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‘KL Saigal’s Songs Started the Sugam Sangeet Revolution’ – In Conversation with Author Pran Nevile

April 4, 2017 | By and

Renowned author and scholar of Indian cultural history, Pran Nevile is the author of the authoritative book KL Saigal – Immortal Singer and SuperstarK.L. Saigal The Definitive Biography and the richly illustrated Nautch Girls of India: Dancers, Singers, Playmates.

After a successful career in the Indian Foreign Service and the United Nations, Pran Nevile turned to writing specializing in the study of Indian art and culture. His other books include Lahore – A sentimental Journey; The Raj Revisited; Love Stories from the Raj; Rare Glimpses of the Raj; Stories from the Raj – Sahibs, Memsahibs and Others; Beyond the Veil – Indian Women in the Raj and Marvels of Indian Painting: Rise and Demise of Company School.

In a conversation with Sundeep Pahwa in his Gurgaon home, Pran Nevile responds to a series of questions on K L Saigal drawn up by Peeyush Sharma and Sundeep Pahwa. A Silhouette tribute to the genius of K L Saigal.

Pran Nevile

Pran Nevile – renowned author and scholar of Indian culture, art and history. Author of the book KL Saigal – Immortal Singer and Superstar and K.L. Saigal The Definitive Biography

Sundeep: It is believed, according to some musicians of yore in Calcutta, that KL Saigal’s greatest quality was that the musicians  would tune their instruments on his alaap, unheard of in the history of singing in a recording studio. Typically, a taanpura would be first set to ‘Sa’ or ‘Ma’ by an ustad and then the singer would match his/her tone or scale with it. But when it came to Saigal, the studio musicians would wait for him to arrive, they would ask him to give an alaap, and then all would tune their respective instruments with him. He was treated equal to ‘Shiv Ka Naad’. This was referred to in a TV talk in 70s by Kanan Devi, and later Anil Biswas confirmed it to be true, saying, unke gale mein woh Saraswati khud was karti thhi. ;;;;

Pran Nevile: In my book I have quoted Ustad Faiyyaz Khan who said, “Tumhe kisi shiksha ki zaroorat hi nahin.” (You don’t need any training.) Saigal used to compose himself. He has composed all the non-film ghazals he sang. God-gifted voice he had.”

Sundeep:  Rai Chand Boral had given early break to KLS and then Timir Baran supported and later Pankaj Mullick joined. It was rumoured that PM had an ego issue with KLS, as he thought he himself was equal or better singer. Comment.

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KL Saigal Immortal Singer and Superstar by Pran Nevile
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Pran Nevile: Pankaj Mullick groomed Saigal as a music director. But Pankaj Mullick himself was a leading Bengali singer. Some songs were sung both by Pankaj Mullick and Saigal like Ai qaatib-e-taqdeer, Chhupo na and Sundar nari – three four songs. But in the market Saigal records sold more. Those Pankaj songs which Saigal did not sing were great hits.

In Doctor (1941), Pankaj Mullick was cast as hero. Every song of the film was a super hit such as Guzar gaya woh zamana kaisa kaisa and chale pawan ki chaal. I am a great fan of Pankaj.

Some ego is but natural as Saigal was born in 1904 and Pankaj in 1905.

In 1941 Kundan Lal Saigal came to Bombay. BN Sircar, the chief of New Theatres and the honest person that he was said this place has no money now. You go to Bombay and earn some money. That is how he came on contract with Chandulal Shah for three films.

Duniya Rang Rangili baba, duniya rang rangili (Dhartimata, 1938) Pankaj Mullick/ Pundit Sudarshan/ Saigal with Pankaj Mullick and Uma Shashi/ Disc.# H650. (The film version had K C Dey’s vocals instead of Pankaj Mullick)

Sundeep: Why at all did KLS get so addicted to alcohol? Is anything known about this?

