K.L. Saigal

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Kundan Lal Saigal

Kundan Lal Saigal (1904-1947)

By Suresh Chandvankar, 2004
Hindi cinema’s First superstar

By Pran Nevile, The Tribune, 2004 </div>

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Suresh Chandvankar's tribute

Mr. Kundan Lal Saigal, popularly known as K. L. Saigal was the most popular actor-singer of the Indian films during 1935-47. Born on April 11, 1904 at Jullunder in Punjab, he entered in the films in 1931-32 and acted in about 40 films. He died on January 18, 1947 at the age of just forty-two. As a boy his mother used to take him to a Sufi-Pir Salman Yousuf of the Yesvi sect. Singing was his hobby. Later on he learnt music and basic melodic structures which he mastered through a lot of practice. He also learnt from some of the great masters of the period: Faiyyaz Khan, Pankaj Mullick and Pahari Sanyal.

His father was violently against his singing and was disappointed with his poor results at school. He left home and came to Calcutta. Before choosing music and singing as his vocation, he worked as a time-keeper in the Punjab Railways. He was a salesman for short time, selling typewriters. In those days, his singing was largely confined to a friend-circle. One such private concert had among its audience a sales representative of the Hindustan Record Company. He immediately recognized Saigal's talent and the sales potential of his records if he were to be signed up for recordings. Saigal was persuaded to make a lifetime contract with this company, and one of his early records - ‘Jhulana Jhulao’ in Raga Dev Gandhar - became an instant hit.

At the age of 28, he entered films, and soon became a successful actor-singer. Films such as Devdas, Shah Jahan, President, My Sister, Zindagi, Chandidas, Bhakta Surdas, Tansen, and Dushman became hits, and the songs remain popular to this day, to the extent that young musicians are tempted to re-mix song versions derived from his singing. Around 1935, i.e. before his film career began, Saigal used to participate in classical music concerts, but unfortunately, those have never been either documented or recorded, and hence they are lost to history. What is available today is a three-minute song recorded originally on a 78-rpm shellac record. He sang over 150 solo songs, a couple of duets, and about 30 ghazals and bhajans. The first remark you hear if you talk about Saigal with someone will be ‘He was a natural singer’ or ‘ He was born with that unique voice’ or ‘He was golden voiced’, and so on. He was the first non-Bengali to be honored to sing Rabindra Sangeet, and also the first superstar of Indian cinema. Besides Hindi/Urdu, he also sang songs written in Punjabi, Bengali, Pushto and Tamil.

Saigal managed to develop what the Italians call ‘La Voce Bianca’ or the ‘White Voice’ as of Italian vocalists: it follows you like a scent and reposes in your memory. For several years, at 7:57 am every day, Radio Ceylon used to play a 78 rpm record of Saigal’s songs. Saigal’s body has left this world, but not his voice. You can hear him in Kabul, in Nairobi and in Kuwait, in Tanzania and in Rabat. Teheran radio has played his Persian ghazals. His voice is well known in Jakarta and in Fiji. Every year, on his death anniversary, All India Radio plays his records. Who says Saigal is dead?

Pran Nevile's tribute I

HE was all music, an extraordinary artiste and master of his craft. Whether K.L. Saigal sang better with or without liquor is of little importance.

Sadly though, there is hardly any written material on Saigal and his life. No diaries, letters, interviews or media coverage. The only source are references made to him by contemporaries, friends and colleagues in their writings or interviews.

Saigal was a perfect gentleman, full of compassion and generous. He is often known to have given away his money, also clothes, to the poor and needy. It is said that his salary was collected by his family direct from the New Theatres’ office for fear that he might part with it on his way home. Once, he is said to have given away his diamond ring to a widow in distress at Pune.

Street Singer

Another admirable quality was that he remained unaffected by his success, fame and popularity. Affable and affectionate person, he made no distinction between people of different rank and status. He never spoke ill of anybody nor did he lose his temper.

Though Saigal kept indifferent health, he never talked about his personal problems. At home, he never talked about work and seldom saw his own films. According to his cousin the late Chaman Puri (brother of Madan Puri), who acted with Saigal in Street Singer and was his admirer, home was where Saigal’s heart was. The singer would often hold mehfils at home. If anyone complimented his singing, he would laugh it away, ‘Kairah koi sher mar laya, ik geet ee gaya na chhad yaar.’

