Cinema legend

January 22, 2023

KL Saigal received little formal training in singing and acquired his knowledge of musical arts from unorthodox sources.

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echnology has had a fundamental impact on music. The recording technology changed the musical landscape of the sub-continentin early 20th Century.

Earlier, the only way one could listen to music was at a live performance. The vocalist was supposed to carry a strong voicethat could reach the last row among the audiences.Recording technology changed the way the sur was intoned and the lower volumes decided the musicality inherent in the sound. The person to benefit the most from this change was KL Saigal. He made inroads into film music as well as the recorded 78 rpm discs that brought out the musicality in his sound rather than reduce it as had been the case with many other vocalists.

Of course, there were no studios where the sound could be controlled.The recording had to be done on the set live, in the absence of what generally came to be known as the ‘playback’. As the film was being shot, the song or the effects had to be recorded simultaneously.This needed plenty of ingenuity and trickery to hide and camouflage the microphones and other recording devices. The visual shooting, too, had to be altered according to the needs of the musical score and the songs. Some also needed the harmonium to accompany their own singing and that had to be merged with the set.Only a mug shot of the actor filled the length and breadth of the screen.

This became the main concern of the directors because nearly all films were musical in the sense that the reliance on the song was total. There was hardly aconcept of a film that did not have a series of songs to dramatise the scenes and the impact. This was not the case in Western cinema. The sub continent’s cinema techniques had to be evolved and devised to keep the main concern at the centre of attraction.Dance and the song were an accompaniment as the dancer had to be in the frame, moving and yet not losing the ability to express herself or himself fully in the song. It was a challenge and it was accepted as the moves were adjusted or limited to the peculiarities of the then technological means. The song could not be sacrificed,only adjusted, for its presence was critical.

In many ways,this could have been better handled by non-singers or vocalists who were accepting the new challenges and were not set in the ways and ideas of the traditional performance ritual. The vocalists in the traditional mould probably rebelled against this and did not agree to join in while those not set in their ways found greater space.

When Kundan Lal Saigal appeared on the scene, film music was taking its first baby steps. Films started being made in Indian with Raja Harishchandar in 1913 but it was a silent film. The most that was missed in this new medium of expression was music. Popular music was still dominated by the theatre; films were seen more for the special effects and the phantasmagoria that could be conjured up on the screen till the advent of the talkie – Alam Ara. In a career spanning over 15 years, background score was based on improvisation.In this new format, the song was not only sung live, it also had to be fitted into the three-minute format.This was because the seventy-eight rpm discs had this capacity.

Saigal had received little formal training in singing.He had acquired his knowledge of musical arts from unorthodox sources. While an adolescent, he was blessed and initiated into riaz by Pir Salman Yousaf, a sufi who lived in Jammu.

His home town, Jullundur, was a fertile land in music and all-night musical soirees were frequent. Young Saigal, barely 12 then, regularly attended those. He would watch with keen interest the performances of the visiting thumri singers from Lucknow and Banaras and would endeavour to imitate them. He would get an opportunity to demonstrate his art whenever his mother took him to local cultural or religious functions and encouraged him to sing bhajans of Meera, shabds from the Sikh scriptures (his mother was a Sikh) and passages from Kabir’s Saakhi. Many of these were in the classical mould.

Saigal’s beginning in the filmdom was, however, rather humble. His maiden film Mohabbatkay Ansu and the next Subah Ka Sitara (1932) barely succeeded; the third one, Zinda Laash, was a total flop. In Rajrani Meera (1933), the established stars Duraga Khote and Prithvi Raj Kapoor were assigned the leading roles but they shared the ignominy of another box office disaster. Saigal was offered roles in Puran Bhagat and Yehudi Ki Larki (both 1933) that most appropriately suited his temperament. With the release of both of these films, Saigal as a singer-actor finally came good. Saigal’s next venture with the New Theatres, Roop Lekha (1934) badly failed and Daku Mansoor also turned out to be an ill-fated attempt. The film that made Saigal a super-star almost over-night was PC Barua’s Devdas (1935).

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

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