The Ghazal King and Mirza Ghalib

By Pran Nevile

K.L. Saigal passed away on January 18, 1947, even before completing 43 years of life. Fiftyfour years have gone by and it is pity that we have, so far, not set up any fitting memorial to pay homage to the most eminent artiste and greatest singer of the 20th century. His ardent fans have made fervent appeals to the government to honour K.L. Saigal posthumously by awarding him the Bharat Ratna, which he so richly deserved but there has been no positive response as yet. A few years ago, a commemorative postal stamp was issued but it was not given adequate publicity. Saigal, the musical genius, brought music to the masses and his name became a household word throughout the subcontinent. It is heartening to find that even today many music lovers of the younger generation like to hear Saigal’s golden voice and his haunting melodies which are nonpareil.

The year 2004 will mark the birth centenary of Saigal. This should be the right occasion to repay our long-standing debt to this great musical genius who entertained to listeners all over the country. We should urge the Centre and the Punjab Government to set up a committee to consider and finalise a comprehensive programme of action for his centenary.

Let us recall how we paid homage to the Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, on the occasion of his death centenary in 1969. Many institutions, including an auditorium named after Ghalib, have been built to eulogise and venerate his memory. The gramophone company HMV brought out a special LP with a commentary by famous Urdu litterateur Kaifi Azami, along with Ghalib’s ghazals sung by Mohammed Rafi and Begum Akhtar. It should be noted that it was K.L. Saigal who originally immortalised Ghalib through his rendition of the poet’s verses way back in the 1930s.

More than half a century has gone by since the death of K.L. Saigal in the prime of his life but his heavenly voice continues to haunt millions of his fans in the subcontinent. Saigal was a superb artiste who became a legend in his own lifetime. His unforgettable melodies have become a part of our heritage. Though film music made him a superstar, he preferred to sing ghazals in private gatherings and functions. And it was as a ghazal king that he won the adoration of the connoisseurs of music who seldom went to cinema. They were enthralled by his matchless style of singing ghazals in his God-gifted voice. No other artiste before or after him, has ever been able to surpass or equal his performance, popularity or fame in this art.

Essentially a poet at heart, Saigal was extremely fond of Urdu poetry. He is said to have recited his own compositions but only a couple of recordings are available. He married music to poetry and his rendition of the works of great poets like Zauq, Dard, Sauda, Seemab, Arzoo, Hasrat and of course Mirza Ghalib gave a new form and content to their verses. He succeeded in providing life-like images to his words. Saigal identified himself with the moods and feelings expressed by the poets and mesmerised audiences with his singing and also managed to stir up similar emotions in his listeners.

The zenith of Saigal’s artistic abilities was his rendition of Ghalib’s verse. His remarkable rendition of the poet’s ghazals with his heart and soul shows that Ghalib’s philosophy and Sufiana approach to life had a great impact on Saigal. As he sang the poet’s verses, Saigal seemed to live through the joys and sorrows as experienced and penned by the poet. With his melodious, pure and divine voice Saigal succeeded in conveying the true meaning of every syllable of the verse.

K.L Saigal’s haunting voice continues to enthral listeners even todaySaigal had a free and independent mind and followed his instincts to nurture his creative genius. Following in the footsteps of Ghalib, Saigal was also akin to a Sufi saint, and he found in music the most effective instrument for communion with the Divine. Ghalib was a remarkable man with a secular outlook and rich experience of the vicissitudes of life. As a poet he was endowed with a deep insight into human nature. With his matchless play of words he added a new dimension to the thought and content of his poetry. But whereas the greatest Urdu poet of all times, Ghalib, was conscious of his greatness, Saigal was full of humility and quite modest and gracious about his pre-eminence as an artiste.

Saigal stunned the great music masters of his time with his instinctive knowledge of ragas and his regal, resonant and rich voice, even though he did not have any formal training in music and did not belong to any gharana. Saigal was able to transform thumris and dadras into popular light music which appealed immensely to ordinary people.

Saigal’s addiction to the bottle and a certain air of detachment from his own life could be attributed to Ghalib’s influence over him. Here, one is reminded of his most extraordinary film song Piye ja aur piye ja, akbat ki baten jane koi kya (Pujarin, 1936). His recitation of prose without rehearsals and elaborate orchestras but with dormant musical content enchanted listeners who were also wonder-struck at his true-to-life portrayal of a wine lover. Again, his voice infuses life into the following couplet of Ghalib, which he sang by varying the tone and rhythm of the repeated words conveying its deep meaning and the intensity of his desire:

Pila dey ok se saqi jo hum se nafrat hai

Piyala gar nahin deta na de sharab to dey

(If you despise one, oh my beloved cup-bearer, hold back the cup but not the wine and please pour it in my cupped hands).

Saigal was the first artiste to sing Ghalib in a way that appealed to the masses and thus contributed towards the poet’s fame and popularity even with people who did not speak Urdu. Perhaps, the first Ghalib number sung by Saigal was Nuktachin hai gam-e-dil in New Theatres production Yahudi Ki Ladki in 1933 which instantly became a super-hit. Listeners were enthralled by Saigal’s remarkable rendition of the concluding couplet:


Ishq par zor nahin hai yeh woh atish Ghalib, ke lagai na lage aur bhujai na bane (Love is that kind of fire which is beyond control, oh Ghalib, it is a fire you cannot kindle and also one, you cannot extinguish even if you want to). Another popular song which Saigal sang so poignantly that he virtually created a visual image of a dejected lover was: Aah ko chahiye ek umar asar hone tak (It takes a life time for a sigh to be effective).

It is worth noting that Saigal’s choice of Ghalib’s verses was really outstanding. So much so, that it was this selection which found place in the famous film Mirza Ghalib produced by Sohrab Modi in 1954. Many other famous and well-known singers, both men and women, have sung Ghalib, but no one has been able to come anywhere near Saigal who had his own unique style of portraying every word with such amazing skill that it would have stunned even the poet if he were to be there to hear it. I recall the ghazal queen, Begum Akhtar while paying a tribute to Saigal in a private gathering, declared that no one could surpass or even equal Saigal as a ghazal singer.

Apart from his heavenly voice, Saigal’s voice also had that rare element” soz, which defies translation into English soz is said to be linked with the soul or spirit and it seemed as if his songs offered spiritual joy to the listeners. Some of the poet’s ghazals which Saigal made famous and popular included: Phir mujhe did-e-tar yad aaya, Ishq mujh ko nahin vehshat hi sahi, Har ek baat pe kahte he tume ki tu kya ha and Main unhain chhedun aur wo kuchh na kahain.

All creative artists, poets, painters and performers receive their inspiration from the heavens as Ghalib put it: Aaten hain gaib se ze mazamin khyal mein, Ghalib sarir-e-khama nawai sarosh hai (These ideas or thoughts emanate from the cosmos, or Ghalib, your pen is merely a scribe of the voice of the gods). Saigal, like Ghalib, belonged to a genre of great men who were inspired by the divine and both are immortal as they have defied death and even today live through their words and voice.