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The Immortal voice: A Tribute to KL Saigal on his birth anniversary

Sharad Dutt writes an account on the life of Kundan Lal Saigal, and how his legendary voice back from the 1930s still captures many hearts, ahead of his birth anniversary.

040404!
You must be wondering, is it a code or some mathematical equation? No, this symmetrical number is the birthdate of legendary singer Kundan Lal Saigal. Born on April 4, 1904 in Jammu to Amar Chand Saigal and Kesar Kaur, he would have celebrated 103 years of his life had he been alive. Third among the five siblings, Saigal sang along with his mother, who would sing bhajans and kirtans at home. But his strict, disciplinarian father, a tehsildar in Jammu, thought it would adversely affect his reputation. Nevertheless, he relented that young Kundan could sing and participate in Ramleela, and Saigal performed the role of Sita in Diwan Mandir Rangmanch (now Sanatan Dharma Natak Samaj). Once his act of Sita in Ashok Vatika was so spectacular that the audience wanted an encore of the same scene and it was re-enacted.

Saigal's mother would go to River Tavi to bathe and seek the blessings of Pir Baba Salman Yushuf, and he accompanied her on such visits. And this is when Pir Baba blessed Saigal and prophesied that he would become a reputable singer. After his retirement, Amar Chand moved to his hometown Jalandhar and became a contractor. Though Saigal did some petty jobs in Jalandhar, his love for music remained unabated. His two Muslim friends Mohammad Saleem and Mohammad Razzaq, his constant companions and admirers helped Saigal avail of some opportunities to sing in public concerts. In one such concert, he met Pandit Harish Chandra Bali, a renowned music director, who was fairly impressed by his voice and played a seminal role in Saigal's later years in Calcutta.

One fine day, Saigal's father told him summarily that he should be able to support himself. This was when he made up his mind to leave Jalandhar. Accompanied by his friends Razzaq and Saleem, he reached Delhi, had a brief stint as an electrician, but soon thereafter joined as a shift assistant in Military Engineering Services and stayed in Delhi Cantonment. Here he met Pahari Sanyal who was to later become an actor-singer in New Theatres.

Being restless, Saigal was always on the move. His eldest brother Ramlal was working with the Railways and with his assistance, he joined as a time-keeper at the Delhi Railways Station. Later his brother was transferred to Moradabad, and Saigal moved along with him. After his brief sojourn in Moradabad, he was back in Delhi, where lady luck was awaiting him. Saigal was incidentally introduced to Rai Sahib Raghava Nanda Gautam, a connoisseur of music, who had set-up National Amateurs Dramatics Club in Simla. On Vasant Panchami, Saigal sang in an evening soiree at Gautam Saab's house. He could decipher the potential singer in Saigal and asked him to accompany him to Simla. Saigal resigned from his clerical job and left for the summer capital of the British Raj. Gautam Saab was a senior officer in central commerce department. While Saigal started acting in some plays of the Club and learnt the intricacies of music from Prof Homi, a music composer of this Club, Gautam Saab also ensured that Saigal got a job in Remington, the typewriter company.

Saigal had to tour extensively to sell typewriters. Given his gentle and affectionate demeanour and a great sense of humour, he could win over his customers. After a while, he was transferred from Simla to Kashmere Gate office of Remington in Delhi. As chance would have it, during one of his tours he met Pandit Harish Chandra Bali in Kanpur, who was known to Saigal since his Jalandhar days. And he really mentored Saigal, having recognised his flair for singing. He encouraged him to go to Calcutta and meet BN Sircar of New Theatres, who was known to have nurtured budding talent. Since Panditji too was shortly leaving for Calcutta, he assured Saigal that he would introduce him to RC Boral, as he was heading the music department of New Theatres.

