The fountainhead of Hindi film music



The book is a rich repository of information about those who were responsible for Saigal’s becoming a singing sensation

Pran Nevile has dedicated this book to “all those who love to hear K.L. Saigal”. The big question is: how many of them are still around? Saigal, hailed as the emperor of music, died exactly a year before Gandhiji; the number of people who grew up listening to Saigal would be anything but substantial now. What happens to Saigal’s legacy, then, once these people are gone too?

During my younger days — say, some 30 years ago — All India Radio and Doordarshan used to broadcast Saigal songs, even if occasionally. But today both radio and TV are highly commercialised and you can’t imagine RJs digging into archives to play Saigal for a generation born in the time of A.R. Rahman.

A couple of years ago, during the Durga Puja in Kolkata, I happened to pick up a CD of Tagore songs sung by various artistes of Saigal’s vintage, one of them being sung by Saigal himself — Ami tomai joto shuniye chhilen gaan/taar bodole aami chaini kono gaan (For all the songs that I sang for you, I did not ask anything in return). The song can easily be the anthem of Saigal’s life. When I played the song, I felt here was a voice coming straight from the heart and not the throat! And Saigal was not even Bengali-speaking; he was a Punjabi from Jalandhar.

Then I realised why Saigal was great, and why Kishore Kumar, whom I consider the greatest singer, considered Saigal his guru. Both Kishore Kumar and Mukesh made their entry into the film industry as Saigal clones and later they went on to discover their own distinctive styles. At the time, if you wanted to be a singer, you had to sing Saigal-style. In that sense, Saigal can be called the fountainhead of Hindi film music – everything you listen to today originates from him.

The book under review celebrates the greatness of the man who, without any formal training in music, recorded 185 songs, apart from acting in 36 films, in a short span of about 15 years. It’s more of an elaborate bio-data than a “definitive biography”, as the title proclaims.

It is replete with praise, but there is not much that you get to know about the man himself. Even the greatest of men have feet of clay and Saigal, whose addiction to alcohol was as much talked about as the magic in his voice, was no exception.

One had been led to believe that Saigal liked to fortify himself with a few drinks before a recording. In fact, during the fag end of his life, he was coaxed by the young Naushad to sing one particular song for Shah Jehan in a sober state, and Saigal was so impressed by his own (sober) rendition that he reportedly told the composer, “Wish you had come into my life earlier.”

But if you read Nevile’s book, you will believe that Saigal was a devout family man and drank only in moderation. And that it was diabetes, and not alcohol, that caused his death in 1947, at the age of 42. But then, the author does admit to the lack of documentary evidence — letters, diaries, interviews; he had had to rely mainly on accounts given by family members.

Parallel story

Nevile, however, excels in telling the story of the parallel film industry that flourished in Calcutta then and the role it played in establishing Saigal as a singing sensation. Saigal fled home at a young age, took up odd jobs in various cities and was a sales representative for Remington typewriters when he reached Calcutta on business in 1931. How did he land a job with New Theatres as a singer, no one knows for sure: there are three, equally interesting, accounts of it. His career in Bombay, on the other hand, was hardly successful: all his films, except Bhakt Surdas, Tansen and Shah Jehan, flopped miserably and this, according to the author, hastened his end.

For all its failings as a biography, the book is a rich repository of information about the long-forgotten stalwarts who were responsible for his becoming a singing sensation and also about those who sang with him.