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Saigal: A man of many hues

In Kundan: Saigal's Life & Music, author Sharad Dutt takes readers on a vivid journey through the artist's life, delving into his struggles and joys, spruced with intimate anecdotes of the past. Excerpts:

While Kundan was being lauded by the music aficionados, his father Amar Chand's exasperation was growing in direct proportion, as the son was incapable of sticking to any job. While the son was obsessed with music, the father viewed his passion as mere loafing around. He found it offensive that his son should idly hang around like a vagabond trying to display his singing skills. He could not rein him in and swallowed his pride.

And one day, when his patience burst at the seams, Amar Chand confronted Kundan and told him point blank, "How long will you stay unemployed? You are a grown up man. Get going and make a living. I can't afford to bear your expenses the rest of my life."

Just then Kundan recalled the advisory of Masterji, "These bhajans will not take you far. It's only education that would yield dividends."

By his own admission, it was owing to his piecemeal education that he was in a pathetic state. It also reminded him of his brother that how ably Ram Lal had secured a job in the railways. Feeling worthless being reprimanded by his father, he was forlorn, for his heart and soul were dedicated to music. He was just not cut-out for any of these mundane jobs and mulled over his plight, "Why does father impose his will on me? Don't I have an identity of my own? Am I merely his shadow who should follow in his footsteps?"

This monologue reflected his inner conflict. It was like getting enmeshed in a whirlpool; and life seemed to be a yoyo, going up and down with no signs of stability. These vacillating thoughts warned him that it was the hour of reckoning and he had to take the final call. Yes, he would take up a job for livelihood and fend for himself, but not in this town of Jullunder. He had to move far away, where he would completely immerse himself in music; where he wouldn't have to pay heed to any judgemental jibes of his father; and where he would evolve both as a person and professional singer.


After he touched down at the Kanpur station, the money in his pocket barely lasted for a couple of days, and he was starving. He knocked at the doors of the offices he had earlier visited as a salesman for Remington, for he was banking on some support from these known quarters. But there was no offer and he was sorely disappointed. The only light at the end of the dark tunnel was that professional singer and she would familiarise him with the finer nuances of thumri and dadra. Those were the moments that gave him the energy to fight the pangs of hunger. But when the body is craving for a meal, how long can you sustain yourself on the plank of mental strength? It was below his esteem to beg or borrow from the old acquaintances in the city. His job at Remington was still intact since he had not officially resigned. If he so wished, he could have procured orders for typewriters on behalf of his company. It was unlike him to look back, for bygones were bygones.

Kundan famished for almost a week and he was so debilitated that one day he fainted on the roadside. There was a leather factory close by and some workers noticed him lying there. They splashed water on his face to make him regain consciousness and offered him food. Well, the next day it was the same rigmarole of wandering the streets and straying without food.


Once after his music sessions with guru-ma, Kundan took off in the direction of Sharsaiya Ghat of the Ganges. The setting sun had yet to take the plunge and stood still on the horizon, while its amber hues varnished the sky. As he reposed at the banks, the cool breeze that brushed the waves seemed to soothe him. He started humming and then began to sing a bhajan loudly. Some devotees were taking a dip in the holy waters and visiting a temple in the vicinity for the evening prayers. One of them came forward and saw a young man was singing a devotional song, clad in untidy crumpled clothes and unkempt hair. Taking him to be a beggar, he hurled a coin at him. Some others, too, followed suit. But Kundan was immersed in his singing with eyes closed.

"Young man," someone addressed Kundan.

Just as he came back to the humdrum world, Kundan lifted his head, and saw an urbane man in his fifties, in a trendy linen dhoti-kurta.

"Did you say something?" asked Kundan.

"No I just addressed you, but want to say something, if you don't mind," the stranger said.

"Sorry, what do you mean?" Kundan was puzzled on seeing his meaningful smile.

"Please say what you wish to", Kundan requested.

"I did not go wrong in my estimation", the man said.

"But what did you guess?" asked Kundan inquisitively. "Why don't you tell me frankly?"

What he had to say needed a reference to the context, so that man paused and pondered that such civility and mannerism couldn't possibly be that of a beggar!

"Do you think I'm a...?" queried Kundan.

The man cut him short and said, "I didn't but others thought so," pointing at the coins scattered around him.

Kundan saw those coins lying near his feet and that was self-revealing. Flabbergasted, pitying his own state, he glanced at the man with an imploring look and conveyed that he would starve to death but never ever...

Just then that gentleman calmed him down saying, "It so happens that people judge others by how they dress up and turn out, which is fundamentally incorrect. They simply forget that a real assessment of any human being is through his demeanour and qualities."

Kundan was relieved that this man did not take him for a beggar. Swathed with a sense of gratitude, he wanted to express himself, but he was tongue-tied and could not articulate those words.

That man could relate to Kundan's turmoil and said, "Don't malign your mind and think of moving ahead."

"This is what has made me crazy. How do I move forward? Singing is the only skill I have."

"But I can see one more skill", intervened the man. "Your wonderful ability to communicate courteously is rare. Everyone is not so gifted", and added as an afterthought, "If you wish, I can organise a job for you."

"Can you?" Kundan asked excitedly. "Why not? Please tell me," he insisted.

"I'm a wholesale dealer of cotton saris," stated the man and asked Kundan, "Would you like to sell these saris by visiting individual households? An assistant will carry those bundles. Besides the daily allowance you will get an incentive on each sari you sell. Is this acceptable to you?"

What could a blind man wish for? A pair of eyes! Kundan thought on his feet that if earlier he could sell typewriters successfully, what was the big deal about selling saris? And he readily gave his consent.

His prospective employer said, "I knew that you would not decline the offer. Get going tomorrow itself."

(Excerpted with permission from Kundan: Saigal's Life & Music; written by Sharad Dutt and transcreated from the Hindi original by Jyoti Sabharwal; published by Stellar Publishers)

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