RMIM Archive Article "236".
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
# RMIM Archives..
# Subject: K. L. Saigal: the pilgrim of the swara 3
# Posted by: ADhareshwar@WorldBank.Org (Ashok)
# Source: K. L. Saigal: the pilgrim of the swara
# Clarion Books, New Delhi, 1978
# Author: Ragava R. Menon
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
:K. L. Saigal: the pilgrim of the swara
Ragava R. Menon
In describing Saigal as a singer we tend to become lyrical about
his voice. When he was described as "golden voiced" it was a
manner of expressing a difficult and ineffable experience. But
yet people who have heard him many times and personally, and
whose experience of him was not exclusively through the films and
records, do not give his voice the emphasis we would expect.
For instance, in Kanan Devi's moving autobiography 'Shobarey
Ami Nomey" she says that Saigal's voice was not what is generally
understood by the good voice. Pankaj Mullick, the doyen among
Bengali musicians, and whose association with Saigal was both
long and close, describes in a recent interview that Saigal's
voice was a tenor with a true pitch and a three-octave span.
Again, he does not expatiate on the subject of the beauty of his
voice. A true pitch and a three-octave span are not exactly
rarities in Indian music although Saigal's voice is contended to
be one, if that, in a million. There are others who also think
of his voice in other terms.
Take Imtiaz Ahmed, for instance. He used to live in
Moradabad when Saigal left home to seek his fortune and arrived
in Moradabad, a mere lad in his late teens. Imtiaz Ahmed recalls
his memory of their first meeting. He is now in his seventies
and lives with his son who is a motor mechanic in the Jama Masjid
area of Delhi.
But at that time Imtiaz used to be a _sarangi_ player.
Nothing special. Except for an occasional solo, he was mostly
accompanying various local celebrities during miscellaneous
musical events in the town, had some tuitions, was also a _hakim_
on the side, and sold Unani medicine in the Katra.
He recalls accompanying Abdul Karim Khan on one occasion.
This was an accident and a good fortune. The Khan Saheb's own
_sarangi_ player had missed his train connection and the
performance had been scheduled for the same night. The local
college, perhaps it was the school, Imtiaz does not clearly
remember, under whose auspices the Khan Saheb was singing, needed
a willing and quick substitute.
Imtiaz remembers the occasion well not only because he was
playing for the first time for a celebrity of the Khan Saheb's
dimensions, but the Station Master of Moradabad who was an
Englishman and his wife had attended the occasion. It was much
later that he found that the Station Master's wife had taught the
young Saigal to read, write, and speak English.
It was a memorable occasion for the _sarangi_ player for
what was he but a small man dodging along from hand to mouth, and
this was Abdul Karim Khan at the apex of his fame, still as slim
and delicately fashioned as a boy, luxuriously turbaned and
faintly smelling of the _attar_ of roses and with those intense
soulful eyes which he was never to forget as long as he lived.
He had watched the Khan Saheb through the corner of his eyes
throughout the recital while he tried to match tone and _gamak_
of the Khan Saheb's grieving _kalyan_.
Out in front, beyond the rim of the makeshift stage, sat
this lad whom he had several times seen about on the railway
platform. His main impression at the time was the boy's obvious
youth and lankiness. His legs, he remembers, were not just long
but, as he sat on the ground with one of them folded under him
and the other raising a knee to his chin, they seemed like the
legs of a grass-hopper full of joints and difficult to put away.
In those days, just in front of the stage, Imtiaz explained,
where the performers sat, the floor was covered with white sheets
on which sat the undistinguished admirers of the performer, the
passionate music lovers who were also poor, the students form the
local schools and an odd sprinkling of office-bearers of the
function. Behind them were rows of upholstered chairs and wooden
slatted ones, where sat the wealthy, the aristocrats, the civil
servants, and the railway officials.
Imtiaz remembered the young man in white _pyjamas_ and the
simple home-spun _kurta_ gazing enraptured, his face set in a
look of bemused wonder. There was something different about him.
Imtiaz found it difficult to describe it. His physique seemed
delicate, his fingers long, and his hands exceptionally moulded.
His hair was still thick and wavy, parted probably in the middle
and often a lock got displaced, giving him the look of a poet.
Imtiaz did not know that Saigal had turned bald very early in his
life and the 'Street Singer' of the thirties was already almost
It was on an afternoon not long after the Abdul Karim
concert that Imtiaz went to the railway station to post a letter
and found that same boy sitting on a pile of mail bags lying on
the platform. The place was deserted; the next train was not due
for hours. Probably the month was March, still cool in the
shade. Perhaps the _patjhad_ had already begun, for there were
piles of leaves on the platform and leaves everywhere on the
As he passed the seated boy, Imtiaz discovered that he was
singing. This attracted his attention and as he walked past the
boy to the pillar box, his ears were glued behind him to catch
every phrase that came to him.
The boy was singing _jhinjoti_, a _thumri_ which Abdul Karim
was yet to make famous a few years later. At that time the song
had not attracted the attention it did in the 30s. What struck
Imtiaz the most was not that the boy should be found to be
singing the very song for which he had accompanied the Khan Saheb
on the _sarangi_, but the way it seemed the lad was trying to
reproduce the unforgettable cadences of the song.
Imtiaz stood behind a steel girder and shamelessly
eavesdropped. The platform lay hushed in the noon-day silence
and every phrase came to him complete without the least blemish.
The boy seemed unaware of everything around him and seemed to be
trying out the song for himself.
