K.L. Saigal, a musician of the masses


By Madhusree Chatterjee

New Delhi, April 7 (IANS) Some voices refuse to fade from memory. Legendary musician K.L. Saigal, the musician of the masses and the enduring face of "Devdas" on the Hindi screen, remains one of them even 63 years after his death.

"Saigal's greatest contribution was that he brought music to the masses. Before he arrived on the musical centrestage, music was meant for the elite who either enjoyed it at the salons of professional singers or soirees of maestros like Faiyaz Khan and Abdul Karim Khan," Pran Nevile, author of a new volume "K.L. Saigal: The Definitive Biography", told IANS.

Saigal was gifted with a "divine voice, a flair for writing and composing songs and an imposing screen presence which made him one of the greatest singers of the 20th century and a superstar", said the former Indian Foreign Service officer and former UN official, who has authored 12 books on art and culture.

Saigal was considered the creator of 'sugam sangeet' - the kind of music enjoyed by the masses, Nevile said. "Unfortunately, he died very young."

Nevile unveiled the paperback edition of his new Saigal biography published by Penguin-India this week.

The biography, an extension of his coffee table book "K.L. Saigal: Immortal Singer", published during the musician's birth centenary in 2004, has a "few more chapters, lyrics of Saigal's songs and a section on 'K.L. Saigal and the culture of the kotha (homes of professional women performers in 19th and 20th century India)".

Born in Jammu April 4, 1904, Saigal was initiated into music by mother Kesar Devi, an accomplished singer who often took him to "religious soirees".

After an uneventful early stint in school, Saigal dropped out to "puruse his passion, music, through 'zikr' (prayer) and 'riaz' (practice) as recommended by a Muslim "pir" (saint) in Jammu.

His career as a musician and actor flourished in Kolkata (then Calcutta) at the New Theatre studio owned by B.N. Sircar, who cast him in the company's first Hindi movie "Mohabbat ke Ansoo".

The movie, a runaway success, put Saigal on the road to fame.

Saigal died in 1947 at the age of 42 of diabetes and stress brought on by the pace of life in Mumbai where he moved to seek fame after his successful screen debut in Kolkata as a musician-actor.

"He belonged to the generation of actor-singers like Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar. He acted, wrote and sang at the same time," Nevile said. Initially, Saigal sang songs in Punjabi and Bengali, but later in Urdu.

Saigal, who starred in seven Bengali films, is said to be the only non-Bengali musician who was given permission by Rabindranath Tagore to sing his songs.

Nevile divides Saigal's life into 13 segments in his book.

It begins with his early years and moves to his tenure in Kolkata, the filming of "Devdas" by P.C. Barua, his concert at Lahore, brush with ghazals, his outlook to the kotha culture, his heroines, last days, personal life and legacy.

The writer punctuates biographical accounts with lyrics of Saigal's songs in Urdu and their English translations. The lyrics flow like poetry.

"Pining in separation of my loved one, I wake up repeatedly to shed tears; during the dark rainy nights all by myself I lie down on the bed to sleep; And holding my heart in my palms; I suffer with unfulfilled desire; Come back..." translates Nevile from Urdu.

Saigal is remembered for hits like "Babul mora", "Balam aao baso mere man mein", "Dukh ke aab din bitat nahin" and nearly a hundred more songs.

One of the most interesting aspects of the new biography is Saigal's early musical influence as a boy in Jammu, Nevile says.

"As a young boy in Jammu, Saigal is said to have been influenced by professional singing women. He used to hear them practising in their kothas under the supervision of their ustads," the author says.

Nevile points out that the special flavour of the kotha style is discernible in Saigal's tracks like "Lakh sahi han peeki batiyan - ek sahi na jaye' and "Rehmat pe teri mere gunahon ko naz hain"."

According to musicologist Raghav Menon, "Saigal was an immortal example of the culture of the kothas. It is extremely difficult for any artist in the kotha style for it requires rigorous discipline, restraint, musical knowhow and classical training."

Nevile said it took him exhaustive research at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and interactions with Saigal's associates to write the book.