New Delhi, India — For three generations of Indians, Bollywood and radio meant one name: Ameen Sayani. On Tuesday, the voice that entered the homes of hundreds of millions of people fell silent one final time.

Sayani, who began his career in the early 1950s with a weekly countdown show of Bollywood songs and dominated India’s airwaves for more than six decades, passed away in Mumbai following a cardiac arrest. He was 91.

To his audience, he was much more than a presenter – blessed with a warm, kind voice, he cultivated a joyous, inimitable style of broadcasting that conjured the image of a sincere friend speaking directly to each listener through their radio set. A friend who built a cult following who knew no generation gap and who nurtured a love affair between Bollywood songs and his listeners.

His original radio show, Binaca Geetmala, ran for 42 years, made several lyricists, composers and singers household names and even saved many films from oblivion.

“Radio was king in those days and he was the king of kings,” Anurag Chaturvedi, journalist and author, who knew Sayani well, told Al Jazeera.

Over a career that spanned much of independent India’s journey, Sayani recorded at least 50,000 radio programmes, lent his voice to 19,000 jingles, hosted TV shows, and did voiceovers and cameos in some Bollywood films, often as a radio presenter.

“If you see our radio history from 1927, the year radio was incorporated in India, till today, there’s only one voice, one name that is remembered – Ameen Sayani. He was a superstar, his voice was like a gift from heaven,” Pavan Jha, a musicologist, told Al Jazeera.

All India Radio (AIR), India’s state-owned radio broadcaster, is also called Akashvani, which in Hindi means celestial announcement or voice from the sky.

Hindi-Urdu, women first and a note of defiance

Ameen Sayani’s radio career began with a ban.

In the winter of 1952, Balakrishna Vishwanath Keskar, India’s federal minister for information and broadcasting, banished film songs from national airwaves, calling their lyrics irrational, vulgar, Westernised and a threat to Indian classical music.

On AIR, Hindustani and Carnatic classical music replaced film songs, as announcements and news bulletins became increasingly Sanskritised.

Radio Ceylon, a radio station set up during World War II in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to bring music and news to British soldiers stationed in South Asia, saw an opportunity.

It roped in a sponsor – Binaca Top, a toothpaste brand – and a studio owner-producer, Sayani’s older brother Hamid, who was based in what was then called Bombay, and is now Mumbai.

On December 3, 1952, a few months after Keshar’s ban, Radio Ceylon’s strong military transmitters pumped out Binaca Geetmala (garland of songs) into homes across India for the first time, with 20-year-old Ameen Sayani’s cheery, cheeky greeting: “Behno aur bhaiyon, aap ki khidmat me Ameen Sayani ka adaab (Sisters and brothers, Ameen Sayani is at your service with respectful greetings)”.

The show’s signature tune was from a silly but catchy Hindi film song – Pom-pom, Dhin-dhin Goes the Drum – and Sayani’s greeting was in Hindustani. A mix of Hindi-Urdu, Hindustani was the language of Bollywood films and songs, and it was the language of the people.

Sayani’s fresh, joyous style, his lilting note of defiance along with his choice to reverse the order of the traditional greetings of “brothers and sisters”, made the show an instant hit.

“There was gender sensitivity and Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb in that greeting,” Chaturvedi said, referring to India’s traditionally syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture.

He was a cultural ambassador and publicist of Hindi Bollywood music

Born in 1932 in an elite Mumbai family, Sayani’s mother Kulsum Patel was a Hindu and his father, Dr Jaan Mohamad Sayani, was a Muslim. Both were involved in India’s freedom movement.

Sayani attributed his fluency and ease in Hindustani to years spent assisting his mother to edit and print Rahber (which means a guide in Urdu), a fortnightly journal. In an interview, he once recalled a note Mahatma Gandhi had written to his mother: “I like the mission of ‘Rahber’ to unite Hindi and Urdu. May it succeed.”

Sayani and his brother would record the Binaca Geetmala show at their Bombay studio and send magnetic tapes by plane to Radio Ceylon, outside the Indian government’s jurisdiction.

The show’s format was simple: Based on listeners’ requests and record sales, Sayani played 16 Hindi film songs in ascending order of popularity. Sayani has been compared with iconic US presenter Casey Kasem, who ruled music radio in his country with his American Top 40 show. But while Sayani, in later interviews, mentioned his admiration of Kasem, his show preceded Kasem’s by almost two decades, setting a template the world would follow.

While the Indian government kept its airwaves clear of film songs, Sayani celebrated Bollywood songs and elevated them to a popular art form. He would introduce each song with the name of the writer, composer, and singer, and narrate an anecdote about them, their struggles and dedication.

According to Jha, in the late 1980s, when Amitabh Bachchan, a Congress MP, was facing allegations of his alleged involvement in a corrupt defence deal, the release of his film, Shehenshah, kept getting delayed. “Binaca Geetmala kept the film alive by playing the song, Andheri Raaton Mein (On Dark Nights,) over and over for months,” he said.

Sayani was a suave marketer too. At regular intervals, he would say, “Give me a Binaca Top smile,” promoting the sponsor’s toothpaste and connecting with his listeners.

“That timber in his voice, that immediate connect [he had] with listeners … He was more than a radio presenter. He was a cultural ambassador, an advertiser and publicist of Hindi Bollywood music,” said Jha who, like thousands of others, would sit in front of his radio set at 8pm every Wednesday with a notebook to jot down information about songs and their ranking.

“Everyone in the house would be listening to his show – women who were cooking in the kitchen, men in the living room, Bauji (grandfather) on the veranda,” Jha said.

Letters from Jhumri Telaiya to that voice from the heart

Ameen Sayani, whose career is synonymous with the golden era of radio in India, also hosted other popular shows, including the weekly Bournvita Quiz Contest, which he took over after his elder brother died.

He created hundreds of 15-minute film promos for radio and sold toothpaste and headache pills on radio and TV. But apart from Bollywood, it was the dusty, nondescript town called Jhumri Telaiya that he really popularised across India.

On Binaca Geetmala, Sayani would ask listeners to mail him their favourite songs and ranking: He would read some of the notes on air. This spawned zealous radio clubs and passionate letter writers nationwide, including in the mica mining town of Jhumri Telaiya, in the northern Indian state of Jharkhand.

Rameshwar Prasad Barnwal, a mining tycoon, was reportedly the first resident of Jhumri Telaiya to start mailing postcards with his farmaish (song request). Sayani, perhaps intrigued, read out his request and the town’s name in his sing-song style regularly on his show.

While many listeners thought Sayani had concocted this funny-sounding town as a joke, in Jhumri Telaiya letter-writing became a craze and an ego trip. Residents started sending several letters every week, reportedly even bribing postmen not to post others’ letters so that they’d have a better chance of being picked up by Sayani.

At its peak Binaca Geetmala, which eventually moved from Radio Ceylon to the All India Radio network and ran till 1994, had about 400 radio clubs and thousands of individuals writing to Sayani every day with their requests.

“He knew the art of radio announcement. He would use flowery language, play with his voice, words. But there was decency in his style … He had a lot of adab (refinement),” said Chaturvedi.

“Ameen Sayani was special. His voice stood out because it came from the heart.”


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