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How KL Saigal got Kanan Devi to be more confident of her singing

The two singing stars, who shared a comfortable on-screen relationship, appeared together in a handful of films. For her 25th death anniversary today (17 July), we share a story of how Saigal encouraged Kanan Devi both as co-star and singer.

Sonal Pandya

In Phani Majumdar’s Street Singer (1938), KL Saigal and Kanan Devi first came to share screen space. Their singing styles went on to be emulated by the generations that followed. But it is said that the first time the two stars were introduced, Kanan Devi was horrified by how the famous Saigal appeared in front of her.

In the book, Kanan Devi: The First Superstar of Indian Cinema, author Mekhala Sengupta writes, “Not just dishevelled, he was wearing what was his trademark creased kurta and dhoti. He had locks of hair strewn across his high forehead and his mouth was stained red with paan. Saigal greeted her affectionately as Behenji, speaking highly of her singing and giving specific instances of the songs of hers he admired.”

Eventually, Kanan Devi grew to like Saigal's unassuming personality, especially as he encouraged her singing ability during filming. When they had a single microphone between themselves, Saigal would give it to her to focus on her singing. He would also insist that the camera remain on her when filming.

When she grew nervous about singing in his presence, Saigal would urge her to just sing. Sengupta wrote, “Interacting with Saigal, Kanan felt that the psychological misgivings she had harboured about her voice had fallen away. His cheerfulness and enthusiasm would inspire her to improve: it was not just about enjoyment or competition but an urge to excel. For this inspiration from Saigal, she felt indebted.”

Their relationship echoed the story enacted in Street Singer where Saigal’s Bhulwa helps Kanan Devi’s Manju rise to the top as a singer. She changes after becoming famous and insults Bhulwa by singing his song on stage. Eventually, the two reconcile and return to their humble beginnings in the village.

KL Saigal and Kanan Devi in Street Singer

They only worked on a handful of films, but his generosity as an artiste stayed with Kanan Devi. With the leadership of music composer RC Boral on Street Singer, the combination of the two created a craze across India at the time.