His house in Calcutta was always full of guests and he would go out of the way to look after them. So much so, he would himself travel in a tram and give his luxury car to his guests.

He showed total devotion, respect and affection for his parents. Pahari Sanyal makes a special mention about his deep attachment to his mother. His daughter, the late Bina Chopra, had once told me how her father brought a battery-operated toy train, which he assembled himself. Then he sat back to watch it run with her in his lap.

Saigal’s son, the late Madan Mohan, too offered insights into the artiste as a father in an interview with a Hindi magazine at Bombay in 1973. "My father did drink like anybody else... While he enjoyed his drink, my sister and I used to take music lessons in his presence from our teacher Jagan Nath Prasad. He would then listen to our practice. I did not see him drinking in excess at home. Nor do I remember his ever coming home in a drunken state.’

He recalled his father as a deeply religious person. As part of his morning routine, he used to sit in the balcony with his harmonium and sing two bhajans: Utho sonewalo sahar ho gayi hai, utho rat sari basar ho gayi hai and Pee le re tu oh matwala, hari nam ka payala.

However, as far as mixing drink with music goes, G.N. Joshi, a Senior Executive of HMV at Mumbai, who personally handled the recordings of Saigal, has mentioned that his voice would become mellower when he took half a peg between rehearsals. He would catch him on disc when every word and every note bore the stamp of Saigal’s rare and rich artistry. He had known the singer since 1935.

Saigal’s great interest in cooking is mentioned in quite a few contemporary accounts. Pankaj Mullick is said to have relished the dishes Saigal brought to the studio for his friends. He particularly relished Mughlai meat dishes loaded with chillies and spices. Interestingly, his wife Asha Rani was a strict vegetarian and he had engaged a special cook for her. He consumed pickles, pakoras and chutneys unmindful about their adverse effect on his vocal chords. He enjoyed smoking too. Luckily, his voice remained unaffected.

Saigal had a great regard for his fellow artistes and went out of the way to help them. When Jaddan Bai, mother of Nargis, was struggling in Calcutta, it was Saigal who noticed her talent and encouraged her. So, from a gramophone singer, Jaddan Bai became an actress, music director and film producer. Finally, there is a graphic account of his last days in Jalandhar, as narrated by Saigal’s sister-in-law over 20 years ago to eminent Punjabi writer Balwant Gargi. She recalled thus: "Kundan was a great soul `85an unusal person. He was ill and in need of complete rest but would tell us jokes and make us laugh. A few days before his death, he got his head shaved and`85 said that on his return to Bombay he would play the roles of sadhus and bhakts. But suddenly, his condition became critical and he passed away on the morning of January 18, 1947, leaving behind only his eternal melodies for hordes of his mourners in the country." PN

Pran Nevile's tribute II

K.L. Saigal—the greatest musical genius of the 20th century—passed away in the prime of his life but it is a pity that we have not set up any befitting memorial in his honour. The first superstar of Indian cinema, who brought music to the masses and became a legend in his own lifetime, deserves to be honoured at the national level. Saigal’s god-gifted voice and his haunting melodies still continue to delight millions of fans the world over and have become a part of our heritage. It is disappointing that no auditorium, institution, street even has been named after Saigal to keep his memory alive. The coming year, 2004, will mark Saigal’s birth centenary. This should be an opportunity occasion to repay our long-standing debt to K.L. Saigal, the true Tansen of our age. Saigal was deeply attached to Jalandhar, his beloved hometown. Even when his health was declining and he was conscious of his approaching end, he came all the way from Bombay to spend his last days there before his demise on January 18, 1947.