Imtiaz was struck by two things at once. The first was the
simple authority with which he seemed to sing the song, then a
certain something which he found difficult to define, a quality
that seemed to make the song his own, and not something he had
heard and was trying to sing. He does not recall being impressed
by the voice at the time except that it seemed a very capable
voice with deep reserves. Although the notes followed the Abdul
Karim Khan version of the _thumri_, the same on the _gandhar_,
all the _meends_ in their proper places, yet it did not seem as
though he had been taught that song by someone else. It did not
seem as though he was trying to imitate the Khan Saheb. The song
seemed to be pitched somewhere higher than he would have
expected, for he sang in the style of those who sing in open
places using the wind to his advantage and bending his head a
little to sing into the hollow of the air around him. The voice
seemed to be very knowing and canny.
Imtiaz waited till the song seemed to be over. Apparently
the boy did not know the _antara_ or did not care to sing it.
When he realized that he was not alone, he trailed off. Imtiaz
walked up to him, smiling. Seeing him approach, the lad stood up
and stopped short of joining his hands in greeting and did the
_adaab_ gesture of the Muslim. In a little while they walked
together in the cool and dappled sunlight, the future 'Devdas'
and 'Tansen' of the Indian cinema and the humble _sarangi_ player
Imtiaz took the boy home to his house in the lane where even
now _jalebis_ are made in the first light of the morning and cows
wander about all day in search of pickings. His room was high up
on top of a rickety building where you noticed the only article
of luxury when you sat on the floor. This was a magnificent view
of an endless expansion of blue sky.
"Whom did you learn with?" Imtiaz asked.
"No one," the boy replied. "I do not know any music."
"But you seemed so sure," Imtiaz countered.
"Just imitating," he replied.
Imtiaz says he disbelieved this completely. It was not
possible to imitate and yet give such a sure and distinct
flavour, such a personal quality to the line of song he had just
heard. Those _meends_ sounded as though a _been_ was playing,
strong, vigourous, precise, carrying, without being loud. He
knew only too well how both in the _sarangi_ and the _been_ the
many years of unbroken concentration and practice that were
necessary before the _sarangi_ or the _been_ learned to speak for
themselves. That was the reason also why, he said, so few could
really play these instruments as they should be played. He knew
that he himself had not done the work that was necessary so that
the instrument may begin to live on its own.
Imtiaz had begun with _raga_ and performance rather too
early. All he could now do was not to go _besur_. Not to go
_besur_, with his instrument after all these years. Only the
first step in the art of the instrument--that was where he had
reached and that was where he had remained--only _surel_. And as
for the voice, it was so much harder. It was a living thing--the
voice, changing with every breath you took and with every year
you lived. So that, as you grew older, it must be possible in
spite of age and weakness to be more musical, if less tuneful.
Imtiaz himself had aspired to sing. His father Altaf used
to play at Rampur and Allahabad and was quite well-known in Agra.
Yet he had not dared to enter the world of the singer largely
because he used to hear his father's loud lamenting about the
years he had wasted. And yet there was this young Punjabi with
such a sure aim, whose fast passage of notes was not the
desperate blur his own was on the _sarangi_, but cadences which,
even though in double time, seemed so incredibly leisurely and
almost in slow motion.
He determined to investigate. His wife made some tea, and
Imtiaz took out his _sarangi_ and very carefully tuned it. The
boy sat on the floor unmoving, looking at him raptly.
Then Imtiaz asked, "Do you know any other song?"
"Only some _bhajans_ and _ghazals_," he replied.
Imtiaz doodled on the _sarangi_ played a few phrases of
_bhim_, slid into _tilang_ and he could see that the lad was
dying to sing. So he said, "Sing something, anything."
Then he sang, almost whispering, it seemed, his lips hardly
moving, tailoring the volume of his voice to the small room in
which they sat, a Ghalib _ghazal_ that seemed to be in _abhogi
kanada_: "daayam paDa hu.n tere dar par nahi.n ho."
He sang simply, each phrase carefully pronounced, the pauses
delicately holding up the tension of the note in which he had
paused, carefully turning around on the _pancham_, his voice
hissing as though read hot from recent practice. He seemed
unconcerned about the need to press his music to its utmost. He
sang as though the words will look after the music, sometimes
almost speaking the lines, booming with the resonance of the note
in which he had almost, but not quite, spoken the words one after
It was then that Imtiaz had an opportunity to examine at
close quarters the rapt and distant eyes, lost in the _swara_
veiled in song, the raised hand as though in supplication and
description. The notes holding the words aloft, the words which
Ghalib's sorrow had fashioned in exquisite quatrains and which
now issued from him in portentous statements of self-evident
He seemed to Imtiaz almost beautiful as he sang and his
voice, thought Imtiaz, could not be separated from the song even
in fancy. They existed together. And what a capable thing it
was. Even at what should be full throttle in the ascent to the
_tar gandhar_, the voice seemed relaxed, incidental, and at half
Imtiaz suddenly felt uneasy despite the ecstatic bond
between the _sarangi_ and the voice. It was afterwards that he
remembered that the boy had begun to sing without preparations,
quickly and directly, without any adjustment of his pitch, or
asking Imtiaz on what note the _sarangi_ had been tuned.
Probably the lad was right. He had perhaps not been trained
under a teacher, or a particular _gharana_, for what he did with
his music was so different from any likely training.
When the young Saigal got up to go it was dark. Outside,
the stars of spring had already risen. He watched the lad going
awkwardly down the steep dark well of the staircase into the
night. Imtiaz felt strangely elated and also somewhat sad.