Ameen Sayani’s golden voice falls silent

Ameen Sayani was a legendary voice on Indian radio. Photo: Rajiv Vijayakar

He took film music into every Indian home and popularized Hindi film songs in all corners of the globe with just the radio and his unique voice as his tools. Honored with the Padma Shri 15 years ago, the legend that was Ameen Sayani was loved in every nook and cranny of the country and in multiple parts of the world where Hindi film music thrived. Especially on radio, a prime source of entertainment until the 1970s, when television laid claim to be a leader.

And this legend passed into immortality on February 20 at the age of 91, following a heart-attack. He is survived by his son Rajil and daughter-in-law Krishan Jyoti.

I first met him somewhere in the 1990s, then in the late 2000s and finally in 2019, each time in his office overlooking the hustle and bustle of Mumbai’s Colaba Causeway, with the gentle voice carrying just a rich elegance and nothing of the fiery punch that has all made his shows the epitome of exciting commercial radio round the globe for over half a century.

Ameen-saab at the onset requested me to cut him short if I felt anytime that he was elaborating too much, for that’s how vibrant was his memory bank. In 2008, he had modestly smiled and said that the Republic Day National honor of Padma Shri was declared on the morning of the event to launch Geet Mala Ki Chhaon Mein, his unique project and album series with Saregama—HMV and “So they turned it into a double celebration.”

About this, he elaborated, “Life has been a series of steps—mostly forwards and a few backwards. Thankfully, my spirit remains as strong as it ever was. It feels nice that broadcasters are being recognized, and I am grateful and happy for this, because it is more of a feather in radio’s cap than mine. And when I say radio, I mean both those who make radio shows and those who listen to them. For in my case, by God’s grace, I always had a very large family of dedicated listeners—I say family because they considered me like a son then, and an uncle or grandpa now rather than just a radio host!”

Obviously very passionate about his work and prime medium—radio—despite having flirted with television and live shows, the veteran then stated, “I think every media can survive in the face of any other, as all are unique. The core is that we cannot forget content even as formats and tastes change. Any medium—print, radio or whatever—is like a river that flows, changes course, amalgamates new things, changes and keeps passing on, redistributing its bounties. I always say that if you link parampara (tradition) and pragati (progress) there can be no question of any media dying.”

For those unaware of the legend that Ameen-saab is (the present tense here is a must!), he presented his first show at the age of 7 and joined Radio Ceylon in 1951. Those were the days when Indian radio stations had foolishly banned film music (thanks to an Information & Broadcasting Minister named B.V. Keskar, who considered himself as a music purist!) and Radio Ceylon cleverly launched Geet Mala on —Ameen-saab recalled the precise date—December 3, 1952.

“I just presented a collection of good songs from that time and an earlier period and asked listeners to arrange them in order of preference,” he recalled with amusement. “If they tallied with my list, they stood to win a jackpot of Rs 100—a huge sum then. We expected about 100 entries, but the people were missing film music—then at its early zenith—so much that we got 9000 letters! Within a year we were getting an unmanageable mail of 60,000 letters a week, and so we decided to convert the show into a countdown and remove the prize element!”

Not that the move slowed things down. The Geet Mala became Hindi film music’s first-ever countdown show and a cult program that ran until the 1980s and then in spurts for over a decade more on either radio or television. It became Ameen-saab’s biggest creation ever, and his “Beheno aur bhaiyyon” and rousing style of anchoring made history not just in India but — from 1976 when he began exporting his shows — unimaginably popular even abroad.

The positions of the songs in his shows — especially the annual toppers — were mentioned in film and music publicity, made their way into the curriculum vitae of film and music artistes and even influenced the career progress of music directors and lyricists!

And though Ameen-saab made equal impact with other shows — there was a time when he was doing 20 shows a week with no time for lunch or family—it was Geet Mala (the name preceded by the commercial sponsors, toothpaste and toothbrush makers Binaca, which later was renamed Cibaca) that remained his tour de force. When it completed 25 years, a special celebration was held in Mumbai’s high-profile Shanmukhananda Hall and all the top names attended and were presented trophies while the annual toppers were screened. On both this occasion and some years later, HMV, as Saregama was known then, released commemorative albums that were soon sold out.

And that is where lay the genesis of his new project, Geet Mala Ki Chhaon Mein, a series of albums that take the listener on a journey of film music year by year. As Ameen-saab had then told me, “A curious fact was that even as I was receiving emails and letters by the hundreds from all over the world from music lovers wanting to hear old favorites, so was the music company. So when Saregama approached me I suggested a fresh concept — of highlighting beautiful songs that had played on Geet Mala but had not got hyped. We started with the first five volumes covering music till 1954. The unique point is that each volume has snippets about my broadcasting life, the Geet Mala innings, a bit of fun at my own expense and some sher-o-shaayari (poetry) besides the voices of at least five film stars.”

In sync with the times, his Sangeet Ke Sitaron Ki Mehfil was running simultaneously in several parts of North India and in New Zealand, Canada and Fiji, after runs in New York and Dubai. This was a show about live interactions with music people right up to the millennium.

Ameen-saab and Amitabh!

The veteran had also recalled, “It was 1969. I was doing 20 shows a week, spending most of the day locked up in the studio in my office. A young man walked in without appointment for a voice audition. There was not a second to spare for this tall, thin young man. He waited and left, and came twice or thrice more. He became instantly popular with my staff. But I did not see him. Early in 1971, I watched Anand at a trial show, and was floored by the man’s persona, voice and performance. I predicted that he would become India’s biggest star. I wanted to back him and his projects through my radio publicity — and I did, even before Zanjeer. His name was Amitabh Bachchan!

“Years passed and I was the president of the Radio and Advertising Practitioners’ Association (RAPA). We started our own awards and as the Amitabh Bachchan, he came as chief guest. In his speech, he referred to his struggling days when he had come to the only commercial radio office thrice and was not even allowed to give an audition. I told my wife, “But we were the only ones then!” and she told me, ‘That’s where he had come! And you were too busy even to meet me or have lunch!’

“And today, even though I regret denying him an audition, I realize that what happened was for the best for both of us! His voice would have finished my career, and he would have got so much work that Indian cinema would have lost its biggest star!”

The Honest Host

Despite his listing and rating songs on the shows based on Radio Clubs and Listeners’ Clubs all around the country, Ameen-saab was frequently accused of favoritism, a necessary evil considering his show’s mammoth popularity. And he told me, “I just called all the composers who were accusing me of manipulation and showed them the data! They were silenced!”

My last meeting with Ameen-saab

Typical of his generation’s giants, Ameen-saab always preferred to speak with me in person. I requested him for time to discuss Laxmikant-Pyarelal for my book on them (the National Award-winning Music by Laxmikant-Pyarelal), as the composers had ruled for so long, topped his Annual show 11 times and scored 250 of the 1008 Sartaaj ­Geets (songs that had played for 16 consecutive weeks or four months among the week’s 16 toppers). Both were unequaled records for his show, and Ameen-saab not only gave me priceless information but also took the trouble of getting son Rajil (an old friend too) to show me documents as well as video footage of the material he had on them, apologizing for some age-related lapses of memory!

Ameen Sayani was one of a kind.






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