K.L. Saigal The Definitive Biography

K.L. Saigal The Definitive Biography by Pran Nevile
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Pran Nevile: He enjoyed his drinks. He was never an alcoholic. There were rumours that he cannot work without drinking which is nonsense. He had a friend Hussain. They were both Punjabis and good friends and enjoyed their drinks together. The rumours that he could not record without first having a few drinks is nonsense. G N Joshi was a great friend of Saigal. Read his book. He himself was a great musician.

Sundeep: It is reported that he was unhappy in Bombay. He missed Calcutta and could never like living in Bombay.

Pran Nevile: Quite true. No doubt about this. His fondness for Calcutta was also a personal emotion. There was a woman in his life although the details are not known but his heart was there.

Which non-Bengali will you find whom Gurudev Tagore blessed so that he could sign Rabindra Sangeet? In the Bengali version of Devdas, Pramathesh Barua was the hero. And K L Saigal played the role which Pahari Sanyal has in the Hindi version. And then he sings the Bengali songs. When remarks were made about his accent, Sarat Babu, the author of Devdas, he came to Saigal’s support. He said, listen, ‘Kothon par, gaanewali ke ghar mein, Bengalis ki monopoly nahin hai ki sirf wohi ja sakte hain. Non-Bengali can also come there. And he can also sing in the mehfil.’

Roohi roohi roohi, mere sapnon ki rani (Shahjahan, 1946) Naushad/ Majrooh Sultanpuri/ Saigal with Mohd. Rafi/ Disc # H 1228 G

Sundeep: Did he have a premonition that his style of singing was coming to an end.   New trends were setting in.

K L Saigal and Radha Rani in Yahudi Ki Ladki (1933)Pic: Indian films and posters from 1930

K L Saigal and Radha Rani in Yahudi Ki Ladki (1933)
Pic: Indian films and posters from 1930

Pran Nevile: No, never. Everybody copied him – Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Mohd Rafi, Talat Mahmood including Lata Mangeshkar. They were all inspired by Kundan Lal Saigal, the one great golden voice that brought music to the masses. He was the founding father of people’s music. Classical music has its own role. There is no conflict between classical music and people’s music. Classical music is the mother and people’s music is the child.

When Saigal started singing, all his initial records were all classical and semi-classical. Listen to the 4 bhajans in Puran Bhagat – they are all classical based. The sugam sangeet of Bengal starts with Chandidas and Yahudi Ki Ladki.

Ek ghazal ne tehelka macha diya saare Hindustan mein which was Nuktaacheen hai gham-e-dil (Yahudi Ki Ladki) – Saigal ki aawaz aur composition Mullick ki.

Nuktacheen hai gham-e-dil usko sunaye na bane (Yahudi Ki Ladki, 1933) Punkaj Mullick/ Mirza Ghalib/ Disc # H 241 h (Yahudi Ki Ladki marked the debut of Pankaj Mullick as a music director in Hindi films. This song was composed in Raag Bhimpalasi using the table and the harmonium)

Next came Chandidas, which introduced sugam sangeet in the popular songs such as Prem nagar mein banaoon main ghar. In 3-4 years, slowly the popular music evolved.

In Shahjahan, the way Naushad composed Jab dil hi toot gaya, shows how music directors used to compose the ragas to make sure the music appealed to the new generation masses.

The one music director who made a huge difference was Khemchand Prakash. He gave the music for Saigal’s Tansen. He died young and did not live to see the fame he achieved.

Sapt suran teen gram (Tansen, 1943) Khemchand Prakash/ Tansen/ Disc # H 1052 G

Sundeep: It is heard that he went to Kothas regularly, but only to enjoy thumri and other music, but never for physical pleasure.

K L Saigal in Shahjehan

K L Saigal in Shahjehan

Pran Nevile: About his going to kothas, the only person who has spoken about it is his dear friend G N Joshi who has described how they went to the kothas in Allahabad to enjoy the music.

Sundeep: What do you say is the cause of his immortality, even though his output is very low and style has long been history?

