RMIM Archive Article "240".
From the RMIM Article Archive maintained by Satish Subramanian
# RMIM Archives..
# Subject: K. L. Saigal: the pilgrim of the swara 7
# 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
Sometime in the last few years of the 30s, there used to be
published from Calcutta a monthly by the name of 'Jayathi.' The
second number of this magazine came out about the time when the
Bengali version of 'Street Singer,' which was called 'Saathi,'
began running at the Chitra, for this issue contained an
extensive review of the film. It is doubtful that this magazine
was read by many people, for as far as is known it used to sell
mainly in the College Street area and also in Bhowanipore, mostly
by hand. There used to be a derelict bookshop in the
neighborhood of the Purna Theatre that occasionally stocked a few
copies. Jayathi's readership had some out-of-town subscribers in
Lucknow, Allahabad, and Benaras. It is doubtful that the
magazine survived the war for there is a strong note of
uncertainty and farewell in its editorial of March 1941.
Some copies of 'Jayathi' of those years are still extant in
the collection of ephemera of the language department of Chicago
University. The editor of 'Jayathi' was a product of
Shantiniketan and his name was Kirit Ghosh. He was apparently a
keen and critical student of the arts and music, and the cinema,
for 'Jayathi' was notable for having published in its short span
of life two interviews with K. L. Saigal and one with Pahari
Sanyal. There was hardly any film journalism to speak of in
those years, yet Jayathi's effort was both informative and exact.
The interviews with Saigal had well-conceived questions,
cogently put, and without trace of the customary verbosity of
those interviewers who never let the subject they are
interviewing speak quietly and at length without interrupting
them with ideas of their own.
To one of Kirit Ghosh's questions, Saigal answered, "I am
not a singer, not really. I can only be called a phraser. I
have had no true musical training except what I have heard and
remembered. I know very little of the real thing. I do not
think of a song in terms of its notes, at least not exclusively.
This is not even true when I am learning it or playing it on the
harmonium when I sing it. I think of the meaning of the words
and wrap the tune around the words. I have no clear
understanding of the grammar of music. I manage to sing because
of a strong feeling about how certain sounds should feel in a
given _raga_. I have a certain feeling how the _dhaivat_ should
feel in _malkaus_, and the _madhyama_ and also the nature of the
_nishad_, in its relationship with the _shadj_. This changes
from _raga_ to _raga_. I do not know whether this feeling is
right to have for I have never been taught _malkauns_ by a
musician. It is the same with _asavari_ which has a curious
_madhyama_ or the magical relationship between the _gandhar_ and
the _dhaivat_ in _bhairavi_ and the strange feeling of bringing
in an occasional _teevra madhyama_ into it.
To another question he answered, "My favourite _raga_ is
_bhairavi_. To know _bhairavi_ is to know all the _ragas_. You
know how it is. There is _todi_ in it, there is _kafi_ in it,
and _bhimpalasi_ and _asavari_ and the flavour and scent of so
many _ragas_. In fact, with any three notes of _bhairavi_ you
can have a _dhun_ and the possibility of another song. If I had
_bhairavi_ I will not pine for any other _raga_ very much."
At another point of the interview Saigal expressed, "People
who learn to sing with the help of their ears alone cannot
explain how they do it. All I can say about my own singing is
that I do not use ten notes if I can manage to do the same with
one. I have to make one note, and do the work which a trained
singer does with ten. This is because I know very little."
It might be recalled that Saigal spoke Bengali fluently. He
could use its sounds with great perception and economy. There is
an apocryphal story of the time when 'Jiban Maran' was being
shot, how in a certain scene Saigal pronounces 'gelash' as
'gilash'. 'gelash' is the Bengali sound of the Hindi 'gilas'.
In English, of course, it stands for the well-known 'glass'. We
are told, the director of the film let the wrong pronunciation
remain in the film daring the audience to find it. There is no
evidence that anyone who saw the film noticed the lapse. He sang
every kind of song that he could, in Bengali. Many of them were
taught to him by his dear friend and mentor Pankaj Mullick. He
as good in _Rabindra Sangeet_ as in _adhunik_, as good in the
_kirtan_ as the _baul_. He exhibited the same idiomatic self-
confidence in Bengali as he had in Urdu, Persian, and Hindi
Saigal was able to invest the lyrical structure of the song
a curious and self-evident sovereignty. On another occasion when
he was asked how, without having ever learnt any music, he was
able to give his music such a superb polish and elegance, he
replied that he could not explain, as he rarely listened to what
he was singing. "I hear very little when I sing except the
meaning of the song, as I feel it and the way it moves about."
