“Ek raje ka beta lekar, udane wala ghoda/ desh desh ki sair ki khatir, apne ghar se nikla”. This was my introduction to Kundan Lal Sehgal, at age five, courtesy my late father. He would sing this light-hearted children’s song (Saigal didn’t do too many light-hearted songs, and this probably was the only children’s song he sang) to me and my siblings every night, with gestures and expressions, waving his hands about as if he was a flying horse. It was a fascinating song to sleep to – an enchanting mixture of song and speech. I would hear Saigal sing it much later in life and see the video even later.
When we grew up, my father would tell us about his and his family’s utter devotion to Saigal. About how he as a ten-year-old, with his father, travelled from Hoshiarpur to Lahore in 1937 to attend Saigal’s concert at the Variety Theatre. He would vividly describe the packed hall, the scramble for spare tickets outside, the magic spell cast on the audience, the cries of “Saigal Zindabad” and the thunderous applause when Saigal came on stage. He remembered the opening song – ‘Lag Gayi Chot Karejwa Main’ (Yahudi ki Ladki,1933). There was a standing ovation after every rendition. My father, my grandfather and everyone else were held in thrall, captivated by the most magical evening of their lives. God was on stage and the evening was soul-stirring and divine!
That’s the effect Saigal had on his listeners.
Another incident that my father never tired of telling us was about his brother-in-law writing a letter to the editor of a popular film magazine in Punjab which got published in it. The letter stated – “Jab bhi main Saigal ko sunta hun, toh jhoom uthta hun, jaise saanp ‘been’ sun kar”(whenever I listen to Saigal’s songs, I start swaying like a snake under the spell of a snake charmer). The editor replied – “Aapko saanp ban na mubarak ho, par dekhiye dank na maariye ga”( you are free to become a snake, but don’t bite anyone). This became a family joke, and my uncle was always ribbed about it.
That’s the effect Saigal had on his listeners.
With a voice dunked in a barrelful of rich baritone, soaked in innocence and earnestness, layered with pathos and yearning, and coated with honey, it could not have been a product of the assembly line in God’s factory. It had to be crafted bespoke by God. And its obvious that God fell in love with the voice he so lovingly created because he called it back too soon – at the age of forty- three.
Saigal adorned words with music in a manner which transported the listener to another world. He touched the innermost heartstrings. He totally submerged himself in his melodies that entranced his listeners and cast a spell on them. The tonal quality of Saigal’s songs with his complete command over the three octaves and maintaining unvarying pitch gave his voice an unmatched quality. There was something other-worldly about his singing. Every song was a huge hit (film and non-film).
One incident that highlighted Saigal’s talent both as a singer and actor was the recording of ‘Babul Mora’ (Street Singer, 1938). The playback system was already in vogue, but Saigal wanted to retain the authenticity of the scene. He requested the director to let him sing the song, live, on the streets, which he did with outstanding result.
Saigal accomplished all this in a short span of 15 years (1932-47) singing just 185 songs (including 142 film songs in 39 films in six languages). But the modest oeuvre was enough for him to be acclaimed as the greatest performing artist of the 20th century.
He inspired a generation of singers like Surendra, Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and CH Atma. During the 1930s and 1940s, it was believed that a singer had to sound like Saigal to be effective. Mukesh began his career with ‘Dil Jalta Hai to Jalne De”(Pehli Nazar, 1947), a song so Saigalesque that Saigal reportedly remarked that he did not remember singing it. CH Atma adopted the Saigal style for ‘Preetam Aan Milo’(sung for a private album in 1945); so did Surendar in the duet with Noor Jehan ‘Awaaz De Kahan Hai’(Anmol Ghadi, 1946).
Saigal did not belong to any gharana, nor was he a shagird of any Ustad. He received no formal training in music. He was self-taught, by listening to other singers. His mastery over film songs, ghazals, thumris and bhajans could only be explained as a gift of God, honed to perfection by riyaaz as instructed by the Sufi Pir Salman Yusuf of Jammu.
