Kundan Lal Sahgal – The Impossible Dreamer
Although he died twenty years before I was born, his aura always pervaded our household with my father playing old ’78 records of his songs and then singing them on his harmonium. This could be largely attributed to belonging in the same family tree for my grandfather and K L Saigal were first cousins.
While the old generation hears his songs like ‘Babul Mora,‘ ‘Balam Aye Baso’ and ‘Dil Hi Toot Gaya’ with nostalgic memories, the new generation which perhaps never saw him on the screen is unaware of the glory and the greatness of Saigal.
Kundan Lal Saigal was born in Jalandhar on 11 April 1904 and died on 18 Jan 1947. Saigal’s was a short existence; only about twelve years of his life were devoted to professional singing and cinema acting. However, once Saigal broke into song he appeared to have invested every breath that his lungs could spare from his respiratory budget in song. In the latter part of his sojourn, the song became one of his body’s vital functions. If a miracle might be defined as truth of a higher order then Saigal’s singing would qualify as its prime example. Saigal had practically no formal training in singing. In India, where singing was the lofty art of worship, requiring years of arduous training, Saigal’s success with his voice was almost bizarre. However, a lack of training in classical Hindustani music may actually have worked to his advantage.
He never learnt music from any ustad, famous or obscure, though since childhood he was interested in singing. He was in his teens when his voice earned him a prize for a ‘thumri’ he sang at a music conference in Jalandhar. But, though singing was in his blood, he had to turn to prosaic activities like railway timekeeping and selling typewriters to earn a living. As a salesman he was a flop and was thoroughly dejected.
In 1931, just as the talkies began in India, he travelled to Calcutta and met Pandit Harish Chandra Bali, a celebrated singer from Jalandhar who took him to meet music director R C Boral.
“Here is some raw material from Punjab. He cannot sing anything other than ghazals, has no classical training but has a very melodious voice. Maybe, you can use him,” Panditji said almost apologetically.
“Without classical training, he is no good to me,” replied Boral firmly but reluctant to refuse his guest, he agreed to hear his voice which he ultimately liked.
“But you have no base in classical training,” continued Boral.
“I will have it under your guidance”, pleaded Saigal.
“And you can’t speak a word of Bengali!”
“I will learn Bengali if only I am given a chance”, Saigal implored further
“But that is an impossible task”, Boral said with finality.
“Then I will do the impossible.”
That was enough to convince and impress Boral and he took him to see B N Sircar, the boss at New Theatres, who wanted nothing to do with him but Boral insisted and got him a five year contract at Rs. 200/- a month.
To claim that Saigal’s mind was ‘tabula rasa’ when he started professional vocal music is to be mythical. For his early mentors, Saigal’s voice was pristine vocal material which could be used to ‘sculpt’ a novel art form: microphone crooning. This form of singing was invented to suite the stringent technological and aesthetic requirements of the talkies. It is perhaps not extravagant to claim that the theory, praxis and evolution of the Hindustani film song may be sought in the numerous Saigal songs recorded between 1931 and 1946.
Saigal’s film career began in a very modest way. In 1932, he appeared in three films ‘Zinda Lash’, ‘Subah Ka Tara,’ and ‘Mohbbat ke Aansu’ which turned out to be flops. He sang four bhajans in ‘Puran Bhagat’ and though he sang well, K. C. Dey dominated the picture with his voice. It was the Hindi version of ‘Chandidas,’ directed by Nitin Bose, which brought him into the limelight. His songs, including ‘Tadpat Beete Din,’ thrilled audiences not just with his singing but the manner in which he delivered his dialogue, introducing a new style of acting which was natural.
A song, conceived in human passions, is nurtured and given form by human reason, discipline and patience. Saigal’s Punjabi origins had bestowed on him a genetic capital of incendiary passions, so essential a fuel to song. However, uncontrolled emotions breach boundaries so necessary for song as art form. Singing is controlled combustion. Without control, it is doubtful that Saigal would have risen beyond the level of a mere glorified folk singer. Indeed, this was the fate of at least two other Punjabi singers of Saigal’s generation: Khan Mastana and SM Durrani. Saigal’s earlier training involved singing melodies in Bengali, a language much more restrained in enunciation than the overly exuberant, often loud and martial Punjabi. Perhaps even more crucial was the fact that Saigal was being initiated into the song in Bengal, an area distinguished by its time-honoured travelling minstrels – the Bauls.
Furthermore, Saigal’s songs had the brevity characteristic of most Baul melodies. Most of all of his songs are 2 to 3 minutes long – the exception being the bhajan ‘Chali kaun desh Radhe’ which lasts about 5 minutes. It is entirely appropriate that Saigal’s brief personal and professional life be reflected in the similarly brief melodies that he chose as the medium of his expression. Saigal was a man in a hurry; his life was short and he had many songs to sing.
Then he did ‘Yahudi Ki Ladki’ (’33) and ‘Karwane Hayat.’ (’35) In both these pictures Saigal made his presence felt, but it was in ‘Devdas’ (’35) that he became the idol of movie fans. The youth of the thirties worshipped him, applauding him for his acting as well as his singing.
