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Article Bengali Hindi

When KL Saigal arrived in Bombay

In the late 1930s, Kundanlal Saigal was a Bengali icon singing Tagore's poems for recordings. People thronged to cinema halls just to hear his voice. But the great singer was to soon leave the city of his greatest work and move west.

Shriram Iyengar

The quiet, leafy bylanes of Matunga hide memories of some of the biggest names in Hindi cinema. Prithviraj Kapoor, KN Singh, Geeta Dutt and Nalini Jaywant were some of those who called this locality, a largely residential suburb back in the day, home.

But the first star to move into this area was Kundanlal Saigal. Devdas had transformed him into probably the first real star of Hindi cinema, before the term had even entered some hack's imagination. He was often followed around by crowds of fans who would pester him to sing his popular numbers for them.

In the 1930s, Calcutta's New Theatres led the flowering of Indian cinema. Directors like Pramathesh Chandra Barua, Debaki Bose, and, later, Bimal Roy found space and support to experiment with cinema and literature under BN Sircar. In its heyday, New Theatres boasted of having artistes of the calibre of Prithviraj Kapoor, Kishen Chandra Dey, Chhabi Biswas, Pahari Sanyal and Saigal on its payroll.

At New Theatres were made some of the greatests hits of Saigal's career. Yahudi Ki Ladki (1933), Chandidas (1934), Devdas (1935), President (1937), and Street Singer (1938) were some of the milestones on his road to stardom.

With a languid, conversational style and a deeply melancholic singing voice, Saigal was the star of his films. A very young Lata Mangeshkar fell in love with the dashing on-screen personality in Chandidas. Devdas earned him the respect of even the most snobbish bhadralok, as he brought to life the greatest tragic hero of Bengali literature.

For someone untrained in classical music, Saigal's command of the ragas would confound professional singers. In the book, KL Saigal: The Definitive Biography, Peter Neville mentions that the maestro, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, on hearing that Saigal had sung his own version of 'Piya Bin Nahi Aavat Chayn' in Devdas, walked into a cinema hall for the first time and broke down upon hearing Saigal's control and cadence during the song.

For all its creative abundance, however, New Theatres had its drawbacks. Built and run by people who were literally and philosophically ahead of their times, it often ran the risk of straying away from the public. The singular use of Bengali also ran the risk of alienating a larger audience for such cinema.

A polyglot, Saigal had no problem adapting to the language. But the growing intensity of work and his popularity were getting to him. One incident describes this discomfort quite well. Saigal, a connoisseur of classical music, was sitting quietly at the back at a concert, but someone recognized him and soon, there was a clamour for him to come on stage. He eventually had to beg the audience to keep quiet and let him listen to the masters who were in concert.

So, when Bombay's Ranjit Movietone offered a four album-and-film contract, Saigal did not hesitate. 

In 1941, Bombay was still some years away from becoming the be-all and end-all of Hindi cinema. Bombay Talkies had found success with films like Achhut Kanya and Jeevan-Naiya.

Another big player in the Bombay film industry then was Ranjit Movietone. Founded by Chandulal Shah, it was among the three biggest studios in the country. Saigal signed up with Ranjit Movietone to make films and record songs.

Many viewed this as a move born solely out of commercial interest and it created discord among the many who had taken Saigal to heart.

Some years later, on Saigal's untimely death, a prominent film magazine of the day, Filmindia, published an acerbic tribute that mentioned this betrayal. It wrote, “Tempted by money he came to Bombay to work in Ranjit and other studios. He did quite a few pictures in Bombay: Bhakt Surdas, Tansen, Bhanwara, Shahjehan, Tadbir, Omar Khayyam, but not in one of them could be heard the old magic of Saigal’s golden voice. Gold had taken the golden out of his voice in this city where the smoke coming out of the mill chimneys smells of human souls.”

Yet, the magic of Saigal that withstood the corrosive power of alcohol did also stave off the evils of the commercial film world. His work in films like Bhakt Surdas (1942), Shah Jehan (1946) and Omar Khayyam (1946) elevated his stature further. His rendering of 'Diya Jalao' in raga Deepak in Tansen (1943) earned him the title of the Tansen of cinema. It was about as high an accolade any singer in India could aspire for.

Yet, his prolonged suffering from sciatica and dependency on alcohol told of Saigal's health and the great man passed away on 18 January 1947, just a few months before India became independent.

The coming years were to see Indian cinema and music, Hindi in particular, rise to new heights in a period that is now commonly referred to as the 'golden age'. An entire generation of singers from Lata Mangeshkar and Mukesh to Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar were inspired by him.

But for Bombay, a star had set. In Calcutta, they mourned the passing of an artiste whom they saw as their own.