It may be the proper place here to observe that the
traditional _gharanas_ of our music rarely taught the notes of
the scale nor of the _raga_. They learned the _swara_ but not
the scale. Even in instrumental music this was not done.
_aroha_ and _avaroha_ and the notes were the stock in trade of
school-men. The _ragas_ were always taught by ear, always
remembered by their characteristic progressions and _bhavas_ and
the feel of their passage rather than by the knowledge of the
notes. Notes were always taught long after the _raga_ was part
of the ear and the feeling of the student. It is not difficult
to realise that much more than the intellect and understanding
was involved in this kind of learning.
The emotional responses towards _ragas_ were finely tuned,
made reliable by constant practice and reflection and the student
was made to develop in it the enjoyment of a child at play, a
dreamlike ecstasy, that was half of this world and half of
another substance, which belonged to somewhere else.
Saigal belonged to this category of singers although never
trained under any of the _gharanas_. All his life he mourned the
fact that he did not study under an _ustad_ and as a result felt
incomplete. There was, however, a short episode when he
attempted to study under Faiyaz Khan, the _Aftab-e-Mousiqui_ of
Indian music. After hearing him sing a short _khayal_ in _raga
darbari_ which Saigal had specially learnt for the occasion, the
story goes, the Khan Saheb told him, "My dear boy, there is
nothing that I can teach you now that will make you a greater
singer. You are ready to serve." It is said that the two became
dear friends. The Khan Saheb did not get around to teach his
famous student any music. Saigal remained as untouched as virgin
Ali Bokhari says of Saigal's art, that he was somewhat like
those miraculously gifted cooks we hear about, who when asked to
describe a recipe explain it as a "pinch of this, a little of
that." They are rarely able to tell anyone how it is actually
done. They remember their repertoire through a highly sensitive
and finely tuned memory of tastes and flavours and aromas,
towards which their other senses and skills direct them
unerringly. Saigal himself was a very good cook and knew the
delicate art of the blind of spice and time that made a
mysteriously flavoured and succulent dish that not merely tasted
good but nourished the mind and spirit equally.
It will be interesting at this point to examine how the
famous golden voice actually sang those unforgettable melodies
which have become imperceptibly a part of our heritage. It is
often said that Saigal had a voice that was somewhat nasal. This
is not an accurate description. Saigal's voice had a predominant
nasal resonance. A good example of a truly nasal voice of that
time was the voice of Sachin Dev Burman. Saigal used his sinuses
and the bones of his head to resonate his notes. That was all.
He had a peculiar register. It was not easy to locate. He could
touch a low E and I have heard him touch a low D, which is brass
territory in opera. Yet his voice never sounded like K. C. Dey.
He sang the famous _thumri_, "babula mora," in the film 'Street
Singer' on the third white note of the harmonium. The pitch of
the record is lower, closer to the first white note.
This pitch is extraordinarily high even for a certified male
tenor in Indian music. Kumar Gandharva sings approximately at
this pitch. Yet this same voice is capable of singing at a low
fifth black note of the harmonium with female leads like Kanan
Devi or Uma Shashi.
Usually voices that can easily move around in the
neighbourhood of the third white of the harmonium are barely
audible in the H.G. black note. But when you listen to the
timbre of his voice when he sings "babula mora" in the film it
barely seems beyond the customary first white note of the
harmonium in which Saigal very often sang. The smooth seamless
rendering of the song is more remarkable when we think of the
pitch in which he sang it, and the fact that right through the
filming of the sequences of the shot, Saigal was walking at a
normal speed of any street singer with a harmonium slung over his
When he sang on the first white note of the harmonium in
which many of this songs are sung he has a timbre that seems
baritone almost keeling over into basso. Think of the third
verse of the song "kisne yeh sab khel rachaya" or the third verse
of the Bengali song "nayiba ghumale priyo" or the lowest note of
"bina pankh panchhi" from the film 'Tansen'. A very low note for
a voice that is also able to negotiate on the third white note of
the harmonium, a slowly measured _bhairavi_ with neither strain
nor break in register.
