Ameen Sayani: A voice that brought a nation closer - Hindustan Times

Ameen Sayani: A voice that brought a nation closer

Feb 26, 2024 11:24 AM IST

Armed witih the melody-thread of Bollywood songs, Ameen Sayani was more effective than all the Hindi missionaries who sought to popularise the language

Most of the obituaries on Ameen Sayani, who passed away this week, recalled a “golden voice of the yesteryears”. But what was the social fabric, the sovereign mood that made an Ameen Sayani possible? If nation-building in the first decade of Independence gets its own history, this Gujarati Muslim’s name is sure to figure in it, along with those of his political soulmates — Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, among many. His voice, transmitted from a foreign land in 1952, unified India culturally. He accomplished what the Hindi Prachar Sabhas couldn’t: Armed with the melody-thread of Bollywood songs, he was more effective than all the missionaries from the Hindi heartland who travelled to South India to popularise the language.

Ameen Sayani was not just a singular golden voice but represented the subcontinent’s longing for an aesthetic of freedom.(HT File Photo/ Vijayanand Gupta) PREMIUM
Ameen Sayani was not just a singular golden voice but represented the subcontinent’s longing for an aesthetic of freedom.(HT File Photo/ Vijayanand Gupta)

The Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha was launched in 1918 in Madras. Mahatma Gandhi volunteered his son Devdas to Madras to spread the message of Hindi. In a letter, he asked Devdas to learn a new Tamil word for every new Hindi word he taught there. The desired quid pro quo came about quicker through melody. The tunes in many South Indian films in the 1950s and 1960s were seasoned by popular Hindi film songs. With Sayani counting down Hindi hits on Radio Ceylon, melody lovers in the South were tuning in to Short Wave 11905 Khz.

I was in Class 8 in a school in Kerala 1973, when my classmate Rajiv hummed Yaadon ki baaraat nikli hai aaj dil ke dwaare in the classroom. He translated the lyrics for me -- “the procession of memories has left today”. Rajiv’s “Singapore-returned” father had brought with him a transistor and a habit of listening to the radio. Father and son listened to Binaca Geetmala, anchored by Sayani on Radio Ceylon. Ameen Sayani’s mother, Kulsum, met Gandhi in 1917, and since then, she weaved threads of nationalism on the charkha and spread the message of Hindustani. Ameen Sayani considered his mother a great inspiration. He had seen her fight many battles, including the one with the Muslim League’s idea of two nations and two languages. Kulsum’s son, as a much sought-after broadcast voice, would one day flip Gandhi’s famous call to Indians, bhaiyon aur bahnon to bahnon aur bhaiyon.

A rather warped notion about culture led BV Keskar, the then information and broadcasting minister, to the banning of Hindi film songs on All India Radio (AIR). Keskar believed that film songs had become vulgar, erotic and westernised. The same Keskar had closed the doors of India’s public broadcaster on hereditary female singers with his infamous “ban anyone whose private life is a public scandal” diktat.

The ban on broadcast of Hindi film songs on AIR came in 1952. Ameen Sayani started Geetmala over Radio Ceylon in December that year, just before his 20th birthday. He continued it till 1988, and then he became a part of AIR’s Vividh Bharati service.

What made Ameen Sayani a much-loved household name? Many in the industry in the later years had similar baritone voices and the same command over English, Hindi or Urdu, but no one became as cherished as him. When Ameen Sayani was talking about a song, he took a feather-touch approach, reassuring the listeners affectionately. Talking about family, health, wealth, or relationships, he could organically connect the listeners’ lives to a Hindi film number. This formula made him an all-time model for successful radio jockeying in any mode of broadcasting. A shoemaker sitting in front of Akashvani Bhawan in Delhi’s Parliament Street once told me how Ameen Sayani became a fraternal voice for him and his brother, a tailor who migrated to Lahore after Partition. The brothers were from Lucknow.

The remembrance of Ameen Sayani itself is becoming a social memory. His was not just a singular golden voice, it represented the collective soundscape of a spring, bloomed by the subcontinent’s longing for an aesthetic of freedom.

S Gopalakrishnan is a writer, broadcaster, and founder of the podcast, Dilli Dali.

The views expressed are personal

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