RMIM Archive Article "237".
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
# RMIM Archives..
# Subject: K. L. Saigal: the pilgrim of the swara 4
# 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
To those of us, for whom music is a matter of rich and helpless
response, there exists in it a fathomless mystery. There are
many who, while feeling this mystery, this hint of boundlessness
and infinitude in it, mistrust and fear it. Most of us are moved
by music, sometime torn by it, but somehow we are anxious to find
means by which this boundlessness and mystery can be contained,
subdued, and measured.
The West discovered this quite early in its musical history
and took steps to guard against its implications. It devised a
fixed scale, calling it C, D, E, and so on, based on
predetermined vibrations per second, began encouraging
instrumentalisation of music and readjusted the value of voice to
the status of a musical instrument. As a result, music became
more and more an extension of the bewildering development of
technology, whether mechanical or electronic.
A still further precaution to contain the sovereignty of the
individual, creative spirit was to emphasise orchestral
arrangements and choral performances where groups of instruments,
sometimes hundred or more, or groups of voices, interpreted a
composition. The solo sung with subsidiary accompaniment became
only an incidental part of music. Not until popular music in the
Afro-American medium arrived on the scene did the solo singer or
player find his true place in creative performance.
This situation arose largely by the compulsions of the total
industrialization of the Western milieu. For despite the fixing
of the musical scale and the writing down of music, the older,
original objectives of European music were very different from
more contemporary concepts in Western classical music. The
carefully graduated sharing of privilege and responsibility
between composer and performer, and between conductor and
soloist, is a case in point. Western music fought improvisation
tooth and nail and won the battle in favour of the composer who
retained the right to choose the notes and even interpret them.
The performer as a result was maimed, creatively speaking by the
mystique of the composer and the authority of the conductor.
Not until popular form entered Western music, through men
and women like Al Jolson, Bessie Smith, Frank Sinatra, Mildred
Bailey, Mahalia Jackson, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, right down
to Barbara Streissand and Elvis Presley, and Ray Charles did
Western music return to personal creation and to the magic of
immediacy. Indian music never needed to go through these crises.
It stuck to the measure of voice from the first day and kept its
music to the _raga_ mould, and so the music remained evolutionary
and organic in form and content, and not a matter of finished
creation like a painting or a piece of sculpture. On top of this
the classical music of India had developed light and popular
forms without violating the _raga_ or the rhythmic integrity of
the system so that it remained possible at all times to touch the
musically illiterate as much as enchant the highbrow without
losing any part of the music's essential wholeness.
So that even today, despite great changes, some of them
irreversible, taking place within the country, Indian music is
ill at ease with mere innovation and novelty of form and cautious
of the invidious seduction of technology and mass production.
Indian classical music concerts rarely employ more than four
or five persons and the sound of the concert is always small even
with electronic amplification. Even if there is an orchestral
accompaniment in some kinds of light music, notably in the
movies, the orchestra is invariably derivative and survives on
the virtue of the voice. So that if a performance of Indian
music is able to hold the attention of a large audience and
enrapture it, it has to use resources that are largely invisible,
but not any less real because of it.
Saigal during his lifetime used to be the idol of the
millions. He was known and loved across the land even places and
among people who did not understand the language in which he
sang. His attraction arose out of the subservience of his
singing technique to meaning, whether the meaning was the pure
music of the _raga_ or whether it was the poetry of the words.
In any case he rarely ever used his voice as a means whereby he
could extol its range and timbre or show off his ability as a
Discussing Saigal in a moving TV documentary entitled
'Bhulaye Na Baney', Pankaj Mullick relates how seriously Saigal
took the meaning of the song he was learning to sing, insisting
each time Pankaj Mullick taught him a Bengali song for a film
that the exact nuance of the meaning of the text be explained to
him so that he might be able to sing it true.
