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Singing has become his legacy, but Saigal was also a nuanced actor; among the many roles he played was the titular character in the 1935 version of Devdas | Still from the film
Singing has become his legacy, but Saigal was also a nuanced actor; among the many roles he played was the titular character in the 1935 version of Devdas | Still from the film

This story has its real beginnings in Calcutta [Kolkatta], because while our hero, K.L. Saigal, was born in Jammu on April 7, 1904, Calcutta was where he flowered. Here Rabindranath Tagore had set a new trend in music, free of the strict rules of the classical mode and more sophisticated than folk music. Folk music was sweet and captivating, but lacked the sublimity and stateliness of classical music. Tagore adopted a middle course, and with the advent of Western orchestra, this new form of music appealed to the common and busy man.

A voice such as Kundan Lal Saigal’s — untrained, but unrestrained — was a boon for a new venture such as cinema. Saigal started out in1933 inclined to the classical mode, but by 1943 the rushing inflections and high and low pitch were straightened out, and in the songs of the film Bhanwra he sang to chorus and orchestra what we recognise most easily as a film song. If I were made to choose only two songs by Saigal, I would choose ‘Tara Pata Beete Dina Rain’ — a song saturated with sheer pathos, yet with an effortless and high crescendo — from 1934’s Chandidas, and ‘Bina Pankh Panchi’ — in which Saigal could seamlessly accommodate a variety of modes — from the 1943 film Tansen.

On Jan 18, 1947, Saigal passed away at Jallandhar, leaving behind an enviable legacy. A film, Amar Saigal, was made in Calcutta in 1955 as a tribute, and thereafter the books followed.

Raghava R. Menon came out with K.L. Saigal: Pilgrim of the Swara in 1978. Menon was the only biographer to have actually met Saigal. However, his main contribution is not biographical details, but exposition of Saigal’s singing style: “The ragas were always taught by ear, always remembered by their characteristic progressions and bhavas, rather than by the knowledge of notes. Notes were taught long after the raga was part of the ear and feelings of the student.”

Singing has become his legacy, but Saigal was also a nuanced actor; among the many roles he played was the titular character in the 1935 version of Devdas | Still from the film

After giving us the secret of Saigal’s success, Menon focuses on one particular song to bring out the individuality of Saigal’s talent: “Remember ‘So Ja Raj Kumari’. You can call it crooning if you like, only it is not. It is sung as fully and as completely as the opening lines of ‘Diya Jalao’. It is sung at a low volume, and not at a low pitch. It is somewhat like the wick in a lamp. The wick has been lowered and so the brightness of the light is lowered. The fire within the holder is burning exactly as it would if raised... Saigal lowered the volume of his voice not by constricting his throat, but by lightening the breath upon his vocal cords, just as a violinist would lighten the bow upon the string. In ‘So Ja Raj Kumari’ observe the texture of the voice on the words so ja [go to sleep] in the last repetition of the refrain.”

Har Mandir Singh “Hamraaz” and Harish Raghuwanshi gave us Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya in 2004, a collection of articles to which every contemporary of Saigal, from Jamuna Barua to Suraiya Ahmed Sheikh, contributed. From this book, we learn that the proprietor of New Theatres, Birendranath Sircar, the music director Rai Chand Boral and the star singer Pankaj Mullick all claimed to have introduced Saigal.

Apart from this controversy, the book recounts some very interesting anecdotes: “‘If I ever set my camera on him the lens will crack. Why, he is uncouth!’ Nitin Bose had snapped when I [Boral] first requested him to give Saigal a chance, but Saigal was to work later in most of Nitin’s hit films.” In an aside, it was Bose who introduced Dilip Kumar to Saigal on the set of Milan.

Mullick, himself a peerless singer who had been Saigal’s music director too, gave the reason for the singer’s success: “This was mainly [because of] his peerless tenor voice with a wonderful command over the three octaves and a special capacity for maintaining unvarying pitch without the least effort.” Hamraaz and Raghuwanshi also record Bengali actor and singer Pahari Sanyal’s opinion of Saigal’s Bengali songs: “He was the first non-Bengali artiste who put new life into Bengali songs as no Bengali songster could or did.”

A voice such as Kundan Lal Saigal’s — untrained, but unrestrained — was a boon for cinema.