His fans remembered not only his songs but even his gestures and dialogue, and the impression he made on the audience was so deep and lasting that those who had seen and admired him refused to acknowledge the sincere contribution of Dilip Kumar in the same role in the new version of ‘Devdas.’
Indeed, Dilip himself seemed to be conscious of the fact that he was portraying a role which had made Saigal immortal. In ‘Devdas’ Saigal proved, it proof was necessary, that not only was he a great singer but an equally talented actor. Incidentally it was the manner in which he rendered the classical song ‘Piya Bin Nahi Awat Chain’ that won him an accolade from no less a person than Khansaheb Abdul Karim Khan, one of the greatest ustads of his time.
To a considerable extent Saigal was also aided in his ascetic approach to the song by the limitations of early sound recording technology and by an accidental illness. Barnouw and Krishnaswamy in their book ‘Indian Film’ wrote: “But when he began to sing for ‘Devdas’, his voice cracked. The songs were postponed, but the sore throat persisted. Finally he tried the songs in a quiet, soft tone. It fitted the acting style Barua (the director) was trying to achieve, as well as the volume limitations of microphone and sound track.”
Today, it is said that male stars are a bigger draw than female stars but things were different when Saigal appeared on the film horizon. Glamour queens were the draw, till Saigal came. No other star, male or female, had a greater following than Saigal at the height of his glory. He reigned in the film world in the latter half of the thirties and in the early forties with pictures like ‘President,’ ‘Dushman,’ ‘Lagan,’ ‘Zindagi,’ ‘Meri Bahen,’ ‘Dhartimata’ and ‘Street Singer.’ His songs “Baba Duniya Rang Rangeli,” “Ek Bangala Bane Nyara,” “Jeevan Been Madhur Na Baje,” “Mai Kya Janu Kya Jadoo Hai,” “So ja Rajkumari”, ‘Do Naina Matware’, ‘Karun kya aas niraas bhayi’ rang throughout the country and indeed, even today, they thrill the listener.
In the year 1941 Saigal left New Theatres and came to Bombay. His association with New Theatres had proved so successful that many of his admirers feared that like some other famous artistes from Calcutta, he would be a failure in Bombay. But he also made his mark in Bombay. Who can ever forget his performances and his singing in ‘Bhatka Surdas’ (Madhukar Shyam), ‘Tansen’ (Diya Jalao) and ‘Shahjehan,‘ in which he sang the lyrics written by Majrooh and set to enchanting music by Naushad like ‘Gham diye Mustakil’.
True, in Bombay, some of Saigal’s pictures like ‘Omar Khayyam,’ ‘Tadbeer’ and, to some extent, even ‘Parwana,’ his last picture, failed to impress. But the fault was hardly his. It was perhaps the wrong choice of role and failing health which contributed to the failure of some of these films.
Composer Naushad once wrote that Saigal became an alcoholic out of a deep fear of his mortality. At 42, alcohol had dissolved his liver – he succumbed to cirrhosis. More poetic minds claim that Saigal lavished so much intense emotion on his songs that his jigar – the seat of his emotions – had simply become insolvent. Moreover, for a man in such hurry, alcohol provided ready fuel which could be absorbed, and energised more rapidly than ordinary food. In short, Saigal was propelled on ‘high octane’ fuel.
Tall, lean (in later years he appeared to have almost no flesh on his frame), bald-headed Saigal hardly had the face or figure of a matinee idol. Yet, when he appeared on the screen, his radiant personality and his vibrant voice created an image which still fingers in our memory. Remembered for his tragic and emotional roles, he also had a flair for comedy.
He revealed himself as an excellent comedian in ‘Krorepati,’ and again, in some sequences of ‘President’ and in ‘Zindagi,’ in which he addresses a song to a two-anna piece, he reveals this gift. What a pity that producers failed to exploit the flair to advantage!
Possibly, Saigal had a tacit knowledge of his ephemerality. This knowledge was the subliminal bedrock of his approach to the song. He tackled the song as an exercise in Euclidean geometry – of points and lines. Overwhelmingly, Saigal avoided circular or elliptical devices such as elongated alaaps or the ornamental devices such as the bol-taans. If and when these occur in his songs, they are short and straight. The few circular or elliptical patterns in his songs are actually straight lines drawn on a spherical surface.
As a man, Saigal was most unassuming. Either on or off the set, he never made any display of artistic ego. Friendly and generous, he mixed with people freely. It was his custom during Holi to visit the studio early in the morning and greet everyone, big and small, with an embrace and ‘gulal’
For the last two or three years of his life, Saigal was almost always ill. He died on 18 January 1947, when his picture ‘Shahjehan’ was running all over India and, as cinegoers saw this film and heard him sing ‘Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya,’ tears rolled from their eyes. This song, sung with feeling and pain in his voice, was Saigal’s own epitaph!
Here is the full version of his last hit film, Shahjehan from 1946. Enjoy the legend.