There was divine magic in his voice

Pran Nevile

REMEMBERED as one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, K.L. Saigal was an outstanding artiste who brought music to the masses. Earlier, enjoyment of music was a privilege of a few who had access to baithaks or courts of the aristocracy and the native princes. Without any formal training, or patronage of any gharana, Saigal stunned the great music maestros of his time like Fayaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan, Bal Gandharv, Pt Omkar Nath and others with his instinctive understanding of ragas, his inimitable style and his golden voice which had a touch of the divine.

K.L. Saigal: Music was an effective instrument for communion with God.
K.L. Saigal: Music was an effective instrument for communion with God.

Saigal gave a totally new dimension to the music of his times when he appeared on the music map of India in the early 30s and soon became the first superstar of Hindi cinema. Saigal’s non-film music—ghazals, geets and bhajans — made him famous with the connoisseurs of music who seldom went to the cinema. Music was a passion with him. He was an inspired soul, more like a Sufi saint, who found in music, the most effective instrument for sublime communion with the divine.

From early childhood, Saigal showed an amazing understanding of music. As a school boy, he used to attend kirtans in temples and take part in Ramlila. He was encouraged by his mother, Kesar Devi to sing bhajans with her on religious festivals. He often visited the dera of a Muslim darvesh and Sufi, Salamat Yusuf, and was much influenced by his way of life and spiritual leanings. Music was a daily routine at this dera and Saigal is believed to have practised his singing there along with the other musicians and devotees.

Saigal loved devotional music and his singing of even popular bhajans gave new form and content to the meaning of the verse. He played with words in a singular manner conveying their essence as he felt it himself and succeeded in stirring up similar feelings in the hearts of his listeners.


Jhulna Jhulao was his very first non-film song recording in 1932 which blazed a new trail in the music world and won him acclaim from knowledgeable music lovers throughout the country. On the other side of this 78 r.p.m. record, we find the bhajan Hori Re Brij Rajdulare sung by Saigal. Even today this melody continues to delight Saigal’s fans.

It was in New Theatres’ Pooran Bhakt (1933) that Saigal was given a side-role and he sang those famous bhajans. Radhe Rani se daro na bansuri mori and bhajun mai to bhav se Siri Girdhari. This was followed by his popular bhajan in New Theater’s film Doop Chhaon (1935) Andhe ki lathi, tu hi hai. Later, in 1937 Saigal recorded one of his all-time greats Suno Suno hai Krishan Kala which brought him unprecedented fame. Next, we come across a highly soothing devotional melody which Saigal sang in Dharati Mata (1938) — Kisne ye sab khel rachaya. Saigal arrived at the pinnacle of his glory when he played the leading role in Bhakt Surdas (1943). His rendering of Surdas’ poetry is most remarkable and he brings the saintly character to life by identifying himself with the saint and his devotion to Lord Krishna.

It is a little-known fact that Saigal was also a poet and is said to have recited his own compositions. No recordings are, however, available except an extraordinary devotional song Main baithi thi phulwari mein, ik sakhi ah gayi aur boli which was recorded by the Hindustan Records of Calcutta in 1945. This piece of poetry and the unique manner in which Saigal has recited every word recall his genuine devotion to Lord Krishna as also the spiritual side of his personality. At the same time, he highlights his Sufiana approach towards understanding the mystery of life. He points to the divine presence within every human being and speaks in this composition about a devotee of Lord Krishna who is wandering around in search of the Lord. An inner voice bids her to close her eyes and awaken the inner vision to see and realise His universal presence. The verse runs as follows:


Tab man ne mithi bat kahi,


Kyon tune itni baat gahi,


ghar baithe pi pa sakati thee


Mai bidhi bataun wo kya thee.


Bahar ke naina moond sakhi


aur nain hriday ke khol sakhi


ab apne munh se bol sakhi


sakhi kaun desh raje-piyra.


This singular poetic work shows Saigal’s devotion to Lord Krishna and his deep interest in religious verse.

More than half a century has gone by since Saigal passed away in the prime of his life in January 1947. His unforgettable melodies continue to enthrall millions of listeners not only in the subcontinent but even abroad in the homes of people hailing from Saigal’s part of the world. It is a pity that we have not so far set up any fitting memorial to pay homage to this great singer. Fervent appeals to the Government of India to honour K.L. Saigal posthumously with a Bharat Ratna, have not received any response as yet. Let us hope that we can repay our long-standing debt to this musical genius on the occasion of his birth centenary which falls on April 4.