Kundan Lal Saigal, the legend: Punjabi contribution to cinema – VI
By Ishtiaq Ahmed
It would not be wrong to say that without the singer doing justice to the tune composed by the music director and written by the lyricist, a song rarely catches the ear. In this particular department the Punjabi contribution is simply overwhelming. We have had at least three male singer-actors K L Saigal, Surendra and Karan Dewan. Mohammad Rafi was the greatest male playback singer ever in the Bombay film industry though he did appear in one or two movies. I remember him from Anmol Garhi. GM Durrani, ST Batish and later Mahendra Kapoor were playback singers who sang both Hindustani and Punjabi songs.
Punjabi actress-singers include Mukhtar Begum, Khurshid, Noorjahan, and Suraiya. Zohra Bai Ambalawali, Shamshad Begum and Sudha Malhotra were all outstanding playback singers. Then of course the Kaur sisters, Parkash and Surinder Kaur, and Pushpa Hans, all sang from All-India Radio Lahore and later a few songs in films as well. Perhaps one should mention the child wizard Master Madan who sang just two songs. He died when still in his teens and his voice was never heard in films but had he lived longer he too would have sung for films. Punjabi singers who emerged after Partition and sang only in Pakistan or India are not being included in this article. They would figure in later articles.
This article will focus on legendary Kundan Lal Saigal. He was a genius whom the great male singers of the immediate next generation – Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh and Talat Mahmood – adored. Talat and Rafi had very different voice textures while Mukesh sang in the same lower octaves and had a bass voice.
My very dear friend, Satish Chopra, has in his book, Forgotten Masters of Hindi Cinema (New Delhi: L G Publishers, Distributors, 2015) paid glowing tributes Saigal. Satish Bhai lives in Delhi, but was born a few years before the Punjab was partitioned in Purani Anarkali. His house was close to the Purani Anarkali police station. He has a picture of it and some years ago I went and checked the house. It still stood there. I hope Satishji comes to Lahore soon before that locality undergoes complete transformation because of the metro-age of buses and locomotives, which is currently being implemented. The last vestiges of Jain Mandir (which in the wake of the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992 was nearly dismantled by a frenzied mob) have now been erased altogether and many adjoining houses are being pulled down as well.
Saigal was the bridge between the semi-classical ghazal and the popular geets
Let’s return to what nothing can ever destroy: the magical voice of Kundan Lal Saigal. He was born on the 4th of April 1904 in Jammu, but the family belonged originally to Jullundur, Punjab. The search for a livelihood took him to Calcutta where he worked at several jobs and most notably as a salesman for the Remington type-writers. Legendry music director R. C. Boral discovered him singing at a railway station of Calcutta and a new chapter on film music started. In 1932 the song, Jhulana jhulao ambua ki dari par koel bole Rama, sung in Rag Jaunpuri by a totally unknown singer-actor mesmerized the listeners.
‘New Theatres’ of Calcutta produced the film. Punkaj Malik, himself a famous singer-music director cast him in Yahudi ki Larki. He sang Ghalib’s, Nukta cheen hai ghamey dill, in it besides other songs. His Urdu diction was flawless and that proved a great asset: Saigal was the bridge between the semi-classical ghazal singing of those times and the popular geets which came later. In a span of fifteen years, Saigal sang in Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, Punjabi, Bangla and even in Tamil: ghazals, bhajans and other modes, many in classical styles. His singing was of vintage quality and the pathos and hurt which are so deeply embedded in the music and poetry of the Subcontinent found in him the perfect exponent of both. Altogether he sang nine ghazals of Ghalib and many of other ustads such as Ibrahim Zauq, Arzu Lakhnavi and Seemab Akbarabadi and outstanding poets such as Kidar Sharma, Jameel Mazhari, D.N. Madhok, Khumar Barabankvi, Aga Hashr Kashmiri, Ameer Minai, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Bedam Warsi, Swami Ramanand and Pt Bhushan.
Like many geniuses K. L. Saigal died young but one wonders if he is really dead
Khawaja Khurshid Anwar had him sing the all-time great melodies, Jiney ka dhang paye ja, kanton kin nok par khara muskarey ja, and Mauhabat mein kabhi assi bhi halat payee jati hai, for Parwana (1947). Naushad recorded some of the greatest film songs of Saigal, written by Majrooh Sultanpuri for Shahjahan (1946). Jab dil hi toot gaya; Gham diye mustakil kitna nazuk hai dil; Aye dil-e beqarar jhoom; Chah ha barbaad karegi; and Ruhi Ruhi Ruhi mere sapnon kee rani (in which Mohammad Rafi sang the last line) will forever be part of film music’s unforgettable melodies.
Some of his geets such as: Aye katib-e-Taqdeer mujhe itna bata dey; Baalam aye baso mere mann mein; Babul mera ney har chootho jaye: Diya jalao jag mag jag mag; Chhupo na chhupo na, Do naina matware, Jaag aur dekh zara, Jeevan been madhur na baje, Preet mein hai jeevan jokhon, Nain hin ko raah dikha prabhu, pag-pag thokar khaauun mein; Mein kya janu kya jadoo hai; Ikk bangle bane nyara; Morey balapan ke sathi; Kahey ko raart machai; Ye kaisa anyay, and many others are everlasting melodies.
Though he was a Punjabi, Saigal sang only two songs in Punjabi, as against twenty eight songs in Bangla. These Punjabi songswere: Mahi naal je akh lardi kadi na; and O sone saqia meri gali wich phera panda ja; and On this matter, Satish Chopra writes that a Punjabi singer from a place nearby to Saigal’s native Jullundur called Sham Chaurasi came to meet Saigal and said to him complainingly in Punjabi: ‘Hunn tussee Punjabi wich wee gana shuroo kar ditta hai, assee tan phukhe marr jawaan ge” (Now that you have started singing in Punjabi as well, thereby we will be starved to death). Saigal assured him that he will not sing in Punjabi again and he kept his promise.
Saigal’s health was fast deteriorating when Shahjahan was being shot. He could sense that his end was near at hand. He left instructions that the tune of the song, Jabb dil hi toot gaya, hum jee ke kya karenge, should be played alongside his funeral procession. This was done with great devotion by the musicians of Jullundur where Saigal breathed his last on 18 January 1947.
Like many other geniuses KL Saigal died young, but one can wonder if he is really dead when he has bequeathed such heart-touching melodies which continue to haunt us. I remember some time ago I circulated one of Saigal’s greatest songs, Aye katib-e-Taqdeer mujhe itna bata de, on Facebook and my gmail account, but the singer was not Saigal; it was an Afghan, Ustad Nashenas, who was performing live somewhere down south in Australia. He could enthrall the audience even today as Saigal has done all these years. Death is a relative term. As a description it merely expresses the termination of the physical existence. In the hearts of connoisseurs of film music Saigal lives on.
Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University; Visiting Professor at Government College University, Lahore and Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore
Courtesy: Friday Times