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Opinion

January 17, 2017

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Why Saigal? What’s with him?

Islamabad diary

Why indeed? What’s so special about him? He sang and rose to prominence – they still call him the Indian film industry’s first superstar – in the 1930s and 40s. How many other greats from that era do we still remember? Saigal lives on. Write about him and from far-off corners of the globe there will be people with something to say about him. What’s the key to this longevity?

First of course is the voice…timeless, like no other. They called it a golden voice and it’s an apt description. There is no other way to describe it. And then there’s the singing, full of feeling and meaning. What the song was saying, what the words meant, he would draw out so that the emotion behind the words was there before you.

All great singers and musicians have this quality. If music and song do not pluck your heartstrings are they worth the effort? But the really great ones have this quality in more ample measure than others. This is as true of opera as of Hindustani classical music.

Any number of people would have sung, say, Raag Yaman. Now my knowledge of this music is not as deep or varied as it should be. I can rave, rhapsodise, about music but of its technical side I am ignorant. But this much I would still say: take Raag Yaman sung by Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan – there is a recording of his on YouTube of a Bangalore concert held in 1956 – and the difference between the ordinary, the everyday, and the sublime will be more than apparent.         

This recording I mention…the moment the great Ustad begins the kheyal you know this is different: you’ve entered a different realm. So it is with Amir Khan…the touch of the master coming through at once. The same is true of Saigal. The moment he starts a song or sings a ghazal the magic of the voice takes over, not just its quality, its particular timbre, but the pathos and feeling conveyed both by the voice and the singing. Simple words like ‘qiamat’ or ‘hunooz’ and so many others take on a different aspect when rendered by him.

Take the Holi song: “Mein toh dinan kee thori” – the girl saying that I am young but my beloved is teaching me other things and taking me elsewhere.      The low rendering of the first line is mesmerising and the effect lasts throughout the song.

Ghazal singers there are many but Saigal’s ghazal singing was distinct, vastly different from the style made popular in our times by, say, Ustad Mehdi Hasan or Ghulam Ali.

They say that as a young boy in Jammu where he grew up Saigal would stand beneath the ‘kotha’ of a singing girl, her name now lost to posterity, and that as a consequence there is a touch of the ‘kotha’ about his ghazal singing. If so, blessed be the memory of that forgotten siren of the narrow streets of Jammu. “Phir mujhe deed-a-tar yaad aaya” and that Ustad Zauq masterpiece, “Layee hayat aaye qaza”, and all the other ghazals sung by Saigal are there – and may I be permitted this rhetorical flourish – for the ages. There is nothing like them.

Incidentally, at that famous public meeting in Lahore soon after the 1971 war with India where Bhutto gave Qaddafi Stadium its name, carried away by the occasion and I can’t say apropos of what precisely he belted out the first line or two of the Zauq ghazal. There was a touch of music and poetry in our politics then and the leaders we had were I think more accomplished in so many ways than the Athenian warriors who came after them. But to balance the record I suppose it would also have to be said that those accomplished leaders committed truly accomplished blunders.

Anyway, Ghalib needed no drum-beater to promote or propagate his ghazals. He stands there on his pedestal, unrivalled and unmatched. But I suspect – although there is a need for scholarship and research on this delicate point – that in the India of those years, the 1930s and 40s, Saigal created a mass following for Ghalib’s poetry. This, however, is my unlettered view and I am open to correction (and chastisement) if I am wrong.         

One test of art is how much of it you can take. Noor Jahan in concert, for instance, one could listen to throughout a long winter’s night. Some music we can only take in small doses. Saigal you can keep listening to for a very long time.

One reason why his impact was so huge lay in the fact that he was the pioneer, the father, of film singing as we know it. Shamshad Begum was brutal in her assessment. She said that Saigal was the first male singer who sang like a man. And because actors had to sing their own songs and there was no playback singing, the advantage lay with actor-singers like Saigal. He didn’t quite have the looks – he was gangly and tall and prematurely bald – but his films, nearly all of them, were super-hits. And he was constantly on the radio, the only medium then, and thus a household name across the Subcontinent.

I have often wondered what the relationship of the then film industry was with the freedom movement. Did the stars of that period talk politics? Were they swayed by events on the larger Indian stage? Were they active participants in anything? I read somewhere that on one occasion when Gandhiji was in Shimla the singing prodigy Master Madan – who died, let us not forget, at the age of fourteen – had a concert there and people were more interested in the singer than the Mahatma. I wonder if this is true.

Anil Biswas, one reads, had an active interest in politics and was even briefly detained in Calcutta by the authorities. What about the other leading lights of the singing and film worlds? Did they live in a world of their own or were they too touched by what was going on outside? This would be a fascinating area to explore and study.          

In a previous article on music I named many singers but failed to mention the great Muhammad Rafi. He was in a class of his own. If the era before him belonged to Saigal, no one better stood for his own era than Rafi. Saigal sang in his own style – and when people tried to copy him they could only turn out pale imitations – and Rafi pioneered a style of his own, a style persisting to this day. Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey were great enough to acknowledge Rafi’s peerless greatness.

But liking something ultimately is a matter of taste. I have heard masters of music saying that God speaks through the music of Bach. Personally I like the sound and sweep of Beethoven’s music…a matter of taste and temperament, as I said. Saigal’s voice has an emotional quality that touches the heart, mine and countless others. What more is there to say?

Tailpiece: Just one more thing: that absolutely wonderful music composer, Madan Mohan – savour such songs of his as “Sapne mein sajan se do baten, ik yaad rahi ik bhool gaye” and the haunting “hamare baad ab mehfil mein…” – was from Chakwal. The family house was somewhere in the old town. Which ghosts inhabit it now?         

Tomorrow is the 70th death anniversary of Kundan Lal Saigal.

Email: [email protected]

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