Keeping Saigal Alive

Ashok Ogra
Hailed as the emperor of music, a musician of masses, Kundan Lal Saigal died exactly a year before Gandhiji. The number of people who grew up listening to Saigal would be anything but substantial now. What happens to Saigal’s legacy, then, once these people are gone too? That is what prompted Sharad Dutt to write his biography “Kundan: Saigal’s Life & Music,” to keep his memory alive forever, like his immortal songs that continue to resonate with a large section of the population.
The book under review celebrates the greatness of Kundal Saigal, who without any formal training in music, recorded 185 songs, apart from acting in 36 films, in a short span of about 15 years.
What is less known is that Saigal also lent his voice to Tamil version of Devdas. Reproducing few lines from the song he sang in Tamil:
(A man falls from grace when he is excessively in love, pierced by cupid’s arrow)
(Oh endearing parrot, it is best that we live together. Unity is strength).
Kundan also sang many non-film songs including in Persian.
Sharad ascribes the success of Kundan Saigal to the singer’s rare ability ‘to invade the realm of popularity and enchant the masses while retaining classical base’. That is why his music continues to resonate a century later.
Sharad has taken pains to visit all the towns and cities that shaped Kundan Saigal to become such a legend. He builds the narrative around conversations with those who knew or worked with him and delivers one of the most well researched authentic and definite biographies of one of the greatest singer cum actorof the 2oth century.
The book starts with singer’s initial struggle to gain entry and earn recognition from the doyens who were part of the New Theatre in Calcutta and Ranjit Movietone and other producers in Bombay.
According to Sharad, Saigal never let go the memories of that excruciating struggle even when he touched the heights of stardom. He writes: “This realization gave him a sense of detachment from the material world and its trappings. It also bonded him with the underprivileged, which was manifested in his generosity and philanthropic streak”.
Kundan’s father, Amar Chand Saigal, had migrated from his home town Jalandhar to Jammu where he worked in the court of Maharaja Hari Singh. Kundan was born on April 4, 1904 in Mohalla Mastgarh, Jammu. He inherited the talent from his mother Kesar Kaur who used to sing Bhajans. After exactly forty days, Kesar bathed new born son in River Tawi and then visited Sufi-Pir Salman Yosuf, and laid the baby at his feet to seek benediction.
Saigal attended a primary school close to his residence and later shifted to Sri Ranbir Singh High School. He also attended Prince of Wales College (presently Gandhi Memorial College). But he never showed great inclination towards studies often inviting reprimand from his teachers.
During early 1900s, theater was a rage in Jammu and some Parsi theatre groups like Alfred, New Alfred and Victoria were active in staging dance dramas and plays at the Old Secretariat, while Ramleela was staged by Diwan Mandir Rangmanch (now christened Sanatan Dharam Natak Samaj).
Kundan would often be invited to lend his voice to Sita’s anguish and sing songs during Ramleelas. Incidentally, after Kundan left Jammu, the role of Sita was played by Om Prakash Bakshi who after joining Bollywood came to be known as comedian Om Prakash. Similarly, Omkar Nath Dhar was another artist who would participate in Ramleela but later acquired a new identity and fame as Jeevan, playing the villain in Hindi films.
After his retirement, Kundan’s father decided to settle down in Jalandhar. He was never enamored of his son’s desire to pursue music and often scolded him for not taking up a regular job. This prompted him to leave for Delhi where he worked as an electrician and later took up a sales representative for Remington typewriters.
During one business visits to Calcutta ( Kolkatta) in 1931, Saigal met B.N.Sircar of New Theatres who hired him on a five-year contract at a monthly salary of Rs 200. At New Theatres, Kundan also got to meet celebrated musicians of those times – Raichand Boral, Pankaj Mullick and Timir Baran Bhattacharya – who further chiseled his craft.
Kundan Saigal set the ball rolling with his maiden film MOHABBAT KE AANSU (1932) on January 16, 1932, under the supervision of music director Raichand Boral. The film was directed by Premankur Atorthy. The film credits showed his name as Saigal Kashmiri – perhaps fearful of his father who din’t want him to join the film industry.
But the film flopped. His next two films, ZINDA LAASH and SUBAH KA SITARA met a similar fate. However, his songs in YEHUDI KI LADKI became a hit:
(She is such a severe critic that I can’t relate the grief of my heart).
