Salute to a legend

As the world pauses to remember K.L. Saigal on his birth centenary today, Pran Nevile takes a look at little-known facets of the man, while Devinder Bir Kaur reports on the efforts to keep his music alive.

K.L. Saigal in Dushman
K.L. Saigal in Dushman

Saigal with Jamuna in the first Devdas
Saigal with Jamuna in the first Devdas

HE was all music, an extraordinary artiste and master of his craft. Whether K.L. Saigal sang better with or without liquor is of little importance.

Sadly though, there is hardly any written material on Saigal and his life. No diaries, letters, interviews or media coverage. The only source are references made to him by contemporaries, friends and colleagues in their writings or interviews.

Saigal was a perfect gentleman, full of compassion and generous. He is often known to have given away his money, also clothes, to the poor and needy. It is said that his salary was collected by his family direct from the New Theatres’ office for fear that he might part with it on his way home. Once, he is said to have given away his diamond ring to a widow in distress at Pune.

Another admirable quality was that he remained unaffected by his success, fame and popularity. Affable and affectionate person, he made no distinction between people of different rank and status. He never spoke ill of anybody nor did he lose his temper.

Though Saigal kept indifferent health, he never talked about his personal problems. At home, he never talked about work and seldom saw his own films. According to his cousin the late Chaman Puri (brother of Madan Puri), who acted with Saigal in Street Singer and was his admirer, home was where Saigal’s heart was. The singer would often hold mehfils at home. If anyone complimented his singing, he would laugh it away, ‘Kairah koi sher mar laya, ik geet ee gaya na chhad yaar.’

His house in Calcutta was always full of guests and he would go out of the way to look after them. So much so, he would himself travel in a tram and give his luxury car to his guests.

He showed total devotion, respect and affection for his parents. Pahari Sanyal makes a special mention about his deep attachment to his mother. His daughter, the late Bina Chopra, had once told me how her father brought a battery-operated toy train, which he assembled himself. Then he sat back to watch it run with her in his lap.

Saigal’s son, the late Madan Mohan, too offered insights into the artiste as a father in an interview with a Hindi magazine at Bombay in 1973. “My father did drink like anybody else… While he enjoyed his drink, my sister and I used to take music lessons in his presence from our teacher Jagan Nath Prasad. He would then listen to our practice. I did not see him drinking in excess at home. Nor do I remember his ever coming home in a drunken state.’

He recalled his father as a deeply religious person. As part of his morning routine, he used to sit in the balcony with his harmonium and sing two bhajans: Utho sonewalo sahar ho gayi hai, utho rat sari basar ho gayi hai and Pee le re tu oh matwala, hari nam ka payala.

However, as far as mixing drink with music goes, G.N. Joshi, a Senior Executive of HMV at Mumbai, who personally handled the recordings of Saigal, has mentioned that his voice would become mellower when he took half a peg between rehearsals. He would catch him on disc when every word and every note bore the stamp of Saigal’s rare and rich artistry. He had known the singer since 1935.

Saigal’s great interest in cooking is mentioned in quite a few contemporary accounts. Pankaj Mullick is said to have relished the dishes Saigal brought to the studio for his friends. He particularly relished Mughlai meat dishes loaded with chillies and spices. Interestingly, his wife Asha Rani was a strict vegetarian and he had engaged a special cook for her. He consumed pickles, pakoras and chutneys unmindful about their adverse effect on his vocal chords. He enjoyed smoking too. Luckily, his voice remained unaffected.

Saigal had a great regard for his fellow artistes and went out of the way to help them. When Jaddan Bai, mother of Nargis, was struggling in Calcutta, it was Saigal who noticed her talent and encouraged her. So, from a gramophone singer, Jaddan Bai became an actress, music director and film producer.

Finally, there is a graphic account of his last days in Jalandhar, as narrated by Saigal’s sister-in-law over 20 years ago to eminent Punjabi writer Balwant Gargi. She recalled thus: “Kundan was a great soul `85an unusal person. He was ill and in need of complete rest but would tell us jokes and make us laugh. A few days before his death, he got his head shaved and`85 said that on his return to Bombay he would play the roles of sadhus and bhakts. But suddenly, his condition became critical and he passed away on the morning of January 18, 1947, leaving behind only his eternal melodies for hordes of his mourners in the country.” PN


Keeping his memory alive

IN Karuna Sadan, Sector 11, Chandigarh, the strains of Gham diye mustaqil, kitna naazuk hai dil, ye na jaana, hai hai ye zaalim zamana wafted out of one of the windows. It was a cassette being played of the legendary singer K.L. Saigal, whose voice still had that gripping quality as it did so many decades ago. I had landed at the right place. In today’s Kaanta laga pop culture, only a few die-hard fans could be playing a song from that era. In a rather cluttered office sat S.K. Sharma, who sees himself as a lone ranger of sorts.

Saigal in a scene from Street Singer
Saigal in a scene from Street Singer

Sharma heads the Environment Society of India (ESI), Chandigarh, that has been engaged in promoting art, heritage and environment in the region for the past several years. It is single-handedly trying to keep alive the memory of the man with the golden voice, who was a household name in the subcontinent and Indian cinema’s first cult figure.

There’s an interesting story behind his distinct style. Apparently, at the time the songs of Devdas were being filmed, Saigal had a sore throat. The sequences were postponed but the affliction persisted. Finally, Saigal rendered the numbers in a soft, crooning tone. So, thanks to a virus, a new singing style was born that spawned a hundred imitations. Like Mukesh in Dil jalta hai to jalne de and Kishore Kumar in his initial singing years.

Preparations are under way by film bodies in India as well as abroad to pay tributes to the singer and actor who died in his prime, at the age of 42.

In Saigal’s hometown Jalandhar, the K.L. Saigal Memorial Trust has decided to hold year-long programmes as part of the centenary celebrations. These include talent-hunt programmes, song competitions and sufiana recitals by the Wadali brothers, inform G.K. Sood and Inderjit Singh, president and member of the trust, respectively.

The ESI has been organising musical functions annually for the past 27 years. This time too the society has planned a grand musical celebration at Tagore Theatre on his centenary day. Regular singers of Saigal songs such as R.S. Chopra, Radha Chopra, Bhupinder Singh, Ranjit Singh, J.S. Grewal, R.K. Bali and newcomer Damneet Kaur will be participating.

The society, which has brought out silver coins for the occasion, is holding a similar musical extravaganza in Lahore, home to a legion of his fans.

At the society’s initiative, Panjab University has set up the K.L. Saigal Chair in the Department of Music. Saigal is the first singer and actor to be honoured thus. In 1995, on Saigal’s 91st birthday, it put up an exhibition, “K.L. Saigal: Tansen of 20th Century,” at the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh. Saigal’s harmonium, the awards he had received and his film contracts were the highlights of the show. The Union Government had released a commemorative Saigal stamp on the occasion.

Radio Sri Lanka, formerly Radio Ceylon, has been playing Saigal songs every morning at 7.57, ever since Saigal died on January 18, 1947.

There are Saigal sing-alikes too. The best known is P. Parmeshwaran Nair, dubbed the ‘Saigal of the South’. Since 1985, when he first rendered Saigal sangeet in public, Nair has given more than 100 performances, some of them in Saigal country— Punjab. DBK