Opinion: Goodbye To Ameen Sayani, For Whom Every Listener Mattered

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"Namaskar behno aur bhaiyon, main aapka dost Ameen Sayani bol raha hoon..."

These words are immortal, and they belong to one man only: Ameen Sayani. On February 20, the great voice passed on. Years ago, speaking to Shekhar Gupta on NDTV's Walk The Talk, Sayani had pointed out that he always said 'Beheno' before 'Bhaiyon'... even though most people who imitate him go with 'Haan, to bhaiyon-beheno...'.

Young Ameen's First Tutor, Elder Brother Hameed

For most of us, Ameen Sayani's radio journey started with Binaca Geetmala for Radio Ceylon in 1952, which is certainly when his voice and his show became an instant rage. But Ameen had been preparing for it since his pre-teens. In an interview with Mid-Day, he recalled how his brother Hameed, who was already a radio show host, brought him into the All India Radio (AIR) studio at Mumbai's Churchgate and asked him to record a voice sample. Young Ameen went with the poem "If I Were Lord of Tartary" by Walter de la Mare. Hameed then replayed the audio and started to train Ameen in pronunciation voice projection and understanding diphthongs and triphthongs. Ameen started by voicing children`s shows and later went on to do radio plays.

Ameen also soaked up tips from wherever they came. When he stood in for an absent voice artist for a couple of commercials in a programme named 'Ovaltine Phulwari', the producer stopped him saying, "Chillana kyon? Yeh radio programme hai..." (Why shout? This is a radio programme). The advice stuck and helped the informal, conversational, intimate Ameena Sayani voice emerge.

1952, Binaca Geetmala - When Ameen Seized the Moment

Sayani's big launch, at the age of just 20, was a perfect example of 'carpe diem', of seizing the moment. By 1952, like his brother, Ameen was working at a firm called Radio Advertising Services (RAS), which used to produce shows for Radio Ceylon in Mumbai. The firm was cashing in on the then Information and Broadcasting Minister B.V. Keskar's ban on film music on AIR. Advertisers were moving towards Radio Ceylon, which remained focused on popular programmes catering to the Indian subcontinent.

The RAS was looking for someone to write, present, and produce a radio show named 'Binaca Geetmala' for Radio Ceylon, a programme about popular Hindi film songs. The salary offered was a meagre Rs 25 per show, and there were no takers. But Ameen grabbed the offer. The entire show would be worked on from start to finish in Mumbai by Ameen, the audio spool was then physically sent to Colombo by air, and then broadcast via Radio Ceylon's World War 2 military transmitters, which were vintage, but powerful.

AIR's Loss Was Radio Ceylon's Gain

 The show was an incredible success, instantly. And success back then was measured by the letters and postcards that a radio show received. While Sayani's bosses would probably have also been pleased with just 100-150 letters, they were swamped with 9,000 letters in response to the very first show. A number that very soon climbed to 65,000 letters a week. From 1952, the show ran till 1994-incredible 42 years! Put together, Sayani produced or hosted over 54,000 radio show episodes and 19,000 commercial spots in his six-decade-long career.

 We must understand that Sayani's choice to work on a radio show that was meant for the 'masses' and which focused on popular Hindi film songs was no accident. Keskar's call to ban Hindi film songs from AIR ran counter to what Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was trying to achieve at the time. Keskar had a somewhat elitist take on music and felt that the tastes of the masses needed to be lifted by airing classical music on AIR. But he clearly missed the point that radio, at the time, was a source of both news and information, as also entertainment at the time. Radio allowed listeners even in the distant Jhumri Talaiya, located in present-day Jharkhand, to connect with the rest of the country.

Radio, Sayani And Nation-Building

 Radio was a greatly empowering medium back then, doing for the average Indian what the TV boom did in the 1980s and 1990s, and pretty much what the mobile phone boom is doing yet again for even the poorest of our citizens today. Through that little radio handset or the family radio that stood on the dining table, its status underlined by the bright embroidered cloth that kept it covered when not in use, is how Sayani first reached out and connected crores of Indians in a way that had never been done before.  

