Immortal voice

January 17, 2021

Saigal started his career in Calcutta, but then moved to Bombay after the Japanese advance during WWII

Kundan Lal Saigal visited Lahore only once - in the 1930s.This was the period when his star was in ascendance. Born in Jammu, he came to prominence 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. At that time, he was probably working as a salesman in some company, selling typewriters.

His is a start that is a familiar story, a prototype on which fairy tales are scripted. The unlikely happenings of being discovered and rising from anonymity to fame overnight or rags to riches turnover within a short span. Saigal’s success was according to such a fairytale script that reinforces the belief based on which many live on the footpaths but never lose hope.

However, Saigal, like many of the prototype artistes, lived a life to the hilt, only thinking about the present and not saving for the future. He was not a hoarder who planned, but in a manner typical of artistes burnt his candle at both ends. When he died, just before the partition of the sub-continent, he was barely in his forties, looking worn out and tired after spending his nights and days in the quest for music and allied to it of happiness in the form of human expression. Perhaps the connection is only a construct and simplification of a cause and effect relationship that does not really figure out that way.

He was fortunate that technology was kind to him and the recorded sound appeared to be more musical than live performances. 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 or intonation. The recording technology, improving all the time, found Saigal willing to accept the challenge of the conditions.

However, it was a challenge nevertheless because the talkies had also just arrived and the technique of singing for the film was not known. The newness of experience driven by technology can make or break an artiste; it made Saigal. Nevertheless, it was an awful 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.

Not only that, since the talkies had ushered in the new medium it looked for greater parameters of the form and soon the genre of film song emerged. It then started to look for the voice that could embody the form and after a few years of experimentations discovered one in KL Saigal among the males and Noor Jehan among the females. These two can be called the two full blown vocalists that determined the rules of the new genre in the 1930s.

And these were then framed as being the canon for film song in the decades to come.

KL Saigal also sang and recorded non-film numbers and his contribution is particularly singular in the execution of the ghazal. The latter was not taken as a serious form of music 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 and in this KL Saigal played a very prominent role.

It is difficult to say anything about the history of ghazal gaiki in the subcontinent. However, it was during the course of the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century through the recordings of the 78-rpm discs that music started being dissociated from the practitioner and that made it easier for many among the sanctimonious sections to listen to music by disengaging itself from the musician. This was a sea change where the middle classes started to cultivate a taste for music without being totally indulgent about it. This was the condition that must have given rise to the singing of texts which were seen as good poetry rather than lyrics which were written to be sung.

A gradual coming together of music and poetry must have taken place to see the rise of the musical potential in the singing of the ghazal gaiki.

The system of patronage was also changing. Previously, the patron had to house and nourish the artiste, but with technology, the recording and film companies became the patrons and dealt with the artiste on the market basis. The people, too, responded by paying for the recording or even a performance. It was becoming more democratic but also more impersonal.

Saigal started his career in Calcutta, but then moved to Bombay like so many others after the Japanese captured Burma during World War II. Many moved away from Calcutta fearing insecurity and most from the film world migrated to the other side of the sub-continent in Bombay.

Nur Jehan was more nurtured in the traditional manner and started her career by singing on stage. She could throw her voice and the full throated ease was a delight but Saigal mostly sang in ‘mandaristan’ - the lower register and had a limited range. This set the pattern for singing in the films and the later composers had to break this mould for greater exploration of the registers best exemplified by Muhammed Rafi.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Immortal voice