Utpal Borpujari

August 24, 2009

Of Songs in the Shadow: Ameen Sayani’s journey back in time

By Utpal Borpujari

There was a time when almost 20 crore people would tune in to listen to Binaca Geetmala, which, if one goes  by 1971 Census of India, is more than one-third of India’s population. Of course, a percentage of this listener base came from countries as far as East Africa. But then, the legendary music countdown programme broadcast from Radio Ceylon through its shortwave network, hosted by the Amin Sayani, who became a living legend thanks to his unique style of presentation and vast knowledge base, used to be as popular as, say the serial Mahabharat or Ramayan, whose telecast on Doordarshan would bring the nation to a halt.

Binaca Geetmala was the ultimate countdown show on radio, making Radio Ceylon  a household name at every home that listened to Hindi film music, which virtually meant every radio-owning house in pre-television era. So much so that the longevity of record sales depend on where a particular film’s songs stood on the Hit Parade. The curious decision of All India Radio to completely ban broadcast of film songs at that time helped the programme to the zoom to the top of the popularity scale.But there came a time, when it gradually started to wane, firstly, as Sayani himself puts it, because of the cluttering of the shortwave band which made accessing the programme more and more difficult for faraway listeners, and secondly because of the slow but sure advent of television. From Binaca, it became the Cibaca Geetmala and then Colgate Cibaca Geetmala, the name changing as the sponsor’s name and ownership changed hands, and finally, after shifting to Vividh Bharati of All India Radio, the programme became history in the course of time.

But what Geetmala had captured over the years was the great history of Hindi film music, and the songs that had been part of the weekly Hit Parade cornered name, fame and glory. But there songs that never made it to the top list, even though they are acknowledged as classics of their time, some even all-time. Now, as the clock ticks towards the Diamond Jubilee of the launch of Geetmala, which had happened on December three of 1952, Sayani has painstakingly dug through his archives, extracting those forgotten gems and compiling them into a series of audio CDs. The first set of five CDs of the series is already out in the market even as Sayani has recorded the next five CDs for a likely September release, the plan being to release around 35-40 CDs to include all those beautiful compositions that remained in the shadows of the more successful songs in the programme. Aptly the series, released by Saregama, has been titled “Geetmala Ki Chhaon Mein” (In the Shadows of Geetmala), and the first set of five has the songs from 1952 to 1955.

For Sayani, helming the concept has been a great journey back in time, especially because it is synonymous with him, and him only. “Geetmala as we know was heard by almost more than 20 crore people every week at one point in time, and it ran for a total of 45 years in three sessions. When I was given the job of doing the series, I wanted to do something that would be different from anything I had done earlier,” he says. There have been LP records compiling 25 years of the programme, but that comprised the hit parade songs. But this time, Sayani suggested to Saregama that the concept should be to take make it a journey of memories of “laughter and a little tear” through the story of Geetmala, his own life story in connection with it, the story of Radio Ceylon and of commercial broadcasting and, above all, the story of Indian film music.

“The big hits in Geetmala are so overplayed that nobody really wants to listen to them in their complete form, so I have played only short flashes of them. But the main emphasis is on those beautiful, immortal songs which somehow did not get that popularity and somehow got left in the shade, the songs that missed the headlines, but still are beautiful songs which live in everyone’s hearts and which everyone would like to listen to. Some of these songs are so rare that people who do not listen to old music may not remember them at all,” says Sayani, reminiscing the programme that started with the producers expecting just around 50 letters as feedback but ended up receiving 9,000 in the first week following the broadcast of the inaugural episode itself.

“The response to the series has been absolutely fantastic. Everytime Saregama sends copies to the market they get sold out immediately,” Sayani says with excitement that belies his 76 years. The CDs have snatches of the hits, as well as interviews of stars like Meena Kumari, Sunil Dutt, Amitabh Bachchan, C Ramchandra, B R Chopra, Kishore Kumar and so on. As the grand old man of Indian commercial broadcasting explains, Geetmala enjoyed immense popularity right from its start till the middle of the 1970s. The reasons, he ascribes, were Radio Ceylon’s very powerful shortwave transmitters which made the programme accessible all over Asia and right up to South Africa and East Africa. In the 1980s, the programme shifted to Vividh Bharati.

The success of the programme, he says, was because he used to put in “a lot of myself, India, humanity, fun and humour, sher-o-shayari and information on events he would attend”. The impact was such that when he talked about a show in a city that he would not name, where the organisers had refused to pay legends like C Ramchandra, Mukesh, then a young Mahendra Kapoor and many others, there was such a hue and cry in that state that people wanted to state government to resign taking the responsibility for getting bad name to the whole state. But then, they were little incidents if one looks at the span and the impact of the programme. As Sayani says, the current series is all about “100 per cent entertainment, 100 per cent soul stirring nostalgia”. And that’s what it is all about.

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 23-08-2009)

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/21056/of-songs-shadow.html

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