RMIM Archive Article "238".
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
# RMIM Archives..
# Subject: K. L. Saigal: the pilgrim of the swara 5
# 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
The first step was to speak to B. N. Sircar. It he agreed, the
rest of his colleagues would be easy to bend. A few days later
Boral took the young Saigal with him to the New Theatres studios
Seating him in the foyer outside Sircar's office Boral went
in. His advocacy of Saigal was concise but sufficiently
descriptive to make, he hoped, some impression on the Great
Moghul of the Indian cinema. He also introduced a very slight
but inadvertent touch of assurance that the young but new find
will be a success in the films. It was only at the point where
he felt he had to make some remarks on how or where he hoped he
could use the talent of this young man that Boral was stumped.
Sircar listened patiently and impassively. When Boral at
last paused in his arguments, Sircar smiled and said that since
music was Boral's field and since it was as a musician that he
was thinking of this young man, this decision was for Boral
himself to make. This was enough for Boral. It was a nod of
Boral took Saigal to the audition room of the New Theatres
and seated him on a piece of matting on the floor and gave him
the first harmonium he found there to accompany himself. Now
Saigal had a way with the harmonium. Boral had not at that time
heard him play the harmonium. He merely assumed that he should
have some accompaniment if the others were going to hear him and
since no one knew what he proposed to sing he thought the best
piece of equipment would be the harmonium.
When Saigal played the harmonium the instrument did not much
follow him literally note for note, as urge him on and on with
lavish tenderness from phrase to phrase. There was a magic in
it. Sitting there on the floor Saigal played the instrument
trying to lose himself in it. Hearing the sound, people began to
collect from all over the place and almost suddenly,
imperceptibly at first, he began to sing.
It was a _bhajan_. Delicious sweeping _meends_ began to arc
gently over the song like so many rainbows. Precise little
variations delicately modelled, never more than two or three
_matras_ of metre but each phrase developing the theme, in short
but sure little measures, as though with a vernier.
People heard him dumb-struck. There was nothing mysterious
about it. It was plain as a paint. But you could not take your
ears off it. It pulled you steadily like a current in a stream.
You had very little of your own will with it. You just have up
and let the music have its way.
Boral does not remember exactly what _raga_ was sun that
evening by Saigal. Perhaps it was _yaman_, or it would also have
been a variation of _bageshri_. A little distance away in a
separate cubicle the blind K. C. Dey was being made up. He heard
Saigal's voice through two closed doors and half a corridor and
becoming restless asked to be led to the audition room. Everyone
was standing stranger [?], not daring to move, as spell-bound
around this new singing. Saigal passed from a _bhajan_ to a
_khayal_ and then to a _ghazal_. K. C. Dey waited till the music
was over, and then he moved forward led by his assistant and
stretching out his arms he laid both his hands on the head of the
sitting Saigal in a well-known gesture of benediction.
Saigal signed a contract on a salary with the New Theatres.
His star had appeared on the horizon. Very soon thereafter the
public began to hear a new voice. First tentatively in the first
talkie produced by the New Theatres called 'Mohabbat Ke Ansoo,'
and then 'Subah Ke Sitare' and 'Zinda Lassh,' then the story of
Rami and Chandi that was a hit. But none of these films opened
Saigal's path to fame until in 'Devdas.'
It was the Bengali language 'Devdas' which Promothesh Barua
had made famous. Jamuna had taken the female lead and Barua the
tragic Devdas. Kanan Devi was originally scheduled to play the
female role of Chandra, as she had already become a marquee name
in Bengali cinema. But Barua failed to get her. Madan Pictures
had a contract with Kanan which had a few months to run and she
was reluctant to dishonour it.
Imagine the Hindi version of 'Devdas' with Saigal and Kanan
Devi. Two performers with music in their genes. What an
unforgettable experience in music and drama that film would have
been. But destiny had decreed it otherwise. Jamuna acted with
Barua and later with Saigal.
Not until 'Street Singer' and its Bengali 'Saathi' were the
immortal pair fated to team together. And what a memorable
complement they were to each other! Both strangely gifted,
mysteriously illuminated, going through their paces in their
films together with a delight and abandon, which in that era of
staginess and mannered acting was like a breath of fresh air to
the audience. They fell in love with the pair, and anxiously
waited for them to appear together.
But this was still in the future. Let us return to the
Bengali 'Devdas' and examine how it triggered the destiny of
One Saturday afternoon R. C. Boral was working in his office
in the New Theatres studios giving the finishing touches to the
two songs he was composing for the film 'Devdas.' There was no
one else in the studio at the time. Most of the film had already
been shot and the reels reposed in their cans. But there was
still the brothel scene to be shot and these two songs were to go
into that scene. Devdas was to arrive at this brothel and one of
the other visitors in the brothel was to sing the song.
Boral was busy with these songs when Saigal was announced.
Finding that Boral was working at the songs of 'Devdas,' Saigal
asked him whether he could not give the songs a try. All he
needed he claimed was a little help with his Bengali and he would
be able to make a good job of them. Boral answered that since
Saigal's experience of Bengali and his knowledge of it was so
rudimentary his pronunciation would fail the song. But Saigal
pleaded he would try hard and practise it and get the desired
Since the young man was so earnest and so touchingly
persuasive Boral let him try the song. No harm would be done by
Saigal learning the song, he thought. Boral had composed the
songs with Pankaj Mullick in mind and had left room in the score
for those geometrical ascents and descents, the cooing
portamentos that had endeared him to Bengal long before Saigal
had appeared on the scene. But merely letting him learn the song
would do no one any harm; even if his pronunciation and the song
became too much for him. Also when the following Monday came by
Saigal could sing the songs to the others and the compositions
would gain a kind of form on account of his singing them.