The author gives credit to Kundan Saigal for ushering in the new era of ghazal-singing as he made poetry come alive, given his superb command over the language. A bilingual artist, Saigal could sing and speak Bangla as proficiently as any Bengali. And the real feather in his cap was being the only non-Bengali whom Gurudev Tagore gave permission to sing Rabindra Sangeet.
Sharad writes: “When CHANDIDAS in Bangla was remade in Hindi with singer-actor Kundan in the lead, his stellar act and sterling singing wowed the viewers, It was his first professional success…”
Soon, Nitin Bose directed POORAN BHAGAT in Hindi. Though Saigal didn’t get any role in this film, Bose consented to picturise four bhajans on Saigal as a street singer.
But his most defining role was yet to come. Saigal sang two songs in PC Barua’s classic DEVDAS in Bengali, adapted from Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s novel.
But it was in the Hindi version of DEVDAS
that Saigal came to play the lead role. The film met with huge success and the songs sung by Saigal are popular even today:
(Beloved, come and dwell in my heart)
(The days of agony don’t seem to get over),
( There is no peace without the beloved).
Now Saigal was heading for super-stardom.
B.N. Sircar, too, held Saigal in high esteem, as in his words, “Saigal was not good-looking. And yet he became popular. He was not glamorous, he was real, and he was true. A man dies in his legends, but Saigal would stay alive in his songs and in his acting.”
It was time for Saigal to move to Bombay and he shifted base in 1941. He swung roles in films produced by Ranjit Movietone: BHAKT SURDAS, TANSEN and BHANWRA.
But it was SHAHJEHAN (1946), directed by A R Kardar with lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpur and Naushad providing the music that endeared the singer to the masses:
( Such boundless sorrow, didn’t know the heart is so fragile)
(When the heart is broken, what purpose does it serve to live).
He had by now already become a household name across the country.
It is said that even the greatest of men have feet of clay and Saigal, whose addiction to alcohol was as much talked about as the magic in his voice, was no exception. But Sharad marshals facts to demolish the theory that Saigal died because of excessive alcohol. According to the author, the reason of his death was diabetes as opposed to those floating in the industry. This research work of almost eight years is practically a correct work on his life. Similarly, Dutt takes great pains in correcting few other facts: “Take for example the correct date of his birth- it is April 4, 1904 and not April 11″.
The author also refers to the absence of bonhomie between Malika Pukraj and Kundal though both belonged to Jammu.
Sharad who makes no bones of his admiration for the singer but at the same time the author in him is conscious of his responsibility towards readers. Archival records, rare photographs and posters of Saigal’s films, embellish and enriches author’s account.
The original book titled ‘Kundan’ was written by Sharad Dutt in 2004 and earned the author National Award for Best Book on Indian Cinema.
The book under review ‘KUNDAN SAIGAL: HIS LIFE & TIMES’ was released last month at a well attended function in Delhi. It has been transcreated into English by noted journalist and author Jyoti Sabharwal of the reputed Stellar.
Sharad is an award winning documentary filmmaker and former DDG of Doordarshan, an author and above all a connoisseur of art and literature. In the words of the author :”My formative years were filled with music, particularly Saigal’s songs, which over the decades became a fixation.”
The book also reflects on singer’s visits to astrologers during the phase he was struggling to gain foothold in the movie industry. He visited noted astrologer Viswanath Rajgadia at Nai Sarak, Delhi. On examining his horoscope, the astrologer said to him: “All I wish to say is that this is a play of the stars. Anything is likely to happen, but without purushrarth (mettle and perseverance), even stars can’t alter your fate.”
We all know that Saigal achieved an iconic stature in the film industry. But what the astrologer didn’t know or didn’t want to tell young Kundan was that his stardom wouldn’t last that long.
Soon after finishing shooting for SHAHJEHAN and PARWANA, his health started deteriorating and he decided to go back to Jalandhar to recuperate and return to Bombay after sometime. But that was never to be.
He died on January 18, 1947 leaving behind millions of grieving fans.
As a tribute to this legendary singer, Shard aptly quotes Saquib Lakhnavi :
(The world was listening with great fondness. I went off to sleep while narrating the saga). It is one such book that lovers of music and Bollywood will find informative, engaging and absorbing.
(The author is a noted management & media professional/ educator. He has been Head of Discovery Channel for South Asia.)