The year 2004 was the hundredth anniversary of KL Saigal’s birth, but it went unmarked in Pakistan. Some time earlier I had asked music aficionado Saeed Malik in Lahore if he could perhaps get a group together to celebrate the memory of the greatest popular singer of the subcontinent. He said he would try, but he wasn’t sure he would be able to generate much enthusiasm for the effort. That says more about us as a country and a society than a dozen learned books can. There is little interest in such matters. Some may even have asked Saeed Malik: who was Saigal and what does it matter that he was born a hundred years ago!
Saigal had many associations with Lahore and it would have done both Saigal’s and the city’s soul a world of good had an attempt, even a modest one, been made to revive his memory. However, it was left to a son of Lahore to pay tribute to this great man, his music and his artistic achievement. As the year drew to a close, Pran Nevile in New Delhi published a handsome book on Saigal that recreates those times when Saigal’s voice reverberated from one corner of India to another. Pran Nevile was born in Lahore, grew up in Lahore, went to Government College and did not leave the city until the 1947 communal conflagration. But wherever he has lived, he has carried Lahore with him. Some years ago, he published a book on the Lahore of his days and what it was like. An equally evocative book on the city has been written by another old Lahori who also lives in India. Those who live in Lahore have no time for such things, which are the only things that in the end matter.
Nevile’s profusely illustrated book contains old stills from Saigal’s movies, contemporary newspaper accounts and even facsimiles of movie posters and ads, including one from the year 1937 when Saigal was in Lahore, the only time he performed in the city. The occasion was the All India Exhibition at Minto Park. Nevile’s memory of that magical evening remains vivid. He writes, “Saigal, loaded with garlands, walks up to the stage, followed by a person carrying the singer’s personal harmonium. He is dressed in a tweed jacket and a polo neck sweater with a brown felt hat over his head. He takes off his hat and removes the garlands. His gray eyes light up; he greets the audience with his winning smile. There is an outburst of applause … Saigal takes charge of his harmonium and pin-drop silence prevails as his regal voice rents the air with his famous song ‘ Lag gai chot karejwa mein, hai Rama’. He follows it with ‘ Andhe ki lathi tu hi hai’. Scores of requests for singing other popular songs are made from all sides of the hall. Some of Saigal’s fans stand up on chairs and benches to catch his attention.”
There is much confusion till an organiser suggests that the choice of what he will sing should be left to the great man. Saigal smiles, looks at the audience and sings a succession of ghazals, including ‘ Ye tasuruff Allah Allah’, ‘ Layi hayat aaye qaza’ and ‘ Dil se teri nigha’. At the end of every song, he receives standing ovation from the enthralled audience. He ends the evening with ‘ Panchhi kahe hoat udas’. Neil writes, “Saigal’s voice was a gift from the gods. He became a legend in his own lifetime, and the idol of countless millions. I was fortunate enough to have seen and heard Saigal. He is alive in our hearts even today, his melodies will continue to haunt us. Saigal is immortal.”
Those of us who come from Jammu should feel a special affinity with Saigal since he was born in Jammu in April 1904. It is said that as a boy he used to sneak away from home and stand outside the house of a singing girl – their quarter in the city was called Urdu Bazar that still exists but, sadly, without the women who give it life and light – and listen to her spellbound. He never received any formal training but he was encouraged and guided by Sufi Pir Salman Yusuf of Jammu. Saigal it was, who popularised ghazal singing, so in more than one way, he was a pioneer. He was also a poet. Nevile includes the facsimile of one of Saigal’s poems written in his own hand on letterheaded paper which begins, “ Ab dil ko nahin hai chain zara – Pardes mein rehnay wale aa.” He also wrote and sang ‘ Mein baithi thi phulwari mein’, recorded on both sides of a 78 rpm disc, the kind that the young of today may never have even seen.
Saigal’s first hit was the semi-classical song ‘ Jhulna Jhulao’which sold half a million copies, a figure that would be phenomenal even today, but in the 1930s when very few people had gramophones, it was absolutely incredible. Saigal was also the first artist to sign a contract with his recording company that entitled him to payments on a royalty basis. Saigal’s film songs were recorded on the HMV label by the Gramophone Company of India.
Saigal was utterly self-effacing. He once told Kirit Ghosh, a Calcutta journalist, “I think of the meaning of the words and wrap the tune around the words. I have no clear understanding of the grammar of music.” Asked about his favourite raga, he said it was Bhairvin which musicians have called sada sohagan, the eternal bride. “To know Bhairvin is to know all ragas,” he said. He was not the only one to feel that way. Ustad Jhanday Khan, who came from Gujranwala, set all 12 songs of Kedar Sharma’s Chitralekha in Bhairvin, a feat that has remained one of a kind.
The music for Saigal’s last film Parwana was scored by Khwaja Khurshid Anwar. Saigal, who was quite ill by then, played the lead, his heroine being Surayya whose ‘ Meray mudairay na bol’ remains one of her best songs. Saadat Hasan Manto always regretted the fact that two of the greatest singers of their time, Saigal and Nur Jehan, could never be teamed up. However, he did team up with Khurshid in more than one film. In Tansen she was his leading lady with music by Khemchand Prakash. I wonder how many people know or remember that the velvet-voiced Khurshid was born in Chuniyan, not far from Lahore. In all Saigal made 28 films, the first in 1932 with music by RC Boral, the great music director at New Theatre, Calcutta, who scored music for 11 of Saigal’s movies. Pankaj Malik, also then at New Theatres, wrote music for five of the films starring Saigal. Naushad was his music director in AR Kardar’s Shahjahan which starred Ragini, who lives in Lahore, Nasrin, Salma Agha’s mother, who died not very long ago and Himalyawala, who in his last days was selling properties out of a small office in Gulburg’s main market, which always made me sad.
In the end, Saigal, like Manto, succumbed to the demon of drink. He died at Jullandhar on 18 January 1947. He was the same age as Manto, just 43 years old. It is humbling to think how much the two men accomplished in the brief time they were allowed on this earth, but no matter, Saigal’s music lives as do Manto’s stories.