It would then be easy for everyone else to decide the merits
of the songs and devise the choreography that will accompany
them. So Boral taught the songs to the young singer, one by one,
helping him with their right intonation and delivery. The two
songs were "kaharey je jadathey chai" and "goalab huey uthuk
phutey." Saigal demanded to learn the meaning of the songs and
carefully absorbed the mood of the scene in which they were to be
sung. The scene he was told was to be a brothel. The songs
Saigal decided therefore had to possess a delicate and subtly
blended air of illicit wildness about them. There had to be
passion but delicately tempered with musical sophistication. Not
too much to overwhelm, but enough to command respect. All
weekend Saigal struggled with the songs, the tone and richness of
the words, their ring and timbre, the poetics of its language.
When on Monday morning Saigal sang the songs accompanying
himself on the harmonium in the New Theatres audition room, what
Boral heard intrigued and delighted him. Something had happened
to the songs. He had conceptualized them in the deep unguent
voice of Pankaj Mullick. With Saigal the song had become
Provencal [?]. It was pitched appealingly high, and seemed to be
full of a residual disquiet and a wild calling tone that seemed
to beckon despairingly. All this was not intended in the forms
of the compositions as Boral remembered it.
Saigal had added nothing to it in a technical sense, yet it
was different, different in a way that seemed unrepeatable. Its
feeling darted about beneath the surface of the notes and the
meaning of the words became like so many aching promises
unrequited and full of wonder.
The pronunciation of Saigal's Bengali was imperfect. It was
eastern U.P., somewhat Bihari, in its vowels. It certainly had
flaws, a long way away from being unrecognisably Bengali [?].
But it was the character of the song that completely transformed.
Pankaj declined to sing them as the song did not fit in with his
vocal qualities. At that time Saigal was still new.
Several years and many films later, with the growth of an
abiding and deep friendship, Pankaj and Saigal sang the same
songs. But at that time the difference seemed insurmountable.
Boral realised nothing could be done to the songs any more. They
had given themselves birth through Saigal's voice and now could
no longer be unborn and return to the place they came from.
But what was to be done to the pronunciation of the Bengali
words of the song? How was that to be altered? Would not the
audience hearing the songs on the screen be outraged that in
their beloved 'Devdas' someone should sing songs as though he had
learnt the language. All these considerations worried R. C.
Every day as the weeks wore on and no one knew what was to
be done, Saigal kept struggling with the language and the
pronunciation. A few weeks later Boral heard that Sarat Chandra
Chatterjee was visiting Calcutta from his retreat on the banks of
the quiet Roopnarayan where he was spending his last years. As
the author of 'Devdas,' Boral thought, it would be both wise and
practical to ask Sarat Chandra for his advice on this dilemma.
Accepting the New Theatres invitation, Sarat Chandra arrived
at the studios one evening not long after reaching Calcutta.
Boral and his colleagues explained the predicament to the author.
Then Saigal came in to sing to the creator of 'Devdas.' Raptly,
with his eyes closed, Sarat Chandra heard the songs as Saigal
carefully built up the theme. The novelist at once recognised
the unsurpassed authority of the singer, his striking probity.
He was overwhelmed. Saigal's pronunciation had notably improved
by then. Saigal finished and quietly sat on the floor waiting
for the verdict.
After some debate Sarat Chandra found a solution. He
explained that these songs were to be sung in a brothel. There
was no law that only Bengalis could visit such a house of ill-
fame. There could be Biharis or Punjabis or Marwaris or anyone
else. If then a non-Bengali would sing Bengali songs in such a
place why should anyone object merely because the man was not a
certified Bengali? Sarat Chandra thought the Bengali public
would love it, particularly because a non-Bengali was singing
their songs so well and with so much power and appeal. So it was
decided that Saigal would sing the songs and the scene was then
shot and 'Devdas' was ready for release.
The Bengali public raved and ran wild, delighted and
overjoyed. The film was a hit. Very few people guessed that the
singer in the brothel was a Punjabi. All over Bengal, in the
adjoining provinces, everywhere, people collected to see it. It
appeared all over the country, sometimes in travelling cinemas
under canvas tents, in bioscopes and picture palaces in Kanpur,
in Allahabad, in Benaras, in Lucknow. Wherever there were
Bengalis, the picture thrived and spun money. In distant Bombay
it came in morning shows and House Full signs went up. People
who had already seen the film several times went back merely for
that single scene where a new and unknown Bengali sang songs that
were fast becoming part of the heritage of Bengali light music.
The songs of 'Devdas' had become a part of Bengal's life.
Two very crucial discoveries were made when Saigal appeared
in the 'Devdas' of Promothesh Barua singing Bengali songs that
became hits in Bengal. The first was that the man did not look
unimpressive. He had a presence on the screen which need not be
hidden under false beards, moustache, voluminous turbans and
shawls. His bald head, properly fixed with a contemporary wig
had intelligently photographed, could make a hero out of him for
The second and a more pivotal one was the possibility of
Saigal acting in bilingual films for national distribution.