Ameen Sayani
Ameen Sayani

NEW DELHI: Progressive Urdu poet Sardar Jafri often quoted from a Pakistani poet’s poem to illustrate the power of music over politics.

It was music, he said, which had bound India and Pakistan through ups and downs since their inception.

“Two Indian and Pakistani men, surrounded by their supporters in a restaurant, were fiercely defending their countries,” Jafri Sahab recalled. “Suddenly, the voice of Lata Mangeshkar arrived on the radio and the quarrel stopped in obeisance. The packed restaurant was riveted to the song.”

What Sardar Jafri did not say was that it would be almost impossible for an Indian, leave alone a Pakistani, to hear Lata Mangeshkar or Mohammed Rafi on the radio were it not for the rebellious endeavours of radio jockey Ameen Sayani.

His weekly Binaca Geetmala introduced people to film music

Sayani, who died at 91 in Mumbai on Tuesday, owned the legendary voice with which he introduced the sub-continent to the radiance and lure of Indian film music on the shortwave, a genre otherwise banned on All India Radio.

It so happened that Jawaharlal Nehru had B.V. Keskar, a narrow-minded Maharashtrian Brahmin, as his information and broadcasting minister. Keskar was part of a puritan project of ‘purifying’ Indian music, and he banished film music altogether from the radio, saying it was corrupting for the new nation.

He enforced other regressive measures in keeping with the neo-Brahminical attitudes. He banished the courtesans from singing for the radio, which used to be live performances in the absence of recording technology.

The decision instantly excluded a whole lot of Muslim musicians, who would accompany the banned singers, from the cultural journey.

And Keskar deleted the harmonium from the musician’s accompaniment as a foreign innovation before singers like Bhimsen Joshi brought it back and won the Bharat Ratna award.

At one point he banned Dilip Kumar’s Ganga Jamuna as the censor board demanded 200 cuts. Nehru fired Keskar to save the iconic movie.

Sayani belonged to a progressive Gujarati-speaking family with an acquired taste for conversing in Urdu. His elder brother Hamid Sayani was a member of the film fraternity and appeared in early movies with Nehruvian socialist themes.

Ameen Sayani got his break when he was asked to audition in Colombo to compere a programme to promote Binaca toothpaste by stringing film songs to the show.

And the programme would be broadcast by Radio Ceylon, earning it a fortune. That break for Ameen Sayani became a foundational enterprise, as it took the shortwave radio across the s ub-continent by storm.

It was the shortwave radio that had introduced legendary cricket commentators such as Omar Kureishi and Melville De Mello across the borders.

And of course, Indian music lovers would be glued to the radio to hear Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanam and Suraiya Multanikar.

Binaca Geetmala

Sayani’s weekly Binaca Geetmala would feature 16 newly released Hindi-Urdu film songs. He categorised the changing ‘paadaan’ of each according to its varying popularity. He also introduced other radio programmes, but there was one memorable song every morning at 8am in India. It was always a Kundan Lal Sehgal song, a lovely well-deserved tribute to the maestro of film singing.

“It was for the first time that the warmth and affability of a voice from the radio broke down the sanctioned solemnity and sternness that came in the guise of authoritative baritones, perfect pronunciations, and diction — all of which were associated with state-owned All India Radio,” said the Indian Express in a tribute.

“For decades, one cocked one’s ears to Binaca Geetmala as Sayani played the top (16) every Wednesday from Radio Ceylon, our loyalties bought forever by Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Hemant Kumar, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood and Kishore Kumar.

“I wanted each listener to feel that I was talking to them and that immediately struck a chord. I didn’t expect it to become a phenomenon. They were such fantastic times,” he told writer Komal Panchal in a 2014 interview.

Sayani’s conversational style of engaging the audiences was peppered with anecdotes and interviews of movie celebrities. He occasionally asked listeners to join him in questioning the odd or the absurd about the music he played.

There was a Lata Mangeshkar song from the black and white film Nagin, for example, which used the gourd wind instrument ‘been’, otherwise a regular with Indian snake-catchers.

“If the song is playing the ‘been’, brothers and sisters, why is the heroine praising the magic of the flute?” Sayani was indeed an institution for South Asia, and beyond quite possibly, with no parallel ever again.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2024

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