 Sayani's self-confessed approach to radio programming was to strike an intimate relationship with each of his listeners, as if they were bonding like friends during the show. He chose words that were vivid, which almost allowed the listener to 'see' the show. He told Mid-Day that he always took care of the 'seven Ss' while presenting his shows - to be sahi (correct), satya, (true), saral (simple), spasht (clear), sabhya (decent), sundar (beautiful) and swabhavik (natural).

 Ameen The 'Gandhivaadi' And The Power of Hindustani

Equally important is Sayani's preference to broadcast in Hindi even though his English was impeccable-which many of us got a glimpse of when Sayani would host the 'Cadbury Bournvita Quiz Contest' every Sunday through the late 1970s and 1980s. Interestingly, he inherited this show from his elder brother Hameed, who was the original quizmaster. When Hameed passed away four years later, it fell upon Ameen to ensure that the show goes on.

Years later, Sayani recalled that his choice of Hindi as his preferred language of broadcast was made on the day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. Sayani was just 14 then, but he realised that a lot of work was needed to bring a young nation together, and that to reach out to a larger audience, he must focus on Hindi.

 Sayani has often underlined that he was a 'Gandhivaadi'. Credit for that goes to his mother Kulsum, who used to edit, publish and print a bi-monthly journal called Rahber, literally meaning 'Guide'. The journal catered to semi-literate readers and was suggested to Sayani's mother by Gandhi himself. It ran from 1940 to 1960. Interestingly, it was published in Hindi, Gujarati and Urdu scripts, but all of them in simple, spoken Hindustani. And of course, young Ameen grew up helping his mother with every aspect of the work.

 In love too, Sayani was lucky to meet someone who shared his passion for radio and music. Reportedly, his school principal at Mumbai's New Era School had predicted that he would marry a Kashmiri girl. And sure enough, Ameen met Rama Mattoo, again at AIR, where she also worked as a voice artiste and singer.

When Lata Mangeshkar Went Candid With Sayani

 Always a people's person, Sayani had incredible charm. He is known for landmark radio interviews with some of India's biggest names from the music industry. And he was able to ask them the toughest questions and get away with it. In an interview with Lata Mangeshkar, he was able to ask her about her professional issues with music director O.P. Nayyar, who always preferred her younger sister Asha Bhonsle over her; about her fallout with Mohammed Rafi; and about her uneasy relationship and professional rivalry with Asha, all of which Lata answered. Most memorably, he also asked Lata why she never got married, to which she replied candidly, saying, '"...jeevan, maran, aur shaadi ek hi baar hota hai... agar nahi hota, to na sahi.. aur uska mujhe koyi afsos bhi nahi hai..." (birth, death and marriage happen only once. If marriage was not to happen for me.. I have no regrets)

 Sayani's passing is quite literally the end of an incredible era-an era when radio ruled, when the songs of C. Ramachandra, O.P. Nayyar, Naushad, Madan Mohan, and R.D. Burman ruled the airwaves, when the voices of Lata, Kishore, Rafi, Mukesh and Asha echoed in every home, with each of them preceded by the wonderful friendly and familiar voice of Sayani.

The Sign-Off That Big B 'Stole'

Sayani would always conclude his shows with a signature line - "agle saptah phir milenge, tab tak ke liye apne dost Ameen Sayani ko ijazat dijiye, namaskar, shubh ratri, shabba khair" (We will meet next week, till then your friend Ameen Sayani takes your leave. Greetings. Good night) - in keeping with his secular and Gandhian spirit. Of course, now we know where Amitabh Bachchan might have picked his Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) sign-off from.

 Ameen Sayani is gone. But his voice will stay with us.  

(Rohit Khanna is a journalist, commentator and video storyteller. He has been Managing Editor at The Quint, Executive Producer of Investigations & Special Projects at CNN-IBN, and is a two-time Ramnath Goenka award winner.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.