Saigal could produce remarkable tonal differences in his
voice which seemed able to change from song to song. Although
its characteristic timbre remained unaltered, its tonal essence
adapted itself to verse and song with an eerie facility.
Consider the tonal quality of that unforgettable Ghalib _ghazal_,
"nukta chi hai" and put it against "radhey rani dey dalo na."
Take "din nikey beetey jaate hain" and put it against the
_bairavi_, "main baithee thee phulvari" and hear it against "main
unhe chhedun" of Ghalib.
Think of "soja rajkumari." You can call it crooning if you
like. Only, it is not. It is sung as fully and as completely as
the opening lines of "diya jalao." It is sung at a low volume
and not at a low pitch. The pitch is not the speaking pitch of
crooning but the volume is. It is somewhat like the wick in a
wick lamp. The wick of the song has been lowered and so the
volume like the brightness of the light is lowered. The fire
within the holder of the wick inside the aperture is burning
exactly as it would, if raised.
Saigal epitomised more than any other singer in the field of
light music the analogy of a voice to a violin or a _sarangi_ or
any of the bowed instruments of the viol family. The breath on
the vocal chords acts exactly like the bow of a violin on the
strings. Saigal lowered the volume of his voice not by
constricting the throat but by lightening the breath upon his
vocal chords, just as a violinist would lighten the pressure of
the bow of his violin upon its strings. Instead of the fingers
on the finger board of the violin, the throat is capable of
making its muscles carry minute muscular tensions that are
capable of producing those hardly audible macrotonal differences
in the quality of the note, an example of which is the _komal
gandhar_ in the line "itni to samjha le" in the song "karun kya
aas nirash" from the film 'Dushman'.
Saigal was able to make the astonishing differences of tone
and texture of his notes merely by altering the weight of his
breath upon his vocal chords. There are hundreds of examples of
this technique in his songs. Indeed in any one of them, taken at
random, an example of this technique can be found. We can
however take the most widely known and among the more popular
songs "soja rajkumari" and observe the texture of the voice
rendering the word "soja" in the last repetition of the refrain.
Observe the gentle huskiness that descends upon the word like a
mist and the breath lifting even lighter upon this word than upon
the rest of the song.
It might be good to recall the descending terminal cadences
of the song "piya bin nahi avat chain." It is not on any record.
It will be necessary to look out for a re-run of the film
'Devdas.' The master craftsman who first sang this song and made
it a household name and who had never in his life until then seen
a film was told of this song and saw 'Devdas' and wept like a
He demanded to meet Saigal, and called on him and heard the
song again. Observe the smooth legato line of the text arcing
across the octave and the soft hardly audible slow trill on the
lower tonic sustaining the word "chain". The breath is as soft
as the breath of a sleeping child. [Help! Who is the master
craftsman the author is referring to here?]
Saigal had a way of caressing a word. It was such a close
and unselfconscious act that it is difficult to remember the
voice without the word accompanying it. It is in short difficult
to forget the words that voice brought to life whenever an
attempt is made to remember the voice by itself. Things like
"soja meethe sapane aye" or "raath katey gin gin ke taarey" or
"jaba na kisi ne rah sujhayi". Then it is "chandan ka jangala"
or the words "chanchala balaka" or "naina lal kapola pe" or the
sky-aspiring "main bulata hun", the examples are legion of words
brought to vivid life and living autonomously by a quickening of
Those ornaments and graces are another example. Natural and
somehow growing so inevitably from the tension of the phrase, the
_raga_ and the context. t was difficult to feel their presence
in any song as an ornament. Strictly speaking, they were not
ornaments at all, they were organic. So they remained almost
Then there is another aspect which must be noted. Most
singers have a point on the scale that is known as the "passage"
when the singer shifts from a chest sound to a head sound. For a
range of an incredible three octaves and a fourth, Saigal shows
no evidence of such a passage. Most singers "cover" when they
approach this critical note, tending to depress their larynx and
open their throats wider and concentrate the notes in their
Most singers learn to cover this transition by skillfully
shifting from a chest voice to a head voice which preserves in
the upper register the natural timbre of their middle register.
