Today is the 118th birth anniversary of the first real superstar of a nascent industry. A man who made the journey from Jammu to Lahore to Calcutta to Mumbai, and in the briefest of passage of time that he practised his finely honed divine skills, impressed every single person so much that every person for 75 years after his demise speaks of him in hushed, reverential tones and iconic superstars who followed him, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and even Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle freely admit to have been deeply influenced by his singing.
Kundanlal Saigal was born in Jammu to Dogra parents. His father was a revenue officer with the then King of Jammu and Kashmir, and his mother, a devout lady introduced him to devotional music. It is interesting to note he was related to the family of villains turned character actors, the Puris (Chaman, Madan and Amrish). He dropped out of school and worked as a travelling salesman for the Remington typewriter company, which took him to Lahore. He met and befriended the man who would be responsible for making Kundanlal Saigal the man he did become ( credited by Saigal himself in so many words), Mehrchand Jain, a shop owner in Lahore who shared Saigal’s love for poetry. Those days Saigal was a budding singer and Mehrchand encouraged him. Saigal often remarked that he was what he was because of Mehrchand’s encouragement and early support. He also briefly worked as a hotel manager. Meanwhile, his passion for singing continued and became more intense with the passage of time. Mehrchand started a soap factory in Shillong and the two came to Calcutta. Saigal got introduced to Bengali theatre (& many of the theatrical companies moved into cinema once the medium became available).
New Theaters was a big name those days and Saigal became a famous singing star, and met the who’s who of theater and cinema (which was then centered in Calcutta). Rai Chand Boral took a liking to him and introduced him to Pankaj Mullick, K C Dey and Pahari Sanyal. As Saigal Kashmiri, he released his first Punjabi albums which didn’t quite achieve great success. He used the same name for his first three movies which didn’t do well, either. He changed the name to his given name, Kundan Lal Saigal from Yehudi Ki Ladki and his role and more importantly, the singing in the subsequent movie, Puran Bhagat, got him nationwide fame. He never looked back.
This is a song from his 1940’s movie, Devdas, an adaptation of Sarat Chandra’s novel of an alcoholic caught between the love for two beauties. https://youtu.be/FaZz3q9dZeQ
Saigal picked up Bangla very well and acted in seven Bengali films, produced by New Theatres. The multifaceted genius and God of all Bangla minds, Rabindranath Thakur, actually first heard Saigal before giving consent for the first time to a non-Bengali singing his songs. Saigal endeared himself to the whole of Bengal through his 30 Bengali songs.
Sadly the money and fame as well as national adulation that they brought was something he wasn’t quite prepared for and a fondness for Bacchanalia led to Hepatic cirrhosis and a sad demise when he wasn’t yet 43 years old , with Indian independence a few months further away.
The number of men and women lost to alcoholism in Bollywood is sadly, far too large. Such enormous talent, lost forever.
Stay safe and healthy, folks and join me at 11.20 am for the 23rd of my fortnightly program on music which will be broadcast on AIR Delhi FM Gold.