Interview Bengali Hindi

KL Saigal introduced ‘recitative’ mode in film song and performance: Madhuja Mukherjee

On Kundanlal Saigal's 114th birth anniversary, Mukherjee, associate professor of film studies at Jadavpur University, clears the air on the singer-actor's contribution to Bengali cinema.

Roushni Sarkar

The journey of Kundanlal Saigal, Indian cinema's first singing star, is closely associated with the introduction of the talkie in the Calcutta film industry.

With sound came the contributions of legendary music directors such as Pankaj Mullick and Raichand Boral in Bengali cinema.

As Boral quickly recognized Saigal's talent, New Theatres, the film studio where the music director worked, signed Saigal on for the princely sum of Rs200 a month, and a new age in the history of Indian cinema unfolded.

Accounts of the era include anecdotes of Saigal learning Bengali in a week, turning into a fluent Bengali artiste, and of insisting on singing in front of the camera in Street Singer (1938) in spite of Mullick's request to stick to playback singing.

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The legend of Saigal has only grown over the years since with many unsure of the source and authenticity of the tales around him.

In an exclusive interview with on Saigal's 114th birth anniversary (he was born on 11 April 1904), Dr Madhuja Mukherjee, associate professor of film studies at Jadavpur University with a record of extensive research on the Indian film industry, attempted to clear the air on Saigal’s contribution to Bengali cinema. Excerpts:

Dr Madhuja Mukherjee

What are the essential contributions KL Saigal made to Bengali cinema?

He entirely changed the style of performance. If you look at the films of the 1930s, you will find that the artistes are singing and then going into dialogues. Saigal was known for his natural performance — singing two lines and then coming back to the dialogue, and so on.

Saigal can be considered the first natural actor in that sense. For essentially in the case of music, when he sang the famous thumri, ‘Babul Mora’ [for Street Singer] it created unique resonances. The two variations of ‘Babul Mora’ in Street Singer displayed disparate musical traditions in cinema and, more widely, in culture, as the film borrowed certain set practices of classical music for cinema.

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This performance of ‘Babul Mora’ by an untrained actor singing on the streets for a popular form created new meaning. The fact that the nuanced variations of gharanas within the classical tradition were being used in this film and that such signification was appreciated by the masses was an interesting case in point.

By and large, it is remarkable the manner in which classical musical forms were included in popular films, thereby blurring the distinctions between 'high art' and 'low culture'.

How would you describe his journey from being a gramophone record singer to the first singing star of Indian cinema?

See, the term ‘star’ in film studies has a particular function in the industry in the ways in which the narrative or the publicity is organized around the actor. So in that sense, he was extremely popular and quite a star because of the ways in which he could particularly sing, perform and switch to dialogue.

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Associating speech with music became a feature of his star persona, along with his comic sense. There was indeed not much singing in songs like ‘Sukh Ke Dukh Ke Ab Din Bitat Nahi’ [from Devdas (1935)], or ‘Ek Bangla Bane Nyara’ [from President (1937)] where he included rhymes.

While the constant shift from music to speech was a remarkable recording achievement in 1935, his powerful voice and nasal rendition with a tragic grandeur had its own appeal.

KL Saigal and Kanan Devi in Devdas (1935)
KL Saigal and Kanan Devi in Street Singer (1938)

Can he be considered the pioneer of modern songs?

For Saigal’s significance, he doesn’t necessarily have to be the first to start a trend. There were Pankaj Mullick, KC Dey, Kanan Devi and Pahari Sanyal who were already ushering in the trend of modern songs. But I think Saigal’s renditions were unique and his significance lies in the fact that his songs turned out to be popular across the country, beyond boundaries.

Saigal even turned into a myth. Kananbala Devi has been quoted as saying, "If Saigal sang a song, he just claimed it. If anybody else could sing the same tune it wouldn’t sound as mesmerising." He introduced the ‘recitative’ mode in film song and performances.

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Saigal rarely used any orchestra, especially for ‘Babul Mora’ in Street Singer, which was performed in the pure raga Bhairavi in the outdoors. He became the first truly ‘pan-Indian male star’ whose renditions of the ragas Yaman and Sindura were widely admired, while his accompaniments were mostly restrained and evocative rather than loud and assertive. A tanpura, a harmonium, and a tabla would often [be all that would] accompany his songs.

Even when there was an orchestra, it was used with restraint. For instance, while singing raga Kafi, Khamaj or Desh, he would perform a line of alaap and then break into speech, or change the tempo [laye] and the emphasis [taal], and surprise the audience, as in President or Devdas.

He was the idol of many notable singers of the following generations, including Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh. So it is also his legacy that essentially determines his contribution to the music of the early days of Indian cinema.

KL Saigal in Devdas (1935)

How would you describe Saigal’s journey — coming to Calcutta, becoming part of the Bengali film industry, and then shifting to Bombay?

See, during the 1930s, Calcutta was extremely cosmopolitan and the Bengali film industry was not essentially Bengali in its culture. It was also producing films in Hindi and many other languages apart from Bengali. There were artistes coming from Bombay, Lahore, and many other cities and working. For example, Prithviraj Kapoor, Durga Khote and many others.

When KL Saigal arrived in Bombay

Because of the historical and economic conditions, not only New Theatres but many other production houses were producing and distributing films across British India. So movements and transitions between cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Lahore were common in that era.

Satyajit Ray was quite dismissive about Saigal's acting capabilities. What are your comments in this regard? Is it only his sheer voice quality and singing ability that earned him his position?

I think he was quite a natural actor. He was not really good at melodramatic renditions. In Devdas (1935), his physical acting was quite extraordinary if not in the sequences where he would have to emote. This very tradition of his acting style was later followed by many other actors.

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About his singing capabilities on which I have spoken at length, I would only like to add a quote of Saigal from one of his interviews —
"I am not a singer, not really. I can only be called a phraser. I have no true classical training except what I have heard and remembered... I have a certain feeling how the dhaivat should feel in Malkauns, and the madhyama and the nature of the nishad... this changes from raga to raga... My favourite raga is Bhairavi. To know Bhairavi is to know all the ragas..."