Right from his childhood, Saigal had shown an amazing understanding of music. As a school boy, he used to attend kirtans in the temples and take part in the Ram Lila. He often visited the dera of a Muslim dervish and Sufi Salamat Yusuf in Jammu, whose life and spiritual leanings he was influenced by. Music was a daily routine at this dera and Saigal is said to have practised his singing there along with other musicians and devotees. Apart from folk and devotional music, the enjoyment of regular classical and other popular music in those days, was for those privileged few who either had access to the private concerts of the princes. Saigal would sneak near the house of a professional singing girl in his neighbourhood and later emulate her singing. Some fans find a flavour of kotha style in Saigal’s rendering of ghazals. Saigal gave a totally new dimension to the music of his time when he appeared on the scene in 1930s. Saigal’s non-film music — ghazals, geets and bhajans made him popular with the music lovers. For him, singing was as natural as breathing, beyond the usual limit of skill and style. Without any formal training in the art of singing nor a torch-bearer of any gharana, Saigal was an acknowledged master of his art in every element that makes music mighty.

He had the marvellous gift and the heavenly voice to create out of those seven notes — sargam — a ringing rainbow of colours, full of expression of every single emotion known to man. No wonder, the elemental force of Saigal’s music stunned the great music maestros of his time like Faiyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Bal Gandharav, Pt Omkar Nath and others who were amazed at his instinctive understanding of the ragas and his regal resonant voice, with a touch of the divine. It is said that after hearing him sing a short khayal in raga darbari, Faiyaz Khan told Saigal "My dear boy, there is nothing I can teach you now that will make you a greater singer".

As a man, Saigal was humane, modest, gracious, overgenerous and full of compassion. Least conscious of his achievements, fame and fortune, he made no distinction between rank and class. According to a reliable source, Saigal once declined an offer of a substantial fee for performing at a wealthy household but chose to attend the function at the house of a modest employee of the Kedar Studios at Bombay. Since he did not follow any religious rituals, he was more like a Sufi saint. Music was an effective instrument for sublime communion..

On a personal note, I vividly remember Saigal’s live performance I witnessed at Lahore in December, 1937, during an All-India exhibition held at the Minto Park. By that time, Saigal was already a household name all over the country. There are many stories about his addiction to the bottle and his inability to sing without its aid but there is no evidence to support them. Like the great poet Ghalib, immortalised by the ghazals sung by Saigal, the bottle had its fascination for him but that did not in any way affect his faculties. However, it will, always remain a mystery whether he sang better with or without the influence of liquor.

It was B.N. Sircar, the founder of New Theatres, Calcutta who discovered Saigal and presented him to the Indian public. Calcutta, in those days, was the Mecca for the actors, singers, dancers, scriptwriters, music directors, and all those who aspired for a career in the show business. It was in Calcutta that K.D. Mehra of Lahore made the first Punjabi film Sheila or Pind di kudhi.

Saigal’s first three films Muhabbat ke ansoo, Subah ka sitara and Zinda lash went unnoticed. But his talent for both acting and singing was fully recognised after the success of Yahoodi ki ladki a costume epic based on Aga Hashar Kashmiri’s famous play Misarkumari with 19 songs including Saigal’s ever popular Ghalib number Nuktachin hai gham-e-dil.

It was around this time that Hindustan Records Company of Calcutta brought out Saigal’s maiden recording Jhulana jhulao which blazed a new trail in the Indian music and won him acclaim from knowledgeable music lovers.

Saigal’s film music style was largely shaped at New Theatres which had then a galaxy of music directors like R.C. Boral, Timir Baran and Pankaj Mullick who composed most of the songs which remain among the most popular hits of Indian Cinema. Saigal attained stardom with the release of New Theatres’ Chandidas in 1934. The phenomenal success of the film set a new trend, establishing the dominance of songs and music in Indian cinema which continues to be a major audience attraction even today. Saigal was acclaimed as the leading singing star and the haunting songs like Tadpat bite din rain and Prem nagar mein banaungi ghar main made him famous. Never before had such a soul-stirring voice ever been heard. Then came the all-time great Barua’s masterpiece Devdas, Saratchandra’s classic time-honoured enduring story of unrequited love. Here, Saigal’s outstanding and historic performance set the standards for musical melodrama acting. With his stunning portrayal of Devdas, Saigal brought the author Saratchandra’s desperate character to life. His brooding looks, that drooping lock of hair and his mournful singing Dukh ke ab din bitat nahin made him a cult figure and Saigal became the first superstar of Indian cinema. Saigal was not conventionally good looking but the audience was struck by his demeanour and mannerisms. His golden voice was refreshingly impressive and along with his songs even his dialogues were on the lips of the love-lorn gallants of the 1930s as the ultimate expression of dejected love.