Saigal met BN Sircar sometime in 1931 scouting for an assignment. Sircar was not surprised to see Saigal in his office, as he had heard him sing at the house of the Punjab distributors of his films in Jalandhar. Sircar told Saigal that New Theatres was making silent films only, so how could he use his talent as a singer. But Saigal persisted and approached Sircar once again when New Theatres' first talkie Dena Pavna in Bangla was released. By now Saigal had also been introduced to RC Boral by Pandit Harish Chandra Bali. Boral was so impressed by Saigal's spontaneous singing that he recommended him to Sircar and Saigal signed a five-year contract with New Theatres at a monthly salary of Rs 200.

Saigal set the ball rolling with his maiden film Mohabbat ke Aansu on January 16, 1932, but it flopped. His next two films, Zinda Laash and Subah ka Sitara, with New Theatres met a similar fate. Sircar was not unduly perturbed by this serial debacle, as Chandi Das in Bangla directed by Debki Bose hit the jackpot. After this success, Sircar entrusted Bose to direct 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, at the behest of Boral. The decision paid off as these bhajans became instant hits. Sircar was also keen to make the Hindi version of Chandi Das. So, Nitin Bose, the cameraman of the original Bangla version was asked to direct the film. Saigal played the lead as Chandi Das with Uma Shashi, and songs of this film, 'Tadpat beetey din rain and Prem ki jai ho', sung by Saigal, and the duet, 'Prem Nagar mein basayeinge ghar' with Sahshi also became a rage. Chandi Das led Saigal to stardom.

But his most defining role was yet to come. Saigal sang two songs in PC Barua's classic Devdas, adapted from Sarat Chandra Chatterjee's novel in Bangla. Barua played the title role himself. And two songs sung by Saigal, 'Kaharey jey jaratey chain' and 'Golap hoye kothook phottey' stunned Barua. In the Hindi version of Devdas, he offered the lead role to Saigal with Jamuna and Raj Kumara as the female cast. Devdas met with phenomenal success and those two songs written by Kidar Sharma, 'Balam aye baso morey man mein' and 'Dukh ke din ab beetat nahin', besides the thumri, 'Piya bin aawat nahi chain', are popular even today. Now Saigal was heading for super-stardom.

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 lent permission to sing Rabindra Sangeet. Saigal's repertoire comprised 20 films in Hindi and Urdu, seven films in Bangla, and one in the Tamil version of Devdas. He also did a cameo role in Dulari Bibi, a three-reel short film produced by New Theatres, and found much favour with leading directors, Nitin Bose, PC Barua, Phani Majumdar and Hem Chandra.

Later BN 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."

And his son Dilip Sircar said: "New Theatres and Kundan Lal Saigal were made for each other. Saigal gave enormously successful films to New Theatres, one after the other – President, Dharti Mata, Zindagi, Lagan, Streat singer, Dushman and Meri Behan. He was a perfect singing star of New Theatres."

It was time to move to Bombay and Saigal shifted base in 1941. He swung roles in three films produced by Ranjit Movietone, Bhakt Surdas, Tansen and Bhanwra. And Bhanwra was directed by his friend Kidar Sharma, who had penned the dialogues and lyrics of Saigal's Devdas. In one of his interviews with an author, he said, "Whatsoever I am today, I am because of Saigal Saab." Sharma's other notable films were Kurukshetra, Omar Khayyam, Tadbir, Shahjahan and Parwana.

Saigal's 15-year span in films had been cut short, as he breathed his last on January 18, 1947, in his hometown Jalandhar. But his voice became immortal and critical acclaim remained perennial. Babu Rao Patel, editor of Film India better known as 'father of film criticism' wrote: "Saigal was the most emotional male singer in the world. His music came from his heart and invaded the hearts of his listeners."

Saigal's life and music could, perhaps, be succinctly summed up in one of his renditions from the Bangla film, Parichay, composed by RC Boral:
Jakhon rabona ami din hole abashan. Amare bhuliya jeo mone rekho mor gaan. (When at the end of the day, I will no longer be there/ You may forget me but remember my song.)
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