Saigal a hundred years later
This is KL Saigal’s centenary year but not in Pakistan. This is not only a great shame but also a commentary on our boorishness and insensitivity. I asked Saeed Malik, the country’s most knowledgeable musicologist, whether a celebration could be organised and he replied with much sadness that it would need more than an individual to honour the memory of that great singer and entertainer.
Saigal died in January 1947, and he is as much ours as he is India’s. A sweeter male voice there hasn’t been since, and now that most music in Pakistan is reduced to jumping jacks with guitars, few of whom can sing, there is not likely to be.
The music for Saigal’s last film Parwana was composed by that most melodious of music directors, Khwaja Khurshid Anwar. The leading lady was Suraiyya who died in Bombay earlier this year. At the time of filming Saigal was very unwell, a victim, like Saadat Hasan Manto, of uncontrollable alcoholism. Both of them died several months short of their 43rd birthday. Saigal was so ill by then that it was seriously considered more than once to abandon his final film but such a driven gentleman was he that he would not hear of it. Once he said, “If death comes, I will ask it to wait till I have completed the work.”
The celebrated music director the late Anil Biswas said of Saigal, “When Saigal entered the field, cine music, still in its infancy, was groping in the dark, trying to transform itself into an individual format of its own, a discipline away from the semi-classical, opera-oriented music that passed as cine music in the infant years of the talkies. Saigal took it to unprecedented heights. His voice, his accent, his power of expression, all served as a guiding star for the singing artistes of his time, and of the following times. There will never be another Saigal in this world.”
Biswas and Saigal became friends and colleagues at the Hindustan Record Company. Biswas came to the movies in 1935 as a composer and wanted to write for Saigal who was already a celebrity. His opportunity came some years later, but not quite in time for Saigal– and that must remain one of the great missed opportunities in music. He was asked to compose the score for a movie starring Saigal and Nur Jehan. According to Biswas, “I was selected to write music for these two unique voices. I even composed a few songs – when providence played its ace hand and took away Saigal. My dream remained unfulfilled.” The only living composer today who wrote music for Saigal is the maestro Naushad.
Many have tried to emulate Saigal’s voice but no one has been able get it right. Certain people, certain voices, certain monuments and certain paintings are one of a kind and not reproducible. There was only one Saigal, as there is only one Taj Mahal and only one Mona Lisa. CH Atma perhaps came closest of all, but, of course, he was still not the true Saigal. Barring a couple of songs that became hits, the last one in 1951 (‘Rauoon mein sagar ke kinaray’), little of what he recorded is remembered, while no Saigal song has gone stale or faded from memory. Surendra, who played opposite Nur Jehan and Suraiyya in Mehbub Khan’s Anmol ghadi (1946), also tried to do Saigal’s voice but failed. Even the early Mukesh tried to replicate Saigal but was wise enough to give up early. Agha Mubarak Ali of Sialkot, a most discriminating listener, used to say that Mukesh’s throat is made of cement. Mohammad Rafi took pride all his life in the fact that he had sung two lines as part of the chorus in the Saigal song ‘Ruhi, Ruhi, Ruhi, meray sapnoon ki rani’ from the film Shahjahan. When Kishore Kumar was asked by HMV to sing his version of certain Saigal songs, he refused, saying, “Let Saigal songs be enshrined in our memory as his songs only.” Saigal was the first non-Bengali singer whom Tagore himself permitted to sing his compositions.
Lata Mangeshkar said that when she switched on the radio she had bought with her own money for the first time, she heard the news of Saigal’s death. She threw away the radio. This must have been on January 18, 1947, the day Saigal died in Jullandhar, where his family had settled, though he was born in Jammu and kept contact with that city.
Saigal’s greatest film remains Devdas, made in 1935, in which he plays a man who loses his great love in life and tries to find solace in drink. Two of the songs, both written by Kidar Sharma (born by the way in Narowal) ‘Dukh ke ab din beetat nahin’ and ‘Balam aao basso merey mun mein’, are unmatched in their powerful emotional impact. The film was remade in 1955 by Bimal Roy (who was cameraman on the original) with Dilip in the starring role, but it failed to match the 1935 classic. The one made with Shahrukh Khan in the title role in 2002 is a slander and a joke.
Saigal ran away from home – his father was a tehsildar in Jammu and was disappointed by his son’s disinterest in education – and called himself Saigal Kashmiri for a few years. He first went to Simla when he was 10 and later worked there as a salesman for Remington typewriters. He also worked for a while for the local council in Delhi and left when he was refused the five rupee increment he had asked for. It was in Simla that he met the prodigy Master Madan. No one has had the range of Saigal’s voice. According to film journalist Nalin Shah, it “spanned from the base note as in ‘Bina pankh panchhi hoon mein’ from Tansen to the higher octave in ‘Prem ka hai iss jug mein panth nirala’ from President”. In Calcutta, where Saigal started out, he sang for great music directors like RC Bortal, Taran Baran and Pankaj Malik. In Bombay he sang for Khemchandra Prakash, Naushad and Khurshid Anwar.
Few know that Aftab-i-Mausiqi, Ustad Fayyaz Khan, on a visit to Calcutta asked to listen to Saigal and sat there entranced. When it was over, the great ustad said, according to Pahari Sanyal, “We have been singing for generations in the family, but we could never dream of being like him. He is such an effortless singer.” He then offered to adopt Saigal as his shagird and Saigal accepted joyfully. A formal ganda-bandhan ceremony was held a couple of days later.
My father Dr Noor Hussain knew Saigal, who sang many Bengali songs but only two in Punjabi, which I have on a 45 rpm record. They are ‘O sonay saaqya’ and ‘Mahi naal jay akhh lardi kaddi na’ and they are not easy to find. There is a KL Saigal Memorial Trust in India but there is nothing in Pakistan by which he is remembered. He never lived in Lahore but he loved the city and once Pran Nevile, the once-and-forever Lahori who lives in Delhi, recalls he sang for the people of Lahore in the old Minto Park. Pran recorded his memories of that evening some years ago, saying that Saigal just walked on to the stage, sat down on the floor with a harmonium and a tabla player and began to sing. He needed no orchestration and if you listen to his great numbers, you will find hardly any instrumental accompaniment.
Are there people in Lahore who will commemorate this great artiste’s memory? Syed Babar Ali, perhaps, or maybe Hayat Ahmed Khan? Or come to think of it, why not Gen Pervez Musharraf himself, who, I am told, not only likes music but when in the mood can carry a tune? Let it be his contribution to India-Pakistan amity.