Saigal was a bilingual artiste and his mastery over the Bengali language was recognised even by Gurudev Tagore when he allowed him, the first non-Bengali artiste, to sing Rabindra Sangeet. He also played lead roles in several Bengali films which made him the darling of Bengali fans. Devdas was followed by Karwan-e-Hayat an adventure movie and Pujarin, the Hindi version of Dena Pona. It was in the latter film that Saigal sang that fascinating number Piye ja aur piye ja, perhaps, the only film song that was recorded without any rehearsal or any set composition. The magic of this melody, when he is talking and singing, electrified the tipplers and enhanced their pleasure. Unlike other studios, New Theatres did not exploit its talented stars and Saigal did only one or two films a year. In 1937, Saigal appeared in President which was again a runaway success. He was versatile in his tastes, lending his voice to all types of songs as we find in that memorable number Ek raje ka beta lekar a rare fusion of prose and poety.

The following year, New Theatres came out with three reputed films starring Saigal, viz Dharti mata, Dushman and Street singer. The last one elevated Saigal to a new pinnacle of glory along with Kananbala with that immortal, melody Babul mora nayhar chhuto jaye which enraptured countless fans. Then followed Barua’s Zindagi (1940) with Saigal’s evergreen lullaby So ja raj kumari soja and Lagan (1941) with Kananbala, an Indian version of the romantic stereotype of the artist, a forerunner of Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. It had that Saigal’s moving melody Ye kaisa anayaya data. Saigal left Calcutta in 1941 to join Ranjit Studios in Bombay. There Chandulal Shah and his team capitalised on his talents and produced two outstanding films Bhagat Surdas and Tansen. Saigal co-starred with another highly talented singing heroine Khurshid and both these films were box office hits. Saigal’s popularity reached new heights with those great songs like Nayan heen ko raah dikha prabhu, and Diya jalao. In 1944, Saigal went to Calcutta to work for New Theatre’s production, My sister, whose success was entirely attributed to Saigal and his singing.

No fan of his can forget that heart-rending number Ai qatibe-taqdir. Back in Bombay, Saigal was signed up for a number of films by the producers there who were keen only to exploit his name and fame as the leading singing super star of the day. These films, however, like Tadbir, Banwara, Kurukshetra, Omar Khayyam and Parwanadid not make any mark. The music directors in Bombay were vying with one another for an opportunity to compose music for Saigal. Finally, it was Naushad, who teamed up with Saigal in Kedar’s masterpiece Shahjehan. This was the last great musical hit that keeps alive the memory of the great super-star K.L. Saigal with those sublime songs like Gam diye mustaqil and Jab dil hi toot gaya. K.L. Saigal was also a poet and a composer. He is said to have recited his own compositions though no recordings are available, except the one Main baithee thi phulwari mein, a remarkable bhajan which reveals his spiritual leanings and substantiates the statement of his cousin Chaman Puri that Saigal was a great devotee of Lord Krishna and often sang bhajans to his mother. He was also a competent composer and is believed to have composed most of his non-film music. According to Kidar Sharma, it was Saigal who set the tunes of those two famous numbers, Balam aao baso mere man mein and Dukh ke ab din bitat nahin.

According to Jaimani Roy, the renowned artist who knew Saigal from his earliest days in New Theatres,"Saigal was such a pure character, so simple, that it is hard to describe him in simple words. He was like somebody who had stepped out of an icon, so unaffected, totally oblivious of himself, like a line drawing". All creative artists, poets, painters, dancers and singers receive inspiration from the invisible or the cosmos as Ghalib put it Aate hain gaib se ze mazamin khayal mein — Ghalib sarire-khama nawai sarosh hai (these thoughts or ideas emanate from the heavens, oh Ghalib, your pen is only the scribe of the voice of the gods). And that was so true of Saigal as well.

