Voice of melancholy

The first singing superstar of Hindi cinema, Kundan Lal Saigal was a gentle soul with a generous purse

Published - April 13, 2018 01:40 am IST

IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT K. L. Saigal in “President”

IN A DIFFERENT LIGHT K. L. Saigal in “President”

Like a wrench tightening a screw, Kundan Lal Saigal’s voice plays havoc with a listener’s heart. It entangles in a mysterious web of softness but also drenches with shower of delightful sorrow and pain. Of course, Saigal’s songs do not throb with ache and hurt alone but his dominant tonal spirit is so poignantly sad that one is inclined to believe that Saigal, the first star of the Indian cinema or actually a singing superstar, made gloom the central edifice of his singing despite overwhelming versatility.

There are happy songs galore by Saigal like ““Ik Raaje Ka Beta Lekar Udne Wala Ghoda” or “Balam Aaye Baso More Man Mein” (“Devdas”), “Main Kya Jaanu Kya Jaadu Hai” (“Zindagi”), “Mere Sapnon Kee Raani” (“Shahjahan”) and “Piya Milan Ko Jaana” (“Kapal Kundal”) that were crooned with great zest and fun. Yet the dominant impression inscribed on our ears is that Saigal sounds sweetest in saddest songs and despite the all time favourite “Ek Bangla Bane Nyaara” (“President”) that brings joy to every householder or “Do Naina Matwaare Tihaare” (“My Sister”) that cheers every romantic heart, his voice is personification of an insufferable agony. Despite a surfeit of bhajans and songs in classical mould as well as light hearted songs, if Saigal is identified by the melancholic strain, it is perhaps because the best of his repertoire was reserved for the saddest lyrics and emotions.

An enigma

A genius en-wrapped in an enigma, Saigal, whose 114th birth anniversary was celebrated this week, courted desolation and destruction like a moth bewitched to a flame. In the highly readable biography “Kundan”, Sharad Dutt points out that since his childhood Saigal could learn and render complex songs in a jiffy but remained perpetually confused by arithmetic tables! The dichotomy was such that though he forgot his lines on stage, Saigal would never forget his lyrics and rendered musical nuances with flawless perfection. Dutt informs that a Sufi saint Yusuf Sultan had predicted to Saigal’s mother Kesar Kaur that her son would become a famous singer and it seems the Sufi sensitivity permeated Saigal’s persona to such a high degree that pathos laden songs became his predominant identity.

A large hearted man, Saigal was a generous spendthrift with his cash as well as his emotions. With his handsome looks, fine acting skills and exquisite singing, Saigal made a devastating impact on the Indian masses with the new found medium of cinema, becoming a household rage across the country. Though Saigal remained a darling of the masses even amidst raging communal fires, he was distressed by loneliness amidst the crowded cauldrons of Calcutta and Bombay where he sweated out for his livelihood. The apparent lack of solace and kinship as well as a proclivity to self destruction made Saigal take to alcohol… alas, only to prove a tragic point of no return. But as per the legendary Dilip Kumar in a private conversation some years ago, “till his last breath Saigal remained a gentle soul with a soft word of praise and inspiration as well as a generous purse for everyone.”

That is why it is easy to see that the extremely insightful Saigal’s grief found respite in magical innovations of R.C. Boral, Punkaj Mullick, Naushad, Gyan Dutt and several others and brought alive memorable audio-visual creations on the silver screen. In an era when the actor had to sing a full song within the small confines dictated by a camera’s focal length, Kundan Lal Saigal made singing look remarkably easy despite insurmountable odds. Watch any of his songs on YouTube to understand how he excels in what was otherwise a back breaking affair. Rather than being loud in his throw of voice, Saigal was sublimely expressive and low pitched in vocal inflections, thus lending dignity and charm to all his musical compositions.

No wonder, he cast a magical spell on millions and till date “Nain Heen Ko Raha Dikha Prabhu” (“Bhakt Surdas”), “Karoon Kya Aas Niraas Bhayi” (“Dushman”), “So Ja Rajkumari So Ja” (“President”), “Dukh Ke Ab Din Beetat Naahin” (“Devdas”), “Ae Qaatibe Taqdeer Mujhe” (“My Sister”), “Sapt Suran Tin Graam” (“Tansen”), “Panchi Kahe Hote Udaas”, “Wo Suhani Chanchal Balak” (“Dushman”), “Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya” (“Shah Jahan”) and several others make you swoon to their magnetic charm. Though Saigal sang less than two hundred songs, their appeal is everlasting as they are endowed with a remarkable human fragility in rendition but their effect and impact is ethereal. As you listen to Saigal, you understand why he was the much admired idol of Noor Jahan, Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi. His singing transports listeners to a bygone era when elders were respected, relationships were sacred and people shared their secrets with neighbours without fear, rancour or reservation.

But he was also an equally endearing actor as once Dilip Kumar said, “Saigal was such a refined and humble human being that none could help but fall in love with him...his acting was just an extension of his persona wherein the splendid voice only added to his manifold attraction.” Just as gold never loses its value , Saigal’s artistry is a much revered and valued creation in the annals of Indian music. Bob Dylan may not have had Saigal in mind when he said “Behind every beautiful thing, there's some kind of pain” but he sure did echo the artistry of the great singer who remains the venerated father figure of Indian playback singing.

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