The Journey of a Voice

Should it not be assumed that a speaker, given a keen audience, a good thirty minutes to speak, and a buffet lunch at the Taj Mahal Hotel, is a little too complacent about the honour if he begins his speech by saying, “I will be a little short because I have to catch a flight to Delhi”?

For the last Tuesday speaker, Ameen Sayani, that assumption could only be made if he had not been a freedom fighter, had not been the voice of Binaca Geetmala every week from 1954 to 1993, or if his was not the first voice on radio to enthrall 210 million people. The fact that he is now 85 years of age, still catching planes to fulfil assignments across the world, only gives us the pleasure to assume that his journey is far from over.

However, when his journey did begin back in 1952, he confesses, “I was not very good at spoken Hindustani, because I had studied Gujarati and English.” Surely that is hard to believe considering that he is primarily known as a Hindustani broadcaster, but there is a backstory to that: Ameen Sayani was already a successful English broadcaster in his teens, but then came the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. “It broke my heart and my mind. I swore that I would become a Hindustani broadcaster to fulfill Gandhiji’s vision.” The latter’s vision was to make Hindustani the national language of India.

Although the speaker’s efforts in realising Gandhi’s vision had already begun as a writer for RAHBER – a Hindustani fortnightly started by his mother before Independence – he was eager to broadcast in the national language. So he head over to the All India Radio headquarters, and made his desire known to the officials. They allowed him to audition, but rejected him because his Hindustani pronunciations had “a lot of influence of Gujarati, and a lot of influence of English.” The man who would later be king of Indian radio was shattered.

It was only a matter of time before luck struck: His brother Hamid Sayani, a successful English broadcaster, allowed him to tag along to his recordings with Radio Ceylon. At one of these recordings, the commercials announcer did not show up. Any guesses for who filled in for the missing broadcaster? Yes, but what you will not be able to guess was Ameen Sayani’s payment for his first broadcast in Hindustani: “A small tin of herbal tea.” Nevertheless, it was something – a great way to improve his spoken Hindustani.

Not too long after he landed the job as Radio Ceylon’s commercial announcer, another opportunity came his way. Radio Ceylon, to their Hindustani broadcasters, made the ridiculous offer of scheduling a Hindustani broadcast on the condition that it was produced, scripted, and compèred by the same person. Our Tuesday speaker had a wild idea, and Binaca Geetmala was born. In his own words, “For all of Rs. 25, I was required to select the songs, produce, script, and compère the programme – and also sort the mail. The programme involved a competition and we expected 40 to 50 letters. The first episode brought 9,000. Within a year, that number touched 60,000. We had to shelve the competition and introduce a countdown show.”

Radio Ceylon used the mini-transmitters that Lord Mountbatten’s military command left behind after India’s independence. After getting their Tamil, English and Sinhala broadcasts in place, the officials never gave much importance to Hindustani broadcasts. But who would have known that their Hindustani broadcasts would garner a better listenership; Who would have known that the journey of one voice would get the attention of the entire world.