A pioneer Radio Jockey no more

Waves of sheer nostalgia are bound to engulf a certain generation of Indian music lovers when they close their eyes and recall those much-awaited magic words each Wednesday evening: Namaskar behno aur bhaiyon, main aapka dost Ameen Sayani bol raha hoon.

Radio presenter Ameen Sayani (1932–2024)

It was always behno and bhaiyo, not bhaiyon and behno that all our politicians use before beginning their speeches filled with fact and fiction, tall promises and harsh criticism of their political opponents.

Every Wednesday evening, we’d have dinner a tad early so we could settle down before that brown wooden box called the radio and listen to the magical voice of Ameen Sayani, the legendary radio presenter of Binaca Geetmala on Radio Ceylon. He would go on to entertain us for a full hour with the most popular Hindi film songs of the week, introducing each of them, with complete information about the singer, song writer and music composer, before playing the song. Really useful information in a non-Internet, non-Google era! And oh those lilting melodies… Rafi, Lata, Kishore, Mukesh, Hemant, Asha, Manna Dey… their golden voices filling our homes and hearts.

Binaca Geetmala was broadcast over Radio Ceylon and not All India Radio because the then I&B Minister felt that Hindi film songs were too vulgar!

In his deep and mesmerising voice and diction, with the most delicate nuances of a mix of Hindi and Urdu words that came together to form the delightful Hindustani that anybody and everybody could understand, Sayani would provide us heavenly music for an entire 60 minutes.

The names of those who had made a farmaish (request) for the song would be read out and the more popular the song, the longer the list, which would often irritate us, as we were eager to listen to the song. Do remember that the gramophones and record players were just coming in, television was nowhere on the horizon, and the world had not even dreamt of mobile phones. Geetmala time was truly bliss time.

With Lata Mangeshkar.

This iconic radio presenter passed away on Feb 20 after a heart attack. He was 91. Binaca Geetmala, began as a 30-minute programme on Radio Ceylon in 1952, and became a rage in the 1950s and ’60s. It changed its name to Hit Parade and later Cibaca Geetmala, but never its essence, running from 1952 to 1994.

Have you ever wondered why Binaca Geetmala, which was started in 1952, well after India’s Independence, was broadcast over Ceylon Radio and not our very own All India Radio? That was because the then Information and Broadcasting Minister had decided that Hindi film songs were too vulgar and they were banned on All India Radio. Wonder what that venerable gentleman’s response would have been to the immensely popular Madhuri Dixit number choli ke peechchey kya hei!

To get our fill of popular western songs, we would eagerly tune into the Madras station of the All India Radio on the programme called Listener’s Choice.

We will miss him because he came to us as a huge soothing balm at a difficult time… soon after Independence, when we were happy, but also sad because humne bahut kucch khoya tha, humne apno ko khoya tha aur hum under se zakhmi thhey.
– Radio jockey Sayema

The outpouring of people’s grief on various social media platforms on Sayani’s passing proves that excellence, passion and devotion to your work… and a certain kind of gentlemanly demeanour which can only be felt but never explained… is never forgotten. In an era of the media where raving and ranting, shrill outbursts and slanging matches reign supreme during television debates, it is difficult to think of a programme like the Geetmala presented in the smooth and serene voice of Sayani. It is no exaggeration to say those relaxing 60 minutes took away the day’s tiredness.

So what made Sayani the mesmerising and loving figure that he was? Born in 1932, Ameen Sayani came from a family in which literature and language reigned supreme. He helped his mother in editing a fortnightly journal called Rahber, which was initiated by Mahatma Gandhi. It was simultaneously published in Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati. His brother Hamid Sayani was an eminent English broadcaster and Ameen began his stint with Radio Ceylon in 1951.

With Amitabh Bachchan.

When he started the Binaca Geetmala the next year, it became an immediate hit as the All India Radio banned the transmission of Hindi film songs. The programme became a medium for the promotion of simple Hindustani, something that connected with the people across the country, and was so popular that it ran for decades, till 1994.

Sayani was also a voiceover artist and later a popular interviewer, and thanks to his huge fan following, could ask difficult questions to icons such as Lata Mangeshkar — apparently he had quizzed her on the problem she had with Mohammad Rafi on royalty issues, which was a very controversial subject in those days. He revealed in a programme that once upon a time Amitabh Bachchan had nurtured a dream of becoming a radio presenter — and what a hit he would have been with that deep, magical voice of his — before trying his luck in Bollywood and even visited the Mumbai studio of All India Radio for an audition. But Sayani couldn’t meet him as he hadn’t taken an appointment!

With Noor Jehan.

So how did Ameen Sayani capture the hearts of his listeners? This is what he said in an interview about his runaway success on Radio Ceylon: “I wanted each listener to feel that I was talking to them and it immediately struck a chord. It, surprisingly, even revolutionised radio presentation. I didn’t expect it to become a phenomenon in the coming years. They were such fantastic times. It was my romance with Radio Ceylon.”

I wanted each listener to feel that I was talking to them and it immediately struck a chord.
– Ameen Sayani

But why we will miss him was best summed up by radio jockey Sayema who posted a short video clip on X. She said that we will miss him not only because of his magical voice and his superb pronunciation, “but because he came to us as a huge soothing balm at a difficult time… soon after Independence, about which we were very happy, but also sad because humne bahut kucch khoya tha, humne apno ko khoya tha aur hum under se zakhmi thhey, aur hamarey under bahut sarey ghao thhey. Hum chhahte thhey ki koi tau hamey, kuch waqt ke lye hi sahi, hamarey ghum se azad kar de (We had lost a lot, we had lost our own, and were nurturing many wounds within. We were longing for somebody who would, even though for a short while, release us from our pain). And Ameen Sayani Sahab did just that with his soothing commentary and the songs which we hummed along with the radio. He gave us hope … that love will rule again and better times will come.”

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