Keeping his memory alive

IN Karuna Sadan, Sector 11, Chandigarh, the strains of Gham diye mustaqil, kitna naazuk hai dil, ye na jaana, hai hai ye zaalim zamana wafted out of one of the windows. It was a cassette being played of the legendary singer K.L. Saigal, whose voice still had that gripping quality as it did so many decades ago. I had landed at the right place. In today’s Kaanta laga pop culture, only a few die-hard fans could be playing a song from that era. In a rather cluttered office sat S.K. Sharma, who sees himself as a lone ranger of sorts.

Sharma heads the Environment Society of India (ESI), Chandigarh, that has been engaged in promoting art, heritage and environment in the region for the past several years. It is single-handedly trying to keep alive the memory of the man with the golden voice, who was a household name in the subcontinent and Indian cinema’s first cult figure.

There’s an interesting story behind his distinct style. Apparently, at the time the songs of Devdas were being filmed, Saigal had a sore throat. The sequences were postponed but the affliction persisted. Finally, Saigal rendered the numbers in a soft, crooning tone. So, thanks to a virus, a new singing style was born that spawned a hundred imitations. Like Mukesh in Dil jalta hai to jalne de and Kishore Kumar in his initial singing years.

Preparations are under way by film bodies in India as well as abroad to pay tributes to the singer and actor who died in his prime, at the age of 42.

In Saigal’s hometown Jalandhar, the K.L. Saigal Memorial Trust has decided to hold year-long programmes as part of the centenary celebrations. These include talent-hunt programmes, song competitions and sufiana recitals by the Wadali brothers, inform G.K. Sood and Inderjit Singh, president and member of the trust, respectively.

The ESI has been organising musical functions annually for the past 27 years. This time too the society has planned a grand musical celebration at Tagore Theatre on his centenary day. Regular singers of Saigal songs such as R.S. Chopra, Radha Chopra, Bhupinder Singh, Ranjit Singh, J.S. Grewal, R.K. Bali and newcomer Damneet Kaur will be participating.

The society, which has brought out silver coins for the occasion, is holding a similar musical extravaganza in Lahore, home to a legion of his fans.

At the society’s initiative, Panjab University has set up the K.L. Saigal Chair in the Department of Music. Saigal is the first singer and actor to be honoured thus. In 1995, on Saigal’s 91st birthday, it put up an exhibition, "K.L. Saigal: Tansen of 20th Century," at the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh. Saigal’s harmonium, the awards he had received and his film contracts were the highlights of the show. The Union Government had released a commemorative Saigal stamp on the occasion. Radio Sri Lanka, formerly Radio Ceylon, has been playing Saigal songs every morning at 7.57, ever since Saigal died on January 18, 1947.

There are Saigal sing-alikes too. The best known is P. Parmeshwaran Nair, dubbed the ‘Saigal of the South’. Since 1985, when he first rendered Saigal sangeet in public, Nair has given more than 100 performances, some of them in Saigal country— Punjab. DBK

Some famous Saigal songs

Balam aaye baso more man mein (Devdas)

Dukh ke din ab bitat naahin. (Devdas)

Ek bangla bane nyara... (President)

Karun kya aas niras bhaiee. (Dushman)

Main kya janun kya jadoo hai. (Zindagi)

So ja rajkumari so ja. (Zindagi)

Rumjhum rumjhum chal tehari (Tansen)

Diya jalao (Tansen)

Nis din barsat nain hamare (Bhakta Surdas)

Do naina matware (My Sister)

Kya maine kiya hai (My Sister)

Babul mora naihar chhooti hi jai (Street Singer

Ae dile bekarar kyun (Shah Jahan)

Gham diye mushtakil kitna nazuk hai dil (Shah Jahan)

Jab dil hi toot gaya. (Shah Jahan)


1932 Mohabbat Ke Aansu

1932 Subha Ka Sitara

1932 Zinda Laash

1933 Puran Bhagat

1933 Rajrani Meera

1933 Yahudi Ki Ladki

1934 Chandidas

1934 Roop Lekha

1935 Devdas

1935 Karwane Hayat

1936 Devdas

1936 Pujarin

1937 Badi Bahen

1937 Didi

1938 Desher Mati

1938 Dharti Mata

1938 Dushman

1938 Jiban Maran

1938 Street Singer

1940 Zindagi

1941 Lagan

1941 Parichay

1942 Bhakta Surdas

1943 Tansen

1944 Meri Bahen

1945 Kurukshetra

1945 Tadbir

1946 Omar Khaiyyam

1946 Shahjehan

1947 Parwana

Discography (songs sung by Saigal)

