The name Kundan Lal Saigal or K.L. Saigal will barely register on the consciousness of the current generation in India. To be honest, it hardly did on my generation either but when it comes to my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, Saigal was a colossus who strode the screens of Hindi cinema from the early 1930s to late 1940s. He was a singer-actor but is chiefly remembered for his songs today. The number of recorded songs he left behind is very few in number (by one estimate, less than 200) but in terms of sheer influence on the Hindi music industry, they are unparalleled.
I have been listening to Saigal’s songs from as far back as I can remember. There was Radio Ceylon’s signature Saigal song that was played at around 7:57 am or so every day, timed so that the song would end at 8 am. If I heard the song come on the radio, it meant that I was late and would miss the bus to school. I would then have to run to the bus stop! My mother used to hum his songs and so did my grandfather. While my friends listened to contemporary Hindi music, very few of them listened to the singers of Saigal’s era. As a member of the generation that grew up prior to the advent of the internet, my knowledge of K.L. Saigal’s life was pretty sparse and it was gleaned from disparate sources. From a Quiz Competition, I learned that he was a Remington typewriter salesman prior to achieving fame as a singer. While listening to his song “Diya Jalao” on the radio, my mother mentioned that the song was from the movie “Tansen” and was based on Raag Deepak. Legend has it that Tansen’s rendition of Raag Deepak had the power to light unlit lamps. This gave me an inkling that he was a classical singer of some repute. My grandfather would often rue the fact that a singer of such rare talent was given to the bottle and ultimately lost his life after he was affected by cirrhosis of the liver. My grandfather also remarked that he was not exactly an articulate actor. Perhaps Saigal was a product of his times when film making and recording techniques required the sound to be recorded along with the film and hence actors had to be stationary as much as possible.
Saigal, unfortunately at least in some quarters, is stereotyped as a singer of melancholic songs. While some of his songs are indeed infused with pain and sorrow, they really span the gamut of emotions There is “Dukh ke ab din beetan naahi” (Days of sadness now never end, days of joy are a distant dream) from the movie Devdas which is as melancholic as any song gets. There is the classical aspect of Saigal with his songs “Jhulana jhulao ri” or other songs from the movie Tansen. He can be lighthearted as in “Diya jisne dil lut gaya wo bechara” (He who gives his heart is looted, hapless soul!). There are songs of heartbreak as in “Jab dil he toot gaya, hum jeeke kya karenge” from ShahJahan (When one’s heart is broken, what use is it to continue living) but there are songs of love too as in “Main kya jaanu kya jadu hai” (I know not what magic lies in your bewitching eyes) There are spiritual bhajans “Madhukar Shyam hamare chor” and “Nainheen ko raah dikha Prabhu” (Lord, show the path to the blind). Tender lullabies such as “Soja Rajkumari” (Sleep princess) and the playful story told in verse “Ek raaje ka beta lekar udne waala ghoda” (story of a prince and a flying horse). I have not touched upon his ghazals – largely because I lack the understanding of Urdu that would allow me to appreciate them. It is said that with the advent of gramophone records and the radio, Saigal helped bring ghazals, which were previously the purview of the elite, to the common man. I would be remiss if I did not mention “Babul mora naihar chooto hi jaaye” which I had taken at face value to be the lament of a bride as she leaves her parents home. I later found out that it was penned by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow when he was exiled by the British and had to leave his beloved Lucknow. The song is a metaphor for his exile.
Saigal’s life is now chronicled in a few biographies as well as in a couple of documentaries that are available on YouTube. He was born in Jammu in 1904, his father worked at the royal court of the kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir. He is said to have displayed an unusual interest in music at a young age and was encouraged by his mother. He sang bhajans (devotional songs) as well as folk songs. His family later moved to Jullundur (now called Jalandhar in modern-day Punjab) where he was exposed to Hindustani classical music at the music festivals held in the city. He worked various jobs before ending up as a traveling salesman for the Remington Typewriter Company.
He got his break as a singer-actor with New Theaters Studio in Calcutta. The studio was set up by B.N. Sircar and there are various accounts as to how Saigal met B.N. Sircar. I like to believe the version that Saigal was introduced to him by Pankaj Mullick, another titan of the music world. Pankaj Mullick, a singer-actor himself as well as a composer, has composed some wonderful songs for Saigal. Saigal’s first movie “Mohabbat Ke Aansoo” (Tears of Love) was released in 1932. After acting in a number of New Theater productions for the first ten years of his career, Saigal later acted for other studios. His last movie “Parwana” (Moth) was released in 1947 a few months after his death. His popularity soared after “ Devdas” was released in 1936. The story of a tragic hero who unable to marry the girl of his choice turns to alcohol, which ultimately consumes him. This movie was remade a couple of decades later with Dilip Kumar playing the role of Devdas and again in 2002 with Sharukh Khan in the lead. Both leading actors of their time. There are Tamil, Telugu and Bengali versions too. The 1955 version starring Dilip Kumar is considered to be among one of the best Bollywood movies ever made. Dilip Kumar was the quintessential tragic hero of Indian cinema but Saigal with his brilliant voice is the archetype Devdas. While his movies were no doubt popular during their time, his songs from those movies have endured and are considered as classics today.