But even if this is done very skillfully some traces of this
passage always remain. It is difficult to detect this transition
in the songs of Saigal. He never seems to cover, which for the
amplitude of his range was really remarkable.
One likely reason for this extraordinary seamlessness of his
style was probably the most significant characteristic of his
voice which whenever it touched the scales, whether down in the
basement in an E or an F, or high on the _shudh gandhar_ of the
_tar saptak_ of a pitch beginning on the third white note of the
harmonium was the fact that the voice was throughout a fine
mixture of chest and head voice, say fifty-fifty of each.
Everywhere, therefore, his timbre remained the same. He was
never strident even at very high pitches by measure. The feel of
his notes always seemed serene and comfortable.
Another important feature of his singing was his
meticulously controlled forward enunciation. We must remember
that Saigal's singing technique belonged to the pre-amplification
era. He touched the Indian cinema when the talkies were just
Remember he was only about 26 years old when he was put on a
contract with the New Theatres at the time he starred in its
first talkie venture. It was a film called 'Mohabbat Ke Ansoo,'
an Islamic tale, in which he starred with one Akhtari. He had by
then changed his name to Saigal Kashmiri, so that his relatives
may not track him down. It was the same in the next two films,
'Subah Ke Sitare' and 'Zinda Laash.' At that time no one knew
how to make a special voice for the microphone. We are familiar
today of a species of voice known as the microhpone towards which
both classical and light musicians tend to train. This is a
voice which is hardly audible without a microphone. To hear them
without amplification you will be compelled to sit on their laps.
The most intimate-sounding of Saigal's voice did not come from
what is today known as the mike voice, a voice is practically
manufactured by the sound engineers.
Saigal sang and the microphone eavesdropped. That was all.
That is why his most softly sounding songs never feel slack and
somnolent. There is a tension in the way the notes climb to the
top _shadj_, of "soja rajkumari" or in "ah ko chahiya" or in
"jokhon robona" or "bandhinu michhey ghar" from 'Desher Mati.'
All very softly sung pieces but bold and tightly traversing the
notes of the scale. It was largely a matter of the vocal focus
of each note--the centering of the note. In stringed instruments
like the _sitar_ this tightness of traverse is achieved by
pulling the string from a low note to a higher note without
plucking the string to produce portamento, until the tension
reaches the intended terminal point of the scale. At that point
while the note itself is steady there is an urgency in its tone
which is absent if the terminal note is actually held on site by
This was the vocal technique Saigal habitually employed. It
gave his top _shadj_ or higher notes that calling, ringing tone
which in Sanskrit is called _ahwan_ and gave his statements a
passionate appeal. This is also what made him a troubadour,
rather than a singer in the strict indoor sense of the word.
Recall the _antara_ of the piece in _kafi_ beginning "jin jaori
gori." The top _shadj_, which in that song is an elaboration
strictly in the classical mould, swings slightly in the middle as
though wafted in a light wind. There is a half sung song in
'Jiban Maran', a little shirt tail of a _kirtan_ beginning
"kanchana barani", that begins with the assurance of a full-
fledged concert, only to finish half way. Three lines and a
little after it begins, the story gets in the way and the song is
left unsung. For the size of the rendering the unresolved
tension which that song leaves behind among the audience is
altogether disproportionate to the song's essential structural
value. But the unfinished frustration is made possible because
of the powerful musical tension of the opening lines and its
meticulous development utilising not a single slack note but
every note in a metaphorical sense pulled from somewhere lower
down the scale.
Another aspect of Saigal's technique was the strange magic
of communicative understatement in which he was a master. When
in his interview with Kirit Ghosh he states, "I never use ten
notes if one will do," he is stating a simple fact. His
variations of a line with its standard rendering would very often
have fewer notes in elaboration than its first singing. This
regressive technique has a striking impact upon the development
of a musical theme.
It focusses the theme at one point of the line of text never
letting the attention wander. Invariably in the second variation
of a line he brings the tone of his note to a sharp focus
gradually like a lens concentrating the sunlight.
