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Ameen Sayani – the ‘voice’ of Binaca Geetmala fades out

Shoma A. Chatterji fondly remembers Ameen Sayani, the man whose golden voice was part of the growing-up years of more than one generation of Indians who through him heard songs they wouldn’t have known otherwise. In the process, she also revives memories of the good old days when the radio was a proud possession that opened our world. Ameen Sayani passed away on February 20 aged 91

In my childhood, we did not have a radio in our home. We had a gramophone though, with lots of 78 RPM records of K.L. Saigal, Kanan Devi, Pahari Sanyal, Manna De, Hemanta Mukhopadhyay and so on. But no radio. It never occurred to me to question the absence, because, like most Bengalis of those times, we were more attuned to music – songs of all kinds, music from all schools – than to radio broadcasts.

And then, one day, our father came home with a large cardboard box containing a radio. We taught ourselves to turn the knobs to listen to different kinds of music and songs, but not news. Till then, we had listened mostly to Tagore songs, beautiful songs from New Theatre films, and sometimes, to classical Western composers like Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and so on. But the radio changed everything.

It happened by accident. I was playing with the knobs on the radio to change stations, and chanced upon a warm, golden, friendly voice addressing the listeners as “behnon aur bhaiyon” (sisters and brothers) – I had picked up the magical Binaca Geetmala.

Those were the days when B.V. Keskar was Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting. He had a bias against Hindi film music and, as the boss, he banned broadcast of any kind of Hindi film songs over All India Radio (AIR) in 1952. That paved the way for the entry of Binaca Geetmala on Radio Ceylon. Using a powerful short-wave transmitter left behind by the Americans in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the radio station there started beaming programmes to India and the neighbourhood, and listeners were introduced to this man named Ameen Sayani, as broadcaster and presenter of Geetmala.

Had Keskar not banned Hindi film music on AIR, Binaca Geetmala might never have been born. Ameen’s older brother Hamid Sayani was already running a very successful radio programme in English called Binaca Hit Parade which aired Western songs and music. After Keskar introduced the ban, as an innovative broadcaster, the senior Sayani realised the desire of a major slice of his listeners for Hindi film songs, and he persuaded Binaca to try out his younger brother Ameen to create a similar programme for Radio Ceylon in Hindi. No one had the faintest idea then that this programme, only featuring Hindi film songs in a sequence reflecting the order of popularity, would make broadcasting history.

The programme was named after the then popular toothpaste Binaca, but the Geetmala slowly became more famous than the product that gave it its identity. Ameen Sayani’s sweet voice and warm, friendly tone endeared him to millions. His pet phrases – behnon aur bhaiyon and aur ab agli badaan par (and now, to the next step) – became wildly popular, or ‘went viral’ in today’s terminology.

The term geetmala means a ‘garland of songs’, which in turn led to the concept of sangeet sidi –‘ladder of songs’ – for which Sayani listed 16 songs in order of popularity, the final one being introduced with a bugle, or, as he put it, a ‘bigul’. The list was prepared on the basis of postcards received from listeners. There were often reports of mass postcards being sent by producers themselves, which Sayani had to discard. The responses came from every part of the country and he often picked out the odd postcard to read out; listeners became very familiar with names of places they had never heard of before, such as Jhumri Talaiya and Rajnandgaon, which are now memes.

The first episode was broadcast on December 3, 1952, when Ameen was only 20 years old. Only seven songs were broadcast. He drew a salary of Rs 25 per episode, aired every Wednesday at 8 pm. This sum covered the cost of researching and writing plus presenting. The show went on for more than four decades and Sayani ran it from start to finish.

Both the Binaca-sponsored programmes, in English and Hindi, ran concurrently. In 1975, Hamid Sayani passed away and his brother took over the reins of the English programme too, before it was phased out three years later. But Binaca Geetmala, like its ‘voice’, was indefatigable – it continued till 1994, a record run of 42 years!

As the years went by, the name of the toothpaste changed to Cibaca and, then, after the company was bought over by Colgate, it became Colgate Cibaca Geetmala. Through all these changes, Ameen Sayani remained at the helm. In the 1970s, AIR lifted the ban on broadcasting Hindi film music and the very popular Cibaca Geetmala shifted base to AIR with anchor and creator Ameen Sayani continuing to hold fort.

What made Ameen Sayani a household name among radio fans even after Vividh Bharti made its appearance in the broadcasting world? Of course it was his voice, his fluency in both Hindi and English, and his ability to charm his listeners by making them feel ‘one’ with him, identifying with his magic voice though they could not actually see him. Over the decades, his voice became synonymous with the golden era of Indian radio. This was long before the airwaves were unshackled, and a young breed of RJs stepped in to flood them. Such was the popularity of his voice that even if he was not immediately recognised, he got mobbed as soon as he began speaking. People often begged him to say “behnon aur bhaiyon”, his catchphrase.

Sayani often compered stage shows, even appearing in as many as ten movies, all as an announcer or interviewer. This writer had the good fortune to meet him at a prize distribution programme decades ago. I introduced myself to him and found him extremely grounded, unassuming. I was too fresh a journalist to have the confidence to ask for an interview. I never met him again.

The Limca Book of Records says Sayani has recorded over 54,000 radio programmes. He certainly has been part of the nation’s broadcasting journey, and a part of the growing-up years of many generations, who through him heard songs they wouldn’t have known otherwise.

In personal life, Sayani, a Muslim, married a Hindu and never once asked his wife to convert to Islam. Their son, Rajil, has also married a Hindu. His secular mindset is perhaps a legacy of his mother, Kulsum Sayani, who edited a fortnightly multilingual journal, Rahber, started by Mahatma Gandhi. In his last years, his health was frail and he declined to meet people. He was writing his memoirs, but still occasionally recorded his voice, the voice that has captivated millions of people.

Amorish Roy Choudhury, a Mumbai-based film journalist and author who was helping Sayani write his autobiography, says, “I am extremely fortunate to have encountered him and spent time with him. It was an experience of a lifetime. When I met Ameen saab, his memory was already fading at the edges. He remembered stray incidents from his younger days but often mixed up the details. But the moment he was required to read from a script, it was as if something possessed him – he would sit ramrod straight and speak with impeccable diction. I witnessed him, at almost 90 years of age, reading from a manuscript for four hours straight.”

Editor’s note: The Cadbury Bournvita Quiz Contest began on 12 April 1972. Sponsored by Cadbury India, it is one of India’s most famous quiz contests. Originally held live in cities across India, it later became a radio show and then, in June 1992, a television show. The original quiz master on the radio show was Hamid Sayani. After the first four years, Hamid died, and the show was taken over by his brother, Ameen Sayani. Millions tuned in to listen enthralled as Ameen Sayani’s faultless diction and voice weaved magic. I was one of them. 

(The writer is a veteran freelance journalist and award-winning film historian who lives in Kolkata.)