He held the whole nation in thrall. Classical maestros like Ustad Faiyaz Khan were stunned by the force of his music. Kanan Devi remarked that Saigal had perfect pitch sense. He didn’t need the help of a veena or tanpura to set the right pitch. At recording sessions, he would sing out a note and musicians would set their instruments accordingly.
Lata Mangeshkar as a child was so besotted with Saigal, she said she wanted to marry him. Talat Mehmood marveled at Saigal’s pronunciation, throw of voice, depth of feeling, and voice control. Suraiya was so overawed at the idea of singing a duet with him in Parwana (1947) that the duet had to be dropped.
Saigal was the first non-Bengali to be permitted and blessed by Rabindra Tagore to sing Rabindra Sangeet. Saigal put a new life into Bengali songs as no Bengali singer ever could or did. He became a darling of the Bengalis more than any other Bengali artist – the greatest compliment for anyone’s art.
A little-known fact is that Saigal was a poet and recited his verses at private gatherings. No recordings are available except one devotional song written and composed by him – ‘Main Baithi Thi Phulwari Main’ (1945).
Saigal was spiritually inclined and involved in mysticism; he was attached to devotional music. His very first recording ‘Jhulana Jhulao Ri’ and hori on the reverse side ‘Hori Ho Brajraj Dulare’ (1932-33) created a sensation. The record sold half a million records, in an era when few people owned record-players. The people who had no gramophones would stand outside music shops listening to this record. In Puran Bhagat (1933), Saigal sang four devotional songs like ‘Bhaju Main to Bhaav Se Shiri Giridhari’ and ‘Radhe Rani De Daro Na Bansi Mori’. In Dhoop Chhaon (1935), he sang ‘Andhe Ki Lathi’. In 1937, he recorded the ever popular ‘Suno Suno Hey Krishan Kala’. In Dharti Mata (1938) he sang ‘Kisne Yeh Sab Khel Rachaya’. He played the leading role in Bhakta Surdas (1942) whose bhajans like ‘Kadam Chale Aage’ and ‘Nainheen Ko Raah Dikha Prabhu’ became massive hits. Listeners could gather from Saigal’s musical articulation his supreme devotion to God.
Few months before his death, he used to sit in his balcony with his harmonium early in the morning and sing his favorite bhajans. There as a devotional song which Saigal composed in the last days of his life which he got privately recorded – ‘Hari Bina Koi Kaam Na Aayo’.
Though film music bought him colossal fame, it was in his ghazal singing (both film and non-film) that Saigal reached the pinnacle of achievement as a singer. He would vary the pitch and volume of his voice according to the mood of the ghazal, inspiring the listeners to enjoy the beauty of the poet’s creation. Saigal was particularly fond of Ghalib and identified himself with his spirit – his own addiction to the bottle and a certain air of detachment from his own life and environment could be attributed to Ghalib’s influence over him. Saigal deserved full credit for popularizing a difficult and philosophic poet like Ghalib by highlighting the depth and beauty of his verses. Saigal employed his musical genius to emphasize not only the literal meaning but its deeper interpretation as well. The musical genius and the poetic wizard were a formidable combination!
The first Ghalib ghazal was ‘Nukta Cheen Hai Gham-e-Dil’ (Yahudi ki Ladki, 1933). Other ghazals popularized were ‘Main Unhe Chhedun Aur Kuchh Na Kahen’; ‘Har Ek Baat Pe Kehte Ho Tum Ki Tu Kya Hai’; ‘Ishq Mujhko Nahin Wahshat Hi Sahi’; ‘Woh Aake Khwab Main’. The most outstanding masterpiece which he sang most poignantly was ‘Aah ko Chahiye Ek Umr Asar Hone Tak’.
Saigal sang ghazals of other poets too – “Matwalepane Se Jo Kataa Jhoom Padi Hai’ by Arzoo; ‘Kabhi Ai Haqeeqat-e-Muntzir Nazar Aa Libaas-e-Majaz Main’ (Iqbal).