Listening to Saigal’s songs today, it is hard to imagine them as the equivalent of chartbusters. Tastes change and our definition of what is considered as popular music changes with time. However, Saigal was the first definitive singing superstar of India. The author Pran Neville in his biography on K.L. Saigal remembers a live performance in Lahore in the late 1930s. Saigal was to perform at a theater and the tickets were sold out. Neville and his friend managed to buy tickets from a scalper at the last minute and rushed in to catch the show. He recounts the pandemonium in the theater as the audience lapped up Saigal’s songs and stood on benches and chairs as they applauded his performance. The songs that he lists are sedate numbers and by today’s standards would hardly be considered foot-stomping. But it would be a mistake to separate a song from its milieu and judge it by today’s standards. What stands out with Saigal’s singing is the intrinsic quality of his voice. He was usually accompanied by a harmonium and tabla and his voice alone carried the song. Naushad, the famed composer says a voice like Saigal has not graced the industry since.
Saigal influenced several singers who went on to become the greats of Indian film music. Mukesh’s first song “Dil jalta hai” and Kishore Kumar’s first song “Jagmag jagmag karta nikla” are both sung in Saigal’s style. So is Talat Mahmood’s “Sab din ek saman nahi tha”. Saigal’s generosity was legendary and there are several stories that attest to this. Film actor Annu Kapoor narrates a story where Saigal who after listening to Mukesh’s “Dil jalta hai”, invited him home after listening to a few of his songs presented his own harmonium to Mukesh. Manek Premchand in “Yesterday’s Melodies Today’s Memories” writes that the famed music director Naushad would choke up with emotion while narrating an incident wherein a unit lights man requested Saigal to visit his house and sing at his daughter’s wedding. A wealthy industrialist had also invited Saigal to sing at his bungalow that same evening and offered him a then princely sum of Rs 25,000 which was more like a King’s ransom. Saigal did not hesitate and showed up with his harmonium at the wedding and sang till the wee hours of the morning.
Saigal died at the young age of forty-two due to cirrhosis of liver. It is said that he enjoyed a peg of whiskey, which he called “Kaali Panch” after each rehearsal. Lore has it that Saigal felt that his voice sounded better and mellower after he had his whiskey. In a documentary on Saigal, his son disputes this stating that Saigal drank well within limits and was not an alcoholic. Naushad, however, is on record (and his interview is available on YouTube) where he recounts that he recorded Saigal singing the same song once before he had imbibed his Kaali Panch and once after several rehearsals accompanied with several Kaali Panches. Saigal picked the former as the better version and was stunned when he was told that it was the “non-alcoholic” version. The song then found its way into his penultimate movie “Shah Jahan” and is the version we hear today “Jab dil hi toot gaya” (When one’s heart is broken, what use is it to continue living). Incidentally, Saigal, who was probably already ailing at this time, requested that this song be played at his funeral, and it was.
My collection of Saigal music followed the usual trajectory. I first listened to his songs on the radio, primarily on Radio Ceylon. Later, as we got our own cassette player, I bought his cassettes. They kept me company for a long time until I bought a CD player. I then bought a 5 CD set that had an excellent compilation of his songs. A few years ago, on a visit to NJ, my friend Vinith sprang a surprise by gifting me a twin LP set. He knew I loved listening to Saigal and it was a wonderful gesture on his part. Nowadays, I listen to Saigal’s songs on Spotify, usually at work with my headphones on. However, I do occasionally listen to the LPs on my turntable, with the lights turned off. A tradition that I learned from my dad and his brothers. Incidentally, Saigal was a poet of some repute, and probably the only surviving recording of his composition is “Main baithi thi phulwari mein” (I was seated in the garden). I have often wondered how it would be to listen to Saigal sing live. Two singers that I would like to listen to today are Prof Nashenas, an Afghan, whose performance of “Aye katibe taqdeer” is available on YouTube, and Sangita Nerurkar who has a few songs again on YouTube. She is classically trained and in my opinion, does a fantastic job of rendering Saigal’s songs.
Over the years, I have enjoyed my fair share of good-natured ribbing due to my listening choices when it comes to music. Friends, roommates and even my wife have shaken their respective heads in despair and tried to zone out when I played Saigal’s or Pankaj Mullick’s songs. I can’t blame them. Saigal died four decades before I was born and his style of music has long since ceased to exist. As a casual listener of music, I can’t tell a thumri from a khayal or a dadra, nor can I identify classical ragas. These are qualities that probably would allow a listener to truly appreciate Saigal’s music. However, I grew up listening to these songs at home on the radio. These are songs that my mother hummed and my grandfather sang (a few lines, here and there). It was a connection with my grandfather that transcended generations. This is comfort music for me. And to be honest, I actually like the songs and I love Saigal’s voice. There is a natural raw quality to it that draws me in. If you are ever down and out, listen to his “Karun kya aas niras bhayi” (I’m filled with despair, what do I do?) in the evening light. The first half of the song draws you deeper into the abyss of despair but then the tone of the song changes, and it lifts you and your spirits and the song ends with the optimistic refrain “Kaho na aas niras bhayi” (Say not that you are filled with despair). An accompanying malt is optional but highly recommended.
Note: The featured picture of a young Saigal is from Pran Neville’s biography on Saigal.