In the year 1932, “Jhulna Jhulao Ri” sung by a totally unknown singer was an instant hit. In a career spanning over a period of fifteen years, Saigal acted in 36 feature films of which 28 were Hindi, seven Bengali, and one Tamil. He also sung a total of 185 songs which include 142 film songs and 43 non-film songs.
Saigal’s singing talent was identified by Sircar and Raichand Boral, of the ‘New Theatres’ — a renowned film producing company of Calcutta. Amongst Saigal’s earliest films was Puran Bhagat (music composed by R.C. Boral), and Yahudi ki Ladki released in 1933 (music composed by Pankaj Mullick). While acting in Puran Bhagat, he sang four bhajans “Bhaju Mein To Bhaav Se Shiri Giridhari”, “Din Neeke Beete Jaate Hain”, “Avsar Beeto Jaat Praani” and “Raadhe