Saigal sang only about 30 ghazals. That he managed to render them with such charm and intensity in 3 ½ minutes on the 78-rpm record amply demonstrates the reason why the public placed him on a pedestal.
As a human being Naushad had remarked that Saigal was the badshah of singers who had the voice of an angel and a heart of gold.
Saigal was born on April 11, 1904, in Jammu, to the tehsildar of a small town. He showed a keen interest in singing and would pick up music from folk singers and wandering minstrels and even from dancing girls of Jammu. His father regarded him a wastrel. The young boy was distraught when his voice cracked at twelve, and he was unable to sing. His mother took him to a mystic Sufi Pir Salman Yusuf who asked young Kundan to stop singing for two years and start practicing and cultivating his voice by zikr and riyaaz.
When his father retired, the family moved to Jalandhar. Passionate about music and stifled by life in that city, Saigal left home. He took up sundry jobs and listened to music and sang whenever possible. He wandered about in several cities working various jobs such as a timekeeper in the Railways, selling Remington typewriters and saris, managing a hotel in Shimla, and others.
In Calcutta, Saigal got introduced to BN Sircar, who had just started New Theatres. Saigal’s first three movies with New Theatres flopped. However, fortunes turned with Chandidas (1934)— its song ‘Prem NagarMain’ was a hit. The 1935 Devdas was a national sensation- ‘Balam Aye Baso Morey Man Mein’was a romantic gem; ‘Dukh Ke Ab Din Bitat Nahin’ was the desperate cry of a person and the nation wept along with Saigal.
Success followed success with films like President (1937), Street Singer (1938), Dushman (1939), and others.
He got married in 1934 to Asha Rani, a girl chosen by his mother. They had three children.
In 1941, an exodus occurred of film personalities from Calcutta to Bombay, and Saigal too made the switch. Chandulal Shah of Ranjit Movietone signed a three-movie contract with him. Saigal sang memorable songs in Bhakti Surdas (1942) and Tansen(1943). In 1944, he went back to Calcutta for My Sister with New Theatres. His last famous film was Shah Jahan(1946), where he sang ‘Jab Dil hi Toot Gaya’.
All songs of Sehgal were classics. Some of them were – ‘Ek Bangla Bane Nyara’(President, 1937); ‘Babul Mora’ (Street Singer,1937); ‘Karoon Kya Aas Niras Bhaee’ (Dushman, 1939); ‘Main Kya Janoon Kya Jadoo Hai’ and ‘So Ja Rajkumari So Ja’ (Zindagi, 1940); ‘Aye Katib-e-Taqdeer Mujhe Itna Bata De’ and ‘Do Naina Matware Tihare’(My Sister, 1943).
For lack of any accounts written contemporaneously, Hindi film cinema is replete with folklore. One such is that Saigal wanted ‘Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya’ played at his funeral. This has no basis. No music is played in Punjab at the funeral of a young person. This was confirmed by Saigal’s sister-in-law (his wife Asharani’s sister) who attended the funeral at Jalandhar.
The other myth is about Saigal singing better with or without liquor. It is claimed that out of two recordings of a song sung by him, the one sung in sobriety was much better. GN Joshi, a distinguished musician and HMV senior executive, who personally handled Saigal’s recordings, has debunked this narrative. There would be about half a dozen rehearsals. Saigal would have half a peg between each rehearsal. His voice would become mellower after every rehearsal and then would come the time when the voice would become the last word in beauty. At this stage, the recording would be done, each word and note bearing the stamp of rare and rich artistry.
In an interview Saigal had said, “I have no clear understanding of the grammar of music. I manage to sing because of a strong feeling about how certain sounds should feel in a given raga. I do not use ten notes if I can manage to do the same with one. That’s because I know very little.”
The singer who knew “very little” gave a lot and then some to his legion of adoring devotees. On his death anniversary today, we raise a toast to the voice of the century. God doesn’t make Saigal every day.