Narrower and narrower becomes the focus until the sound
seems to spill out of the sides as it were. The Ghalib _ghazal_
"phir mujhe didaye tar" is a good example both of intense focus
of the voice to a pin-point centre of each note and of the
variations rarely going beyond the main nucleus of the notes that
This method of elaboration is part of Saigal's remarkable
talent for significant understatement and gave his songs that
curious piquancy which very few in Indian light music have been
able to equal.
The reason why he was able to make this technique work so
well for himself was because of his gift of what in Western music
is called _tempo rubato_. This is the technique of stealing time
from one syllable of a word and restoring it to another. Very
often when applied without subtlety this technique tends to
mutilate the word and make a hash of meaning. And this often
happens in classical music.
There is no law that classical music to become classical
must shear meaning off the words of which it is composed. But
the easy way out has always been to put the _raga_ before the
meaning of the _cheez_. This happens because the singer is
unable to do this right and therefore make a virtue out of
There are very few who can use _rubato_ skillfully. They
tend to divide the syllables of words into wholes or large
fractions of _matras_ or beats. Saigal was able to steal time
without breaking a word mid-section and mutilating its meaning.
The _rubato_ he employed was so delicately achieved that no one
was aware when he varied a line, the second time around, that he
had stolen time off every syllable in different proportion. But
the proportions themselves were so minute, such small fractions
of whole _matras_ that the listeners, while aware of a change in
quality and emphasis of the repeated line, were never sure how
the change had occurred.
This style of handling _rubato_ can only be done by a singer
who has extraordinary control of the _laya_. For the finely
sensed ability to divide time by feeling and measure need not be
based on _tala_ at all, that is in the strict relationship
between the _khali_ and _sam_ of any structure.
Saigal was believed to be weak in _tala_. But that was
because he rarely ever counted. We have often come across
_pakhwaj_ and _tabla_ wizards who never count, yet are in hair
breadth control of _tala_. Consider the pieces "kithine is gali
men" or "shukriya hasti ka" or that trim little piece in
_malkaus_ that begins "jag aur dekh zara." How tightly and
sharply the keen edge of _tala_ and _laya_ join with the
variations in the phrases and yet how delicately differentiated
the changes in each line are. In order to steal time effectively
the singer must have a strongly established _laya_ to steal from.
Saigal made sure that it was there. This is true even when he
speaks lines as in "ah ko chahiye."
This technique always provided surprise and suspense. If
you examine the song, and its cadence, the minute variations are
what make it a striking song. The slight touch of tune merely
lubricates the text.
Another significant feature of Saigal's vocalism that cannot
be omitted was his remarkable vibrato. Vibrato is called
_kampana_ in Sanskrit. There are several varieties of this
element in voice. There is a fast _kampana_ in which the
amplitude of the pulsations are narrow. There is a wider kind of
_kampana_ in which the pulsations are slower. Pankaj Mullick
used a _kampana_ which was wider and slower than Saigal's.
Saigal used vibrato with great restraint. He never used it
as an aspect of grace or ornamentation. One of the dangers of
too obvious a use of _kampana_ is that it indicates an element of
vocal vainglory. So in Indian music it has to be used with great
circumspection. Saigal's vibrato occurred somewhat beneath the
surface of his voice, so that the voice did not undulate
markedly. It merely throbbed like a wound. It was a vibrato
that behaved like the ripples in a pond at the point of impact of
a stone thrown into it--expanding outwards from an imaginary
centre of each note.
In the upper register of the octave Saigal's vibrato widened
a little but always the pulsations were within the voice hidden
inside a thin membrane of voice.
The only recording that reveals a certain strain in Saigal's
voice was the earliest one in the film 'Karwan-e-Hayat', the song
in that tearing _bhairavi_ entitled "hairatey nazara." The song
was sung as low as the first white note of the harmonium. Yet
the voice strains in going up and at a certain point shows a
break. He was in pretty bad voice at the recording of that song.
Yet observe the detail of the _bhairavi_, filling and
fleshing out the meaning of the text. Without strain the
_rubato_ takes over where the voice just about makes it. It
makes a point of the truth that voice, or its condition, at any
given moment is not important to the power of a statement. As
long as the voice is true, the message gets across without
ambiguity, and the meaning makes its own allure.
You have to be very observant to notice that this lovely
song, so touchingly rendered, was sung in a voice which for
Saigal was a poor voice.