K.L. Saigal – The Definitive Biography

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Item Code: NAC151
Author: Pran Nevile
Publisher: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2011
ISBN: 9780143414063
Pages: 240 (Illustrated Throughout In B/W)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 Inch X 5.5 Inch
Weight 240 gm
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Book Description

Back of the Book

A tribute to the first singer-superstar of Indian cinema

Hailed as shahenshah-e-mausiqi (emperor of music) and acclaimed as the ghazal king, K.L. Saigal became a phenomenon in his own lifetime. Idolized for his distinctive style by the first generation of Bollywood playback singers, he is now also the subject of study by several scholars.

With no formal training, Saigal recorded 185 songs, including the immortal Diya jalao jagmag, Rumjhum rumjhum chaal tihari, Baag laga doon sajani and Jab dil hi toot gaya. He also acted in thirty-six feature films, including Tansen, Street Singer and Shahjehan. His popularity, however, skyrocketed with Devdas in which he played the doomed lover to perfection, a portrayal which would influence every actor playing a tragic hero thereafter.

About the Author

Pran Nevile was horn in Lahore and tool< his postgraduate degree from there. After a distinguished career in the Indian Foreign Service and the United Nations, he became a freelance writer specializing in the study of the social and cultural history of India. His particular fascination with the performing arts inspired him to spend many years researching in libraries and museums in the UK and USA.

Nevile has written extensively on Indian art and culture and also acted as a consultant for two BBC films on the Raj. He is the author of Lahore: A Sentimental Journey, Love Stories from the Raj, Beyond the Veil: Indian Women in the Raj, Rare Glimpses of the Raj, Stories from the Raj: Sahibs, Memsahibs and Others, K.L. Saigal: Immortal Singer, Marvels of Indian Painting, Nautch Girls of the Raj and The Tribune—An Anthology 1881-2006 and Sahibs’ India Vignettes of the Raj.

Author’s Note

K.L. Saigal’s music is now a part of our heritage. More than half a century has passed since his premature death in 1947, but the legendary singer’s voice endures. One hears from old Saigal fans how he was idolized as the ‘Tansen’ of his times. There was an aura of mystery about him and, like a snake charmer; he would cause listeners to sway to the sound of his voice. The elemental force of his music stunned the great music maestros of his time, who were amazed at his instinctive knowledge of the ragas and his voice which had a touch of the divine.

During the last few decades a vast amount of literature on Indian music and its exponents has appeared but there is no mention of K.L. Saigal in any of these publications. The only book which carries a brief chapter on K.L. Saigal is Down Melody Lune by Saigal’s friend G.N. Joshi, himself a musician and a senior executive with HMV for over thirty years who supervised recordings of leading artistes of his time. No serious study or research has been done so far on the life and times of K.L. Saigal. A solitary publication on him by eminent musicologist the late Raghava R. Menon has only a critical review of Saigal’s music.

I hope this book will fill the gap• I have tried to present the multiple facets of K.L. Saigal-the singer, actor, poet, composer and person.

There are very few written records of Saigal`s life and his contribution to the music and cinema of his time-no diary, no letters or media interviews are available. I met Saigal’s daughter Bina and her husband Mohinder Chopra in 1974 and my association with them continued while they were alive. I was able to gather first hand information from Bina about her father-the artiste and the person—that she had learnt from her mother Asharani, who died in 1978.

For details about Saigal’s career as a singer and superstar, I researched and studied the available cinema literature from the 1930s onwards. I tried to collect every bit of information on Saigal as recorded by his mentors and associates. I came upon several anecdotes about Saigal’s life but most of these were hearsay: Here, I would like to thank Mrs Shashi Sondhi, Saigal’s niece, who volunteered valuable information about Saigal as a lovable family man, saintly and overflowing with affection for everyone. Thanks are also due to Balbir Sikri, a distant relative of his who is now in his mid-eighties, for throwing light on Saigal’s routine in Calcutta where he spent nearly two years (1937-39) as a family guest.

