Name : Saigal
Full / Real Name : Kundan Lal Saigal
Born :
Died : 18-Jan-1947
Notable Films : Shahjahan, Tansen, Parwana, Zindagi, Street Singer, My Sister, Dushman
Contributed by : K Vijay Kumar
Few who have listened to radio programs on Srilanka Broadcasting Corporation would have missed Saigal's crystal clear voice, strong and supple, featuring in the song aired every morning a few minutes before 8:00. More than fifty years after he passed away, film music lovers, lay listeners and connoiseurs alike cherish repeated hearings of the relatively small repository of his recorded songs.

Much about Saigal's life and times is apocryphal and it is difficult to say where fact ends and where fiction begins.

It is almost certain that Saigal was a little trained singer hailing from Jullandhar in Punjab who had a passion for singing and made an impression on listeners with his perfect renditions of songs he had heard sung just once. His desire to sing brought him to Calcutta, then the center of the Indian film and recording industries. After peddling typewriters for a while, and after being rejected by several recording studios, he got a break singing "jhulanaa jhulaao ri" (1932/33). While his songs quickly became best sellers, his film career started more slowly. He first appeared in bit parts which required him to walk on, sing his song, and walk-off. In an era where playback singing was virtually unknown, and with his songs capturing the imaginations of millions of film and music lovers, meatier roles came his way, eventually.

His Calcutta output of the 1930s includes such films as Street Singer, Dhartimata, President and My Sister. His music was certainly the stronger suite and he went from strength to strength, working with composers like R C Boral, Pankaj Mullick and later Khemchand Prakash. All the while, he kept recording non-film songs which are eagerly collected even today. Early in the 1940s, he moved to Bombay as the film industry itself started to shift its base to Bombay. He continued to rule the roost and made films like Tansen, Shahjahan and Parwana whose music set standards for excellence that more recent tracks have struggled to match.

Saigal is said to have been a very simple person who enjoyed his singing extremely and was quite happy to sing for anyone, at any time without any consideration for personal gain. A story goes that he gave up an opportunity to sing for a rich producer in order to sing at the baraat of a lowly studio worker's daughter. It is also said that Saigal approached a guru and learnt the Bhairavi in a week in order to sing Wajid Ali Shah's plaintive "baabul moraa" for Street Singer. Other students of the guru had been at it for months, and when the students asked the guru why they could not do it in a week, too, the guru merely told them - because he is Saigal and you are not. The song was recorded twice (as was the norm for all film songs of the times), once for the film and once for the records released. On screen, Saigal walks relaxedly, harmonium in hand, singing the song. The entire song was shot in one take (again not an uncommon occurence in those times), but what was probably unusual was that the camera mounted trolley that accompanied Saigal also had a tabala player, accompanists and recording equipment mounted on it!

Saigal's one vice was drink and it took its toll on him. Late in 1946, he returned to Punjab to try and recuperate and regain his strength before returning to fresh assignments in Bombay. However that was not to be and he passed away in early 1947.

Other than the remarkable quality of his voice and the sheer genius of his singing, Saigal's greatest legacy to generations of listeners was the intimacy that he introduced to the rendition of film songs. Until then, the open throated "kacheri" style of singing was more in vogue (seen in Saigal's early recordings, too). It was Saigal who first exploited the microphone and the flexibility that it offered in terms of conveying emotional nuances which were sometimes lost in the "top of one's voice" singing styles of yore.