Kundanlal Saigal

A Colossus, Commemorated and Cited

Imagine someone who has achieved a fair bit in his chosen field, who is looked up to as a benchmark more than a century after he was born and more than three quarters of a century after his death, despite the advances in the field as well as in technology.

Now if you look at the field of music and that too singing in Bollywood, which has always been notoriously fickle about its preferences and whose acolytes are blessed with a very short memory, this is an exceptional event.

The man, whose golden voice is still considered the Standard which aspires to go close to, was born on 11th April, a 119 years ago (1904) in a Punjabi Family. The father was a Tehsildar in the service of the Maharaja of Kashmir. His interest in music was kindled by attending religious functions in the local temple with his devout mother. He dropped out of school as a teenager and for a period worked with the Railways as a timekeeper. He even went on to become a travelling salesman for Remington Typewriters, and would tour extensively. This led to his meeting – and befriending- Mehrchand Jain, who introduced him to Urdu Poetry, Mushairas and Ghazal singing. That truly transformed him. From meaning an entry into music, theater and prompted the move to Calcutta, then the epicenter of all theater (& one of the leading centers of the nascent film industry as well).

The man, in case you’ve not surmised it yet, was Kundanlal Saigal.

In the early 1930s, classical musician and music director Harishchandra Bali brought K.L. Saigal to Calcutta and introduced him to the big man in music, R. C. Boral. R.C. Boral loved his singing. Saigal was soon hired by B. N. Sircar’s Calcutta-based film studio New Theatres on a contract of Rs. 200 per month. There he came into contact with contemporaries like Pankaj Mullick, K. C. Dey and Pahari Sanyal. Theater and Films followed, in Punjabi, Hindi and Bangla languages. Those were the days of “live stages” in film making. As a result the songs were rehearsed separately and belted out at one go on the set. Despite the primitive technology, his unique voice with its eclectic mix of baritone and soft tenor shone through (& does 90 plus years later). That speaks for his quality. Saigal picked Bangla in Calcutta and acted in seven Bangla films, produced by New Theatres. The virtual Demigod for all Bengali speaking people around the world, Rabindranath Tagore, first heard Saigal in person before consenting for the first time for a non-Bengali to sing his songs. Saigal endeared himself to the whole of Bengal through his 30 Bengali songs. The first song is from Devdas where he acted in the title role -& according to some accounts fell in love with Bacchus which would lead, ultimately to an early demise, when not yet 43.

The movie was made by P C Barua and had music by Timir Baran and R C Boral, which ensured longevity for eternity. The lyrics are by Kidar Sharma. PC Barua had acted in the original Bangla version. Saigal acted in the Hindi version shot one year later.

The second song I’d choose as a tribute to KL Saigal is from Tansen. He plays the title role, and sings chaste Dhrupad (as that was the prevalent singing style at Tansen’s time). This correctness was brought in by Khemchand Prakash who composed the score.

Tansen was made after he moved to Mumbai. It was also the period when he had become heavily dependent on alcohol, which sadly led to a premature death.

In his brief career he created a status for himself that’s so high up, even the great Lata Mangeshkar has gone on record she was influenced by his singing (not just the men singers of the time) and her fondest desire was to sing a duet with him.

I am sure that would have been fructified in the heavens now.

A humble remembrance of the legend (albeit a day late) on his birthday. Stay healthy, folks. Summer is well and truly here


By abchandorkar

Consultant Interventional Cardiologist, Pune, India

8 replies on “A Colossus, Commemorated and Cited”

The man was the original star. I still remember when I first heard ‘Dil Jalta hai toh Jalne de’ by Mukesh (His first song), I mistook it for K L Saigal. Such was his influence on the next generation of artists. Thanks for sharing doc.

Liked by 1 person

Respectful homage to a legend. Such a talent and a trendsetter! Thanks to you, got some insights of his eventful but short life. His ‘Babul mora naihara chooto hi jai…’ rings in the ear.

Liked by 1 person

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