An illustrated coffee-table edition of this book sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, was published in 2004 as part of the K.L. Saigal centenary celebrations. This revised edition includes additional material in the text in response to suggestions and comments received by the author from readers.


The Indian musical tradition is traced to the chanting of verses from the literature of Vedic times. Indian music, one of the most ancient and essentially melodic in form, has retained its roots through the ages. Sounds follow one another and music emerges as a vehicle of expression of the whole range of human emotions, providing different rasas to listeners.

Indian music is referred to as sangeeta, which originally included the performing arts of music, dance and drama. According to mythology. the creation of this three-fold art is attributed to Lord Shiva as Nataraja, whose celestial dance symbolizes an ecstasy of motion and rhythm which holds the universe.

The Natyashastra, often described as the fifth Veda, is the oldest and most comprehensive treatise on Indian aesthetics and performing arts. Said to have been commissioned by the supreme lord Brahma, the sage Bharata is believed to have compiled it with text taken from the Rig Veda, songs from the Sama Veda, action from the Yajur Veda and emotion from the Atharua Veda. While Bharata’s IOO sons rehearsed for a dance drama to be presented in the court of Indra, lord of the firmament, Bharata realized that the lasya dance form could only be performed by women. Thereupon, Brahma created apsaras, celestial dancers, who entertained the gods by dancing merrily to the accompaniment of music by gandharvas, celestial singers.

Music has universal appeal and represents a celebration of life. The origin of Indian music is recognized by historians and scholars as the most ancient; according to renowned violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, the roots of the music of the world lay in Indian music.

In ancient India, music was interwoven with religion and rituals and closely associated with temples. The twelfth-century poet jayadeva is considered to have been the first Indian musicologist. He composed the Geer Govinda, a series of erotic songs in Sanskrit verse describing the amours of Krishna and Radha. He laid down the compatible tala, rhythm, in which each section was to be sung. He would sing verses while his wife, an expert dancer, interpreted them in dance form. This astounding lyrical composition was translated into English by Sir Edwin Arnold and called The Indian Song of Songs. After jayadeva, poet—musicians Chandidas, Vidyapati, Tulsidas, Meera and Surdas carried on this Vaishnavite tradition.

One of the earliest forms of Indian classical music was dhrupad, tracing its origin to the Sama Veda. Dhrupad compositions were sung in Sanskrit and in regional languages. The advent of Islam introduced Persian, Arabic and Central Asian elements into Indian classical music. Amir Khusro was the first great Muslim musicologist of India. He wrote, ‘Indian music, the fire that burns heart and soul, is superior to the music of any other country’ He invented new ragas and introduced new musical forms like qawwali and tarana. He is also said to have invented the sitar.

The temple dhrupad moved to the royal courts and its compositions became more secular in nature. Akbar’s reign marked the golden age of dhrupad. Swami Haridas and his disciple Tansen were essentially dhrupad singers. Later, khayal gayaki evolved from dhrupad. This A Hindu—Muslim fusion enriched the traditional music with more graceful tones and sustained notes.

After the decline of the Mughal Empire, court music moved to the princely states whose patronage enabled musicians to develop new forms of classical music. The lighter and more emotional lyrical forms of thumri and dadra were devised in the court of Wajid Ali Shah, nawab of Lucknow and legendary patron of performing arts, music and dance. An enchanting facet of Indian music is its relationship with time and seasons. The twenty—four hours of the day are divided into eight parts, beginning at 6 a.m. Every raga is associated with a specific time of the day Ragas, like Basant, Bahaar and Malhaar, are also associated with seasons.