Two levels of meaning flow effortlessly out of Saigal's
singing style without a trace of affectation, and he took great
care not to neglect any one of these levels of meaning to extol
the other. The first was the _raga_ or the melody mould in which
the song was composed. This was always meticulously and
significantly treated not in any great detail to be sure, as the
records in those days were shellac and only a little more than
three minutes long. But the _raga_'s sheer call to
feeling was never omitted, the text of the song was locked into
the _raga_ in a skilful way. It was this quality of his
technique that distracted his listener's attention from the
splendid skill and valour of his musical accomplishment.
Saigal's art was the art that disguises art. He had made his
musical accomplishment so inevitable that it seemed almost easy.
It was as a last resort and because no one was able to
specify the nature of his attraction and power that people put it
down to his voice--the golden voice as it used to be called. But
if you examined the voice independently of the song, and this is
not as easy as it sounds, you will soon notice that there was
nothing spectacular about the voice at least on a superficial
examination. You may be led to believe and conclude that it was
not even quite a singing voice. It was more a speaking voice and
that of course was why the voice spoke so uncommonly well.
Pankaj Mullick's voice was far more rounded and singing than the
famous golden voice, and K. C. Dey's was certainly more powerful.
It was Saigal who for the first time in Indian music welded
the music to speech so smoothly, so inevitably, and without a
trace of self-consciousness. Consider how little singing there
was in the song "sukh ke dukh ke ab din bitat nahi," in 'Devdas'
and how like speech the recorded version of the nursery rhyme in
the film 'President' sounds which begins: "hullo, aao bachon."
How the voice bubbles with suppressed merriment as it tightly
traverses the notes in which it is composed. How easily he could
halt the musical march of the song, fade into speech, and make
his voice seem to smile and make it all seem an integral part of
the song's structure. This was one of the reasons why during
while people raved about him, very few people woke up to the fact
of his virtuosity. This was insufficiently understood. People
puzzled over him but never could grasp him. He simply sang too
knowingly for a film star. But when he sang, it seemed so
natural and so easy that listeners never became aware of any
physical accomplishment i him apart from the fact of an appealing
voice. He sang uncommonly well long before he came to the films
and right through his public career as an actor he sang much
below his true capabilities in all the films in which he acted.
If you ask about Saigal's beginnings, each one claims to
have been responsible for bringing Saigal into prominence. For
example, B. N. Sircar, Pankaj Mullick, R. C. Boral, Devaki Bose,
Phani Majumdar, were all men who have been closely linked with
Saigal's destiny as a singing star almost at the dawn of India's
film history, certainly of talking pictures.
B. N. Sircar owned the New Theatres. He was a kind of Jack
Warner of the Indian film industry. He employed Saigal on a
salary and a contract with the New Theatres. Pankaj Mullick was
already a legend in Bengal as a singer, a composer, and an
innovator in Indian music. And this was well before Saigal's
entry into films. It was Pankaj Mullick who for instance
employed western musical instruments in the structure of Indian
light music with great beauty and wit.
Then there was R. C. Boral. A scion of an illustrious
tradition of composers and musicians in whose home anyone who was
anybody in Indian music and theatre met, sang, or performed. In
his home in P. C. Boral Street in Calcutta, marbled, spacious,
dotted with palm fronds and whose walls were lined with the
portraits of the legendary faces of Bengali theatre and cinema,
there is even today a compelling atmosphere, a kind of noumena, a
host of unseen presences from theatrical and musical history. R.
C. Boral remembers Saigal vividly, the first glimpse of Bhola of
The late Harish Chandra Bali used to be a frequent visitor
at P. C. Boral Street. Often, he remembers, Bali used to speak
of a young man whom he thought was a singularly gifted singer
with the hope that he could be brought to Calcutta and put to
work in the films. Bali thought that the young man would make a
mark in the cinema.
The Bengal of the 1920s was like the Italy at the time of
Verones and Leopardi. Writers and poets of the eminence of Sarat
Chandra, Madhusudan, Tagore, and Bankim had already made Bengal
real for the Bengalis. The language was being reborn into a new
delight, her scenery was being transformed into landscape, and
her people making new values and new perceptions and
discriminations. The transforming presence of Tagore straddled
this new world. The voices, too, the mouth-watering tenors and
the game baritones of _baul_ and _bhatiali_ and _kirtans_,
Rabidndra Sangeet_ and _adhunik_ were budding and proliferating
and budding again in every direction.
