Jaikishan, C Ramchandra, SD Burman, Roshan, and Madan Mohan, among others, provided the soundtrack to the story of a new nation. Business on Bombay’s streets would come to a standstill when the signature tune of the Binaca Geetmala started and Ameen Sayani’s baritone reverberated on the radio, recalls music collector Vinayak Ponkshe.

The inaugural show, billing seven popular Hindi film songs, became so popular that Sayani’s Colaba office was soon flooded with postcards — over 65,000 in the first year — from listeners across the country asking for more. Within the first year, the song tally was taken up to 16. The popularity of the show ensured that the countdown was produced only after due research, Sayani had once revealed. “We would get sales reports from record companies, record store owners and listeners’ clubs across the country to ensure the show’s credibility and authenticity. This meant lot of paperwork,” he said.

A decade of sustained popularity of Radio Ceylon’s programmes led to a rethink in the I&B ministry and resulted in the launch of Vividh Bharati to cater to popular tastes, says film music expert Prakash Joshi. Once again, the star of the new channel was the Geetmala, hosted by Ameen Sayani. “The show transcended caste and creed and truly symbolised India’s pluralistic culture,” said Joshi. “With the countdown serving as a leitmotif, Sayanisaab scripted modern India’s mainstream cultural narrative,” said Isshaa Mahmood, the daughter-in-law of singer Talat Mahmood, many of whose songs featured on the Geetmala over the years.

Sayani’s son Rajil recounted in an earlier interview that Sayani was paid a weekly remuneration of 25 when the show began, and which he took up only at the prodding of his brother Hamid who hosted his own countdown of English music.

It was Hamid Sayani, gifted with a mellifluous voice, who introduced his kid brother when he was only nine, to the magical world of radio when he took him to the All India Radio station in Bombay to participate in a children’s quiz show.

Impressed by the young boy’s ability to adapt to the recording technique, the producer of the quiz show decided to get the boy on board for a weekly children’s show called Phulwari. The young Sayani was paid with a tin of Ovaltine for his labour.

Sayani sometimes sought to play down his fame. Weaned on a diet of high literature, his foray into popular culture, he said sometimes embarrassed him. “My parents were staunch Gandhians. My mother had taken part in the Quit India movement and she regularly wrote for the newspapers. We were surrounded by books and Hamidbhai did English theatre, where he worked with the likes of Adi Murzban, Alyque Padamsee and Ibrahim Elkazi. And here I was, doing a radio show for the laity…,” he once said. He also revealed that other than hosting the Binaca Geetmala, his other task was to ensure that the spool would be flown to Colombo every Saturday, three days before the show’s deadline.

In later years, Sayani expanded his repertoire to other shows such as the Bournvita Quiz Contest, S Kumar Ka Filmi Muqaddama and other interview-based radio programmes. He even did a cameo in the 1964 film Bhoot Bangla. But Sayani remained, until the end, the sartaj of all radio hosts.

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