The advent of British rule in India had a negative impact on the Indian traditional performing arts; the British regarded them as primitive and monotonous. There was now no official patronage, and even princely patronage began to dry up. Musicians had to rely more and more on public support.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Indian musical culture was at its lowest ebb. Also, as a result of the anti—nautch campaign sponsored and encouraged by the ruling elite and missionaries, music and dance practitioners were stigmatized. Around this juncture, two great devotees of Indian music, Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Pandit Bhatkhande appeared on the scene to revive Indian classical music and remind people of our glorious heritage. Beginning with Lahore in 1901, Pandit Paluskar set up institutions for teaching music, called Gandharava Mahavidyalas, in the major cities. Pandit Bhatkhande on his part devoted himself to compiling on a scientific basis, with written notations, the musical compositions of the masters of recognized gharanas, or schools. This ushered in 21 musical renaissances, and by the early 1920s the educated middle-class was becoming interested in Indian music. A number of music societies were then established, and music conferences and festivals were held in metropolitan cities. This in turn provided E1 platform for talented and accomplished musicians, who were up to then struggling for a living. Classical music began to be celebrated as an artistic heritage, transcending caste, religion, ethnic and language barriers.

The advent of recording brought an altogether new opening for professional musicians. The invention of the gramophone by Thomas Alva Edison in 1877 brought the dawn of a new era in the world of music. Around 1900 Emile Berliner introduced flat discs for recording and since then millions of records have been produced by gramophone companies all over the world. The first recording of an Indian voice was done in 1899 by EW Gaisberg in a gramophone company studio at London. The old catalogue mentions the names of the singers as Dr Harnam Das, Dr Bholanath, Hazrat and Ahmed, then living in London. They sang or recited in Persian, Hindi and Urdu, but none of their records have been traced so far.

Recognizing the great potential of this industry in India, the gramophone company set up its office in Calcutta in 1901 and within a year Gaisberg landed in Calcutta with his recording team. In six weeks they travelled to different parts of India and recorded over 600 titles. Most of the artists were professional female singers who had agreed to undergo the special training required for gramophone recording.

The famous Gauhar ]an of Calcutta (1875-1930) was the first artist invited to record by a gramophone company She belonged to a world of grandeur and refinement, in which the princely durbars and kothas (salons) of tawaifs (courtesans) were the hub of performing arts, and was then the most celebrated singer and dancer. Gauhar had learnt music and dance from her early childhood. Her tutors included great maestros of the day, Kalu Ustad of Patiala, Wazir Khan of Rampur, Ali Baksh and Bindadin Maharaj.

Gauhar Jan’s maiden public performance in 1887 was before the maharaja of Darbhanga, marking the beginning of her glorious career. For decades before the term Rabindra Sangeet came into use, she sang Tagore songs, dominating the Calcutta entertainment scene. Her gramophone records would conclude with her announcement my name is Gauhar Jan.’ She recorded over 600 songs during the period 1902-20, contributing in no small measure to the firm foundation of the Gramophone Company in India. She popularized light classical music, including kajri, chaiti, bhajan and tarana, and mastered the technique of rendering a melody in just three and a half minutes. She gained countrywide fame and became a legend in her lifetime. In 1911, she was invited, along with Janki Bai of Allahabad, to sing at the coronation durbar of King George V at Delhi and received a gift of 100 guineas from the Emperor.


Author’s Note xi
Introduction xiii
Early Years 1
In Calcutta 9
Devdas 26
Concert at Lahore 35
Ghazal King 42
Saigal’s Ghalib 50
The Singer as a Poet 56
Saigal and the Kotha Culture 69
The Artiste and the Man 77
Saigal’s Heroines 90
Saigal’s Mentors and Associates 103
Last Phase 116
Saigal’s Legacy 128
Appendix A: Tribute by Filmindia – February 1947 133
Appendix B: Filmography 139
Appendix C: I. Memorable Songs – Author’s Selection for HMV LPs, 1965 149
II. Other All-Time Favourites
Appendix D: Synopses of Some Famous Films169
Appendix E: Select Filmindia Reviews of Saigal’s Films 197
Index 212
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