Immortal voice

January 16, 2022

KL Saigal made his mark in Calcutta which made many to believe that he was a Bengali.

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If Noor Jehan was the first genuine female vocalist of the nascent sub-continent movies, then KL Saigal was the first male vocalist. He was fortunate that the technology was kind to him and his recorded sound appeared to be more musical than when he was heard live. The reason could be that the vocalists were trained to sing live and to reach the last person in the back row so the intonation was a bit different and it was only with the public address system that sound amplification could take place and changed the manner of sur ka lagana (intonation). At that juncture with the recording technology improving, all found Saigal willing to accept the challenge of the conditions.

But the two were also different. Noor Jehan was a hereditary musician. She had the added duty of improving upon or adding to the very rich heritage of music she had been exposed to from the very beginning. It is believed that her maternal aunt, Aacho, was recorded very early on was supposed to be very sureeli and everyone wished that the newly-born would also follow in her aunt’s footsteps. As the aunt gave her the gurti, she was named Wacho after her.

Though Noor Jehan made her debut in Lahore, she then moved to Calcutta and stayed there for many years. Calcutta had competed with Bombay for the title of capital of the industry before it was bombed by the Japanese during WWII. Thereafter the centre shifted entirely to Bombay. Saigal, too, made his mark in Calcutta. This made many to believe that he was a Bengali.

It should not be forgotten that it was the all India stage that one had to prove oneself on and not merely a local or a regional platform. Noor Jehan, in the manner of the times, was thrown into the performance arena very early on and had to perform on the Punjab circuit regularly. These usually were the melas and the urs gatherings and the open air arena with a diverse crowd was the real challenge. It was there that she was noticed and was labelled with her sisters the Punjab Mail by the listeners. It was the era of the full-throated application of the sur and the vocalist had to be in full control as he or she pitched to reach the last man in the audience. The conditions favoured the audience and organisers more than the performers who were literally thrown on the stage like the gladiators before the lions and had to prove their resilience and worth. It was a fight to death, and if one came out of it alive, one’s credentials were established.

Though from Jallandhar and born in Jammu, Saigal started to be noticed when BN Sircar, the owner of New Theatres, spotted him singing in a private mehfil in Calcutta and asked him over to sing for his productions. Saigal, in his home area, had watched with keen interest the performances of the visiting thumri singers of Lucknow and Banaras and endeavoured to imitate them.

The talkies posed a different kind of challenge. The task of singing for the film while the shooting took place, the newness of experience driven by technology could make or break an artiste. It was a difficult transition that needed skill, understanding of the medium and adaptability. Apparently, Saigal qualified with flying colours and became the leading film vocalist of his times.

Though from Jallandhar and born in Jammu, Saigal started to be noticed when BN Sircar, the owner of New Theatres, spotted him singing in a private mehfil in Calcutta and asked him over to sing for his productions. Then he probably worked as a salesman in some company selling typewriters.

Saigal, in his home area, had watched with keen interest the performances of the visiting thumri singers of Lucknow and Banaras and endeavoured 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 herself) and passages from Kabir’s Saakhi. Many of these were in the classical mould. While an adolescent, he was blessed and initiated into riaz by Pir Salman Yousaf, a sufi who lived in Jammu.

Saigal’s beginning in the filmdom was, however, rather humble. His maiden film, Mohabbat kay Ansu, and the next, Subah Ka Sitara (1932), saw limited success. The third, 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 suited his temperament. With the release of both of these films, Saigal came good as a singer-actor. Saigal’s next venture with the New Theatres, Roop Lekha (1934), failed badly. 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).

In a career spanning 15 years, Saigal acted in 36 feature films: 28 in Hindi, seven in Bengali, and one in Tamil. In all, Saigal rendered 185 songs which included 142 film songs. Of the film songs, there are 110 in Hindi, 30 in Bengali and two in Tamil. There are 37 non-film songs in Hindi/ Urdu, and two each in Bengali, Pashto, Punjabi and Persian. His non-film songs comprise bhajans, ghazals and horis.

He rendered the ghazals of poets like Ghalib, Zauq and Seemab. The ghazal was not taken as a serious form of music in those days with the kheyal dominating the classical form and thumri/ dadra the semi-classical varieties. Probably, more popular in the salons, the ghazal started to venture out as an autonomous form in the early part of the 20th Century thanks to KL Saigal’s prominent role.


The author is a culture critic based in Lahore



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