1933 Puran Bhagat (Bhajoon Main To Bhav Se, Avsar Bheeto Jaate Prani, Din Neeke Beete Jaate Hain and Radhe Rani De Daro)

1933 Rajrani Meera

1933 Yahudi Ki Ladki (Nuktacheen Hai Gham -E- Dil, Lag Gayi Chot Karejwa Mein, Lakh Sahi Ab Peeki and Yeh Tasarruf Allah Allah)

1934 Chandidas (Prem Nagar Mein and Tadpat Beete Hain Rani)

1934 Roop Lekha

1935 Devdas (Balam Aaye Baso and Dukh Ke Ab Din)

1935 Karwane Hayat (Dil Se Teri Nigah, Hairat -E- Nazar Aakhir and Koi Preet Ki Reet Bata De)

1936 Devdas

1936 Pujarin (Piye Jaa Aur Piye Jaa and Jo Beet Saki So Beet)

1937 Badi Bahen (Bangla Bane Nyara, Ek Raja Ka Beta and Prem Ka Hai Is Jag Mein)

1937 Didi

1938 Desher Mati

1938 Dharti Mata (Duniya Rang Rangili, Kisne Yeh Sab Khel Rachaya and Main Mann Ki Baat Bataoon)

1938 Dushman (Pyari Pyari Soorato, Sitam The Zulm The, Karoon Kya Aas Niraas Bhayi and Preet Mein Hai Jeevan Jhokho)

1938 Jiban Maran

1938 Street Singer (Jeevan Been Madhur and Babul Mora)

1940 Zindagi (Deewana Hoon, Main Kya Janoo Kya Jadoo Hai, Jeevan Aasha Yeh Hai Meri and So Ja Raajkumari)

1941 Lagan (Hat Gayi Lo Kari Ghata, Yeh Kaisa Anyay Daata and Main Sote Bhaag Jaga Doonga)

1941 Parichay

1942 Bhakta Surdas (Rain Gayi Ab Huwa Savera and Din Se Dughnai Ho Jaaye Ratiyan) / (Rain Gayi Ab Huwa Savera, Din Se Dughnai Ho Jaaye Ratiyan, Nainheen Ko Raaha Dikha, Kadam Chale Aage, Madhukar Shyam Hamare Chor, Maiya Mori Main Nahin, Nis Din Barsaat Nain and Chandni Raat Aur Taare)

1942 Station Master

1943 Tansen (More Balapan Ke Saathi, Rum Jhum Rum Jhum Chal Tihari, Kahe Guman Kare Gori, Bina Pankh Ka Panchhi, Sapt. Suran Teen Gram, Diya Jalao and Baag Laga Doon Sajni)

1944 Meri Bahen (Chhupo Na O Pyari Sajaniya, Hai Kis Butt Ki Mohabbat, Aye Qatib -E- Taqdeer Mujhe Itnabata De and Do Naina Matware)

1945 Kurukshetra (Kidhar Hai Tu Aye Meri Tamanna, Aayi Hai Tu To, Tu Aa Gayi Dil Ki Tamanna, Mohabbat Ke Gul Haye and Mere Sapnon Ki Rani)

1945 Tadbir (Janam Janam Ke, Hasrat -E- Khamosh Hai, Main Panchi Azad', Main Kismat Ka Mara Bhagwan, Garibon Ki Duniya and Milne Ka Din Aa Gaya)

1946 Shahjehan (Gham Diye Mustaqil, Kar Luiya Chalkar, Aye Dil -E- Beqarar Jhoom, Chaah Barbaad Karegi and Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya)

1947 Parwana (Us Mast Nazar Pe Padi, Mohabbat Mein Kabhi, Toot Gaye Sab Sapne Mere and Jeene Ka Dhang)

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