Mere dil ko yakin hai ye mukammal
Naghmon ki kasam aaj bhi zinda hai wo Saigal
Saigal ko faramosh koi kar nahi sakta
Wo aisa amar hai ke kabhi mar nahi sakta
Naushad, the music director par excellence for the Hindi film industry, was not indulging in hyperbole when he penned the above poetic tribute to Kundal Lal Saigal. For truly Saigal’s voice continues to haunt the entire sub-continent more than a half-century after it was snuffed out by the cruel hand of Death. Dying a bare six months before India kept her tryst with destiny, for today’s generation Saigal’s voice is redolent with a past that was impossibly romantic and endearingly innocent. Compared to the modern-day testosterone-driven, bare-chested macho film stars, Saigal – with his slight built and homely features -- cut an incongruous figure. Yet when he opened his mouth to sing, he cast a golden spell upon his listeners. The enchantment of the spell continues sixty years after his death. The K. L. Saigal Memorial Circle organises regular events at various locations across New Delhi where young and old sway to the charm of this ageless voice. The internet too is awash with sites devoted to his music testifying his continuing appeal to younger audiences.
That such a man and his remarkable life should have been left un-chronicled by musical historians and critics speaks a lot for our lackadaisical approach to archiving our immediate past. It was left to Pran Neville, a devotee of light classical music and a tireless cultural historian, to not merely revisit K L Saigal’s musical legacy but also, for the first time, document the life and times of the Shahenshah-e-Mausiqui. K. L. Saigal: The Definitive Biography is a useful book for several reasons: first and foremost, it draws our attention to the early history of the Hindi film industry as it chronicles the rise and fall of the great film studios of Calcutta, of iconic figures such as B N Sircar (1901-80) who was the founder of the path breaking studio New Theatres, A chapter entitled ‘Saigal’s Mentors and Associates’ forms the nub of Neville’s book for those of us who know very little about the Calcutta years of the film industry. Accompanied by rare photographs of some of these stalwarts, it documents their commitment to cinema, especially Debaki Bose and P. C. Barua who were intellectual giants in their own right.
Together with another very useful book on the early years of the music industry, Vikram Sampath’s My Name is Gauhar Jan, studies such as these also document the pioneering work of those who popularised Hindustani classical music. Where Gauhar Jan -- the first Indian artist to have recorded for the Gramophone Company on 2 November 1902 when she sang a khayal in Raag Jogiya for a princely sum of Rs 3,000 -- is credited for introducing the thumri, dadra, bhajan, kajri, chaiti, tarana and geet, Saigal can take the lion’s share of the credit for popularising two major non-filmy genres – the bhajan and the ghazal -- into a market that had traditionally fed off the film industry. In fact, the present popularity of the ghazal can be traced to the innovations introduced into its singing by musicians like Saigal who, according to Nevile, ‘inspired both amateur and professional singers of subsequent generations to take to ghazal singing. Saigal selected and composed the ghazals and contributed in no small way to ‘bringing name and fame to forgotten poets whose verses he sang.’ While by no means a ‘forgotten poet’, Saigal’s rendition of Ghalib’s ghazals no doubt infused fresh verve into the words of a poet who wrote for all times and all occasions. Nevile notes that ghazal singers as diverse as Begum Akhtar, Noor Jahan and Iqbal Bano have testified to Saigal’s unparalleled mastery in singing Ghalib in his inimitable style.
Born on 14 April 1904 in the princely state of Jammu, touched the hearts of millions of listeners despite virtually no formal training in music. This was especially remarkable in an era that boasted some of the finest virtuoso musicians – both male and female –who belonged to gharanas, had undergone rigorous training under various ustads and dazzled listeners with skill and expertise acquired from hours of painstaking riyaz. The floodgates to the gramophone era opened by Gauhar Jan with her flirty announcement at the end of each recording – ‘My name is Gauhar Jan’ in a high-pitched naughty voice – ushered in a period of great flowering of real talent. Janki Bai of Allahabad (1880-1934), known also as Chhappanchhuri on account of the 56 knife marks made by a jealous suitor, recorded over 250 songs on 78 rpm from 1910-30. Nevile mentions the traffic jams on the roads of Allahabad when shops selling her records played her songs to attract passers-by.
Among the great upsurge of talent ushered in by the fledgling gramophone companies for a nation avid for more, some musicians shone briefly and were then lost in ignominy while others rose from strength to strength. Sundra Bai of Pune (1885-1955) enthralled her listeners with her command over raags and raginis but died a forgotten artiste. Malika Pukhraj (1912-2004), on the other hand, not only enjoyed an exceptionally long innings but also, like Saigal, is still remembered for evolving a unique style of rendering thumris, ghazals and songs. She made Hafiz Jallundhari’s Abhi to main jawan hoon her ‘own’ song in much the same way that Saigal is remembered for Jhulana jhulavo ree, jhulana jhula, jhulavo ree/Ambuva ki daree pe koyal bole ama. Or, Baalam aan baso more man mein. Or, Ik bangala bane nyara. Or, Dukh ke din beetat nahin. In Saigal’s case the list is endless.
Nevile studs his narrative with several interesting but little-known facts. For instance, Saigal, denied a role in Nitin Bose’s Dhoop Chhaon (a role that eventually went to Pahari Sanyal in both the Hindi and Bengali versions), was so heartbroken that he took his first drink, ‘marking the beginning of an abiding habit. Nitin was burdened with guilt.’ Elsewhere, Nevile digs into his vast treasure trove of archival material to quote from a rare interview with Saigal. Speaking to Kirit Ghosh, editor of the Bangla magazine Jayanthi, Saigal says:
‘My favourite raga is Bhiaravi. To know Bhairavi is to know all the ragas. You know how it is. There is Todi in it, there is Kafi in it, and Bhimpalasi and Bhairavi and the falvour and scent of so many ragas. In fact with any three notes of Bhairavi you can have a dhun and the possibility of another song. If I had Bhairavi I would not pine for any other raga very much.’
In the same interview, Saigal goes on to talk about how, being untutored, he sang ‘with the help of ears alone’: ‘All I can say about my own singing is that I do not use ten notes if I can manage to do the same with one.’
Though Saigal’s health failed, his voice continued to evoke images of limpid pools of golden calm. His last great masterpiece, Shah Jahan, was released in late 1946, at a time when chronic diabetes had made him almost bedridden. Perhaps it is the sublimation of his own pains that we see in the pathos-laden songs from his last film – the ever-green Gham diye mustaqil and Jab dil hi toot gaya. Or, perhaps, it is the glow from the candle that burns brightest just before it is snuffed out.
(Rakhshanda Jalil is Senior Associate Fellow at the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.)
Pran Nevile, K L Saigal: The Definitive Biography, Penguin, 2011.