Writer and dramatist Balwant Gargi dilated upon Saigal’s style. “In his first recorded song ‘Jhulna Jhulao’ he made one innovation; he did the alaap in pure Asawari [morning raga] and sang in Gandhari.” Another vignette in the book comes courtesy of film director Phani Majumdar: “I remember, one day, he (Saigal) offered me a lift to the studios. I politely turned it down and asked him to give Pankaj Mullick, who was just alighting from a tram, a ride. And as usual, I walked. But as I reached the studio there came Saigal, chugging away. He was alone. He stopped, greeted someone and casually got off the (motor) bike. I asked him where Pankaj was and Saigal looked stunned. He had given Pankaj a lift all right, but the man had fallen of the pillion midway.”

What these editors and enthusiasts have rendered is an invaluable service. They have preserved for posterity all the primary material not only about Saigal, but about the whole era during which film and recorded music could pervade the consciousness of the common man of the time. We find lesser comment about Saigal the actor than Saigal the singer, but he won the highest praise for his screen performances as well. It all comes back to ‘So Ja Raj Kumari’ from the film Zindagi and actor Dilip Kumar in his interview described the pathos that Saigal brought in the scene when the heroine (Jamuna Barua) was dying.

Pran Nevile’s K.L. Saigal: Immortal Singer and Superstar, published in 2004, is a large, lavishly illustrated book with valuable black-and-white photographs contained within. Nevile later published an abridgement titled K.L. Saigal: The Definitive Biography. Both contain the main details, but here we shall discuss the larger book. Nevile does not document his sources as Hamraaz and Raghuwanshi have done; his contribution focuses on different approaches to Saigal and his art with chapters on the film Devdas, on ghazals, on the poetry of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, on all the heroines Saigal starred opposite and on the songs written by Saigal in the Urdu language.

The chapter on Devdas is quite definitive, to use Nevile’s own word, because this film serves not only as a basis for comparison, but also traces the evolution of cinematographic art in India. Watch side-by-side the scene of Devdas striking Parvati with his cane, and each of the three actors who have played the titular role — Saigal, Dilip Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan — make congruent arcs. There is a continuity in the first two versions as they are in black and white, and Bimal Roy, cameraman of the Saigal-starring 1935 version was director of the Kumar-starring 1955 version. The only redeeming feature of the colour version is the performance of the hero; otherwise the onslaught of glamour is overwhelming.

In Nevile’s book, the first chapter is about Saigal’s concert at Minto Park [Iqbal Park], Lahore in 1937 that the author attended. Thus, while he may not have met Saigal as Menon did, Nevile has seen the singer in person. Nevile’s chapter on Saigal’s heroines, from Ratan Bai, Jamuna Barua, Kamlesh Kumari, Leela Desai, Durga Khote, Kanan Bala, Uma Shashi, Khurshid and Suraiya is a historical index in itself. The chapter on Ghalib is also interesting as even before coming into films, Ghalib’s poetry was part of Saigal’s repertoire and two of the most lilting ghazals he sang were by Ghalib: ‘Mein Unhein Chherrun’ and ‘Aah Ko Chahiyay’. In the chapter on ghazals, Nevile gives star billing to the poet Arzu: ‘Matwalepane Se Jo Ghataa’. The matla [first couplet] has an imperfect rhyme — very surprising in the verse of a master of prosody — but in the grammar of music it is perfect. Ghazals were in Saigal’s repertoire because he himself wrote lyrics in the Urdu script. Nevile gives the image of one poem ‘Pardes Mein Rahne Wale’ and two geets ‘Mein Baithi Thee Phulwari Men’ and ‘Humjolion Ki Thien Toliyan’ written by Saigal. The geets were featured on the two-volume LP selected by Nevile and titled The Greatest Love Songs of K.L. Saigal. Nevile recalls Saigal having sung Allama Muhammad Iqbal’s Kabhi Ai Haqiqat-i-Muntazir. It is a revelation; perhaps it can surface from the Lahore collection of Alauddin Mazhar, nephew of the poet Hafeez Jalandhari and a Saigal devotee, or Saigal’s almirah which was sent by his relatives from Bombay [Mumbai] to Jallandhar, and which no one has yet opened.

The writer is a retired associate professor of Islamic History at Government National College, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 14th, 2018

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