K. L. Saigal: Immortal Singer and Superstar
by Pran Nevile. Variety Book Depot, New Delhi. Pages 199. Rs 2,500.
Almost at the very beginning of this feelingly written account of the life and work of K.L. Saigal, Pran Nevile reproduces a page of advertisement from The Tribune, dated April 15, 1931, announcing the release of Indiaâs first “talkie”, Alam Ara, that hurtles the reader headlong into another age, a different world. The film had just opened at the Capitol Theatre in Lahore, and the ad screamed aloud, reminding patrons that this was the only “Indian Talking complete drama so far produced in India”, a “Masterpiece in 11 Thrilling Reels with Technicolour Sequences” that will “gladden Indian Hearts”, for it had “Indian Songs, Indian Dances, Indian Music, Indian Stars”. “Miss Zubeda, Jillo, Indian Douglas, Prithvi Raj, B.A., of F.C. College, Lahore”, among others, “take prominent parts in the picture”, which takes you to the “Peak of Drama, Essence of Romance”. While a curly-haired Miss Zubeida peers from the poster, the readers are invited to avail of this “rare opportunity”; in fact, to “Seize it, Embrace it, if life is really worth living”.
K.L. Saigal was not part of this film, but he was of the period. And the book begins tracking his life and career somewhere from this point onwards: his birth in Jammu in 1904 in a Tehsildarâs family; his young years when he would accompany his mother in the singing of bhajans at temple festivals, or act the part of Sita in the local Ramlila; the passion for music that led him to sneak out of the house and go to the singing-girlsâ neighbourhood for hearing them sing, but landed him in trouble with his stern father; his encounter with a Muslim saint who advised him to stop singing for two years and start practising and cultivating his voice by zikr and riyaz; and then his leaving home suddenly, as if to find himself. There are gaps in the story, and long silences. Till one finds him in the world of films and film-music that made Calcutta what it wasâ€”the then cultural capital of the landâ€”and figures that one knows so well start flitting across the screen of memory: B. N. Sircar, Debaki Bose, P. C. Barua, Pankaj Mullick, R. C. Boral. And the profile of a different K. L. Saigal, a small town boy with a voice that made a whole nation fall in love with it, begins to emerge. Titles of celebrated films come pouring inâYahudi ki Ladki, Chandidas, Street Singer, Devdas, President, Zindagi, Bhakta Surdas, Tansen, Meri Bahen and Shahjahanâ€”and the doe-eyed beauties who acted opposite him make their appearance: Rattanbai, Jamuna, Leela Desai, Sumitra Devi, above all, Kanan Bala. As pointed reminders are brought in those songs sung straight from the heart that affected a whole generation and more: Baalam aaye baso more man mein;baabul mora naihar chhooto hi jaaye; dukh ke ab din beetat naahin, ai kaatib-i taqdeer mujhe itna bata de, and so on. It is a rich journey that Nevile takes us on, affording along the way brief glimpses of the personal life of Saigal. One does not see him clearly, but can sense his presence and the state of his mindâuncertainty, pain, self-assurance and warmth, all mingling.
What one is reminded of, through this carefully crafted account, though is how poorly documented the lives and work of some of our greats generally remain. And one cannot but help contrast this with the situation as it obtains in the West, where every scrap of text or document, every snatch of conversation, is preserved and passionately hung on to. With us, there are so many gaps, so much is hearsay. That is why Nevile has, every now and then, to fall back upon near-disclaimers like “it is also said that â€¦”, or “it has been suggested â€¦.” Given the general paucity of information, then, the value of what one finds in this volume rises manifold, even if one wishes that there had been a bibliography of whatever kind, and a list of persons interviewed with dates and places precisely documented.
There is an easy flow to the text, a tone that is warm and personal, although I could have done without the excess of superlatives (starting with the sub-title) to describe Saigal and his music, so many nouns getting buried under the weight of adjectives. Saigal was truly a phenomenon, and his music touched countless hearts. But not every lily in the garden needs to be gilded, nor every stick of incense burnt at the same time. And what I could also have done without is the errors in transliteration, surprising as they are, coming from one so fond of Urdu poetry: thus, ze for yeh, qatib for katib, gaib for ghaib, to cite only a few.
In writing this work, in drawing our attention in this age of funk and noise and fusion to simple music that comes from the heart, Nevile puts readers in his debt. And as for Kundan Lal Saigal? In one of the ghazals that he recorded there is a couplet:
Is khana-i hasti se guzar jaaoonga be-laus
saaya hoon faqat, naqsh ba-deewar nahin hoon.
(Unattached to it, I shall leave one day this dwelling that is life; I am but a shadow, not a figure drawn on its wall)
Saigal, however, was no shadow; his image remains etched on the walls of memory.