Pran Nevile: Reason for immortality? He has left a behind a repertoire, of course not as big as Rafi or some other singers but all of Saigal’s songs were hits whether in Bengali or Hindi. The way he sang, every word acquired a new meaning, his gayaki was full of emotion. Jis tarah woh lafzon ki adaayegi karta tha, he used to touch your heart.

1937, Ik raaje ka beta was a children’s song and the way he sings and laughs in it, gave it a new dimension.

Ik Raaje ka beta lekar udne wala ghoda (The President, 1937) Rai Chand Boral/ Pundit Sudershan (uncredited) / Disc. # H 11488

Sundeep: At Hindustan Recording Co. it is rumoured that SDB had done 2 songs with KL Saigal, but some legal issues with New Theatres did not let the disc be issued. Is this true?

Kanan Devi and K L Saigal

Kanan Devi and K L Saigal in Phani Majumdar’s Street Singer (1938)

Pran Nevile: K L Saigal had a life long agreement with his friend Chandi Babu, the owner of Hindustan Records Company. Chandi Babu gave the license to HMV which sold the records under its label. Then Chandi Babu’s son revoked the copyright from HMV to the effect that HMV had to withdraw the records from the market. As a result, the copyright of K L Saigal’s records is with Hindustan Records. He did not work with SD Burman.

Sundeep: He was never romantically linked with any of his heroines or actors. True?

Pran Nevile: Saigal was never romantically linked with any of his female co-stars. He was so professional. He never had any time for these things.

He had his romance with somebody, the details are not known but the there is no doubt about it. According to one source there was a painting presented to him by that lady which was in his house in Bombay and it was very dear to him. Either she was married already or something, no one knows.

He got married because he was very attached to his mother and whatever his mother decided he accepted.

Main unhein chhedun uar kuchh na kahein, chal nikalte jo mey piye hote (Mirza Ghalib / K L Saigal / non-film / Disc. # H 1266

Sundeep: Is it true that P C Barua did not want him to be cast as Devdas, but succumbed to pressure by B N Sircar (the New Theatres chief).

Pran Nevile: PC Barua was a genius and much above all these egos. He was of blue blood. He went to France to learn cinematography. For Hindi version, he had to have Saigal, there was no other choice.

Babul mora naihar chhuto hi jaaye (Street Singer, 1938) Rai Chand Boral/ Traditional/ Disc. # H 11697

Sundeep: Any knowledge, who were his favourites as Music director, lyricists, co-stars, directors etc. Some rumours claim Kidar Sharma was his most liked lyricist, Khemchand Prakash the favourite music director and Khurshid favourite heroine. Any truth in this ?

Pran Nevile: Saigal had the greatest respect for RC Boral. In terms of lyrics, Kidar Sharma was a close friend.  In terms of heroines, he was quite at home with Khurshid who too was comfortable working with him. Both were from North India. When you watch their pair, they are so spontaneous, I can infer that they were fond of working with each other.

K L Saigal and Khursheed

K L Saigal and Khursheed in Tansen (1943)

Sundeep: Are there still songs that are not issued on disc, cd or any format. (KLS songs).

Pran Nevile: No. All his songs are available. He was a poet also. He wrote this song, which he never composed or sang – Pardes mein rehne wale yaar. I got it from his daughter and photocopied it and it is there in my book.

If you listen to the earlier songs of Kishore Kumar there is a strong influence of Saigal, such as in Marne ki duaaein.

He used to compose his songs selected by him, to be sung by him, without anybody’s interference. He would ring up Chandi Babu and say, “Chandi Babu, ghazal taiyyar hai, mood aya hua hai mera.”

Saigal never interfered with the composer. He respected them because they had groomed him. Great man.

Duniya mein hoon duniya ka talabgaar nahin hoon (K L Saigal / Akbar Ilahabadi / Disc # RB 5006)

Read this extensive tribute to the genius of K L Saigal written by Peeyush Sharma

Main Kya Janoon Kya Jadoo Hai: K L Saigal’s Magical Music

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