In this world where every other voice was a singing voice of
disquieting beauty, purity and range, where skill and commitment
of a notable kind was not exactly rare, it was difficult to
visualize a penurious Punjabi from distant Jullundur, with no
training in classical music on Bali's own admission, as a likely
candidate for the distinguished roster of New Theatres. Consider
the names. There was Pankaj Mullick, who was already a household
name in Bengal with his keen perception into classical Indian
music and also Western orchestration and harmony, a singer with a
velvet voice whose round, rich tone and clear vibrato had
transformed the sound of both _Rabindra Sangeet_ and _adhunik_
into a world of singular musical possiblities. This man had set
fashions and standards in music that were not easy to match, or
indeed surpass. Then there was Krishna Chandra Dey, blind, with
a voice whose strength and power shivered the wireless sets and
issued out of the gramophones of the 1930s like the call of a
conch-shell at vespers.
Then there was Pahari Sanyal, an accomplished musician with
a degree in classical music from the Marris College of Music in
Lucknow, who was already a concert performer with a durable
reputation when he joined the New Theatres. The women were the
voices of Kanan Devi, Kamala Jharia, Juthika Ray, Akhtari Bai
Faizabadi; the young Siddheswari Devi was already getting to be
known in Bengal and the princely states of northern India. Yes,
there was competition, lots of competition.
So when Harish Chandra Bali mentioned this unknown man,
Boral was vague and non-committal, pointing out that to find the
merest niche in films even as an extra with ambitions to sing, it
was mandatory to have a sure grounding in classical music and
since the young man had none, it was not of much use to try him
out in the cinema. The competition was too great and too
aggressive to survive in the industry when even the best
faltered. Each time Bali visited Calcutta and stayed with Boral,
the subject of Saigal was brought up, and each time the matter
would end inconclusively.
Those were the days before the birth of All India Radio. It
used to be known as the Indian Broadcasting Company, and R. C.
Boral worked as a producer in its studios. At that time Boral
spent the whole day at the Radio. Returning late in the evening
he used to stop his taxi near the place in the Esplanade where
the Metro cinema was later built, to buy a _paan_, after which he
went to Tollygunje to the studios of the New Theatres. From
Tollygunje he returned late at night to his house at Boral
When Bali used to be his guest he would have very often
retired for the night by the time Boral returned. Nevertheless
he used to open the door to Bali's room just a little to peep in
and see if his guest was settled for the night and, if awake,
exchange a few words before Boral himself retired for the night.
On one occasion, Boral recalls, how waiting at Esplanade for
his daily _paan_ he heard a voice behind him that attracted his
attention. Almost without knowing it he turned his head in the
direction of the voice. A little distance away there was a
tallish man talking to another among the crowd preparing to cross
the road. Boral remembers merely glancing at him and then
resuming his journey to Tollygunje.
He had returned later than usual that night having walked a
little while on the banks of the Hooghly on his way back, and
found that Bali had arrived sometime during the day, and had
already turned in for the night. As was his habit he looked into
his room on the way to his own and found Bali in bed, on the
floor near him slept a man completely covered by a sheet. Boral
gestured to ask who he was and Bali gestured back that he would
explain the next day.
The young man who stood before Boral the next morning, his
palms joined in humble greeting, was the same that Boral
remembered seeing the previous evening at the Esplanade. Seeing
him at close quarters, he seemed taller and leaner. Now he stood
before him looking uncertain in aa _pyjana_ and _kurta_, his feet
bare. Bali introduced him. Kudan Lal Saigal was able to sing,
he said, rather well in fact. Boral asked him to sit down. But
the young man would not. So he stood. Since it was about seven
in the morning, Boral thought of _todi_ or _bhairav_ or _ramkali_
and asked the man if he might hear him sing. Saigal replied that
he knew no _ragas_ but he would be able to sing if he was shown
what it was. So Boral asked him to sing whatever he knew.
So the man began singing almost at once standing up without
any accompaniment in his bare voice. Boral is not able to recall
what it was that the young Saigal sang that morning. Perhaps it
was _bhairavi_ or perhaps it might have been _asavari_. He
thinks that the latter was more likely, for Saigal sang _asavari_
uncommonly well. In any case it was a morning _raga_. Of that
Boral is sure.
To say that Boral was surprised that morning would be an
understatement. He was astonished and puzzled. It was nothing
that he had expected. If the young man who stood before him
singing impressively with his lips bare moving had sung like an
_ustad_, or had exhibited an unforgettably beautiful voice, or if
he had been a blinding technician and virtuoso, Boral could have
dealt with the situation very easily. God knows he looked for
nothing in the style of young aspirants who wanted to break into
the big time by their skill and musicianship. Composers,
performers, ventriloquists, he had seen them all. It was a
_bhajan_ the young man had chosen to sing. The voice was sure,
very precise, finely focussed on the note. He did not seem
capable of wasting a particle of breath, and had a timbre that
rang like a _been_, _been_ whose every string had been carefully
and magically tuned. Although there was not even a whistle
accompanying him there seemed as though an invisible _sarangi_
was following his every move prowling about near his notes
nudging him along to elaborate. As the young man went on singing
with the most eloquent and hardly audible _gamaks_, Boral
suddenly felt that this young man was not a singer but
troubadour. His _swara_ beckoned like a church bell or like a
Mullah's call from the mosque for _namaz_.
Slowly his voice trailed away and there was silence. Almost
simultaneously the boy fell at his feet in a long supplicating
gesture, asking as though for help, for succour, for the
certitude of a sustaining hand. The song and this gesture were
as though all of one piece, and Boral felt strangely moved.
Boral does not remember after all these years, whether it wa
a _bhairavi_ that Saigal had sung that morning, but he feels that
it had something to do with him making "babula mora" the theme
song of 'Street Singer.'
That Saigal was a strangely compelling singer was left in no
doubt that morning in P. C. Boral Street. But what use could be
made of him in the films was a question to which Boral could not
find a ready answer. In Bengali films in those years the face of
the hero was the face of Promothesh Barua, smoldering, delicate
of build, almost feminine in his comeliness and a profile that
seemed cast in alabaster. Saigal was already balding. He was
tall by the standards of the time, rather large-boned and lanky
like an adolescent as though he had yet a lot to grow. His face
besides did not have the characteristics of veiled passion which
was the stamp of the romantic hero of the 1930s. The noisy,
wild, and flamboyant hero of today was unthinkable in those days.
In 'Shesh Uttar', in 'Mukti', the intense face of Barua had
already etched itself on the hearts and minds of the Bengalis.
The other names of leading men of the decade were Johar Ganguly,
Dhiraj Bhattacharya, and Durga Das Bandipadhyaya of 'Vidyapati'
fame. There was Pahari Sanyal and Ashok Kumar, all men highly
endowed in beauty of face and a certain delicacy and refinement
On superficial examination Saigal did not fill the bill.
His face and manners were like his music remarkable examples of
understatement. He would not say it all, nor indeed look it all.
Besides he was still a Punjabi. How was he to be fitted into
the mould of a culture that had blown in Bengal from
All these elements were matters to which Boral could not
find easy answers. It was difficult for Boral to conceive that
this young man who stood before him was a _sadhak_ and that such
men do not go through their lives on their inheritance, but on
the strength of the transformations that they have wrought upon
themselves and the pledges they have redeemed.
This realisation, however indirectly and subtly, did not
take long to come and with it came Saigal's dizzy rise to fame.
But on that mellow morning on P. C. Boral Street the problem was
a practical one. How was this waif, this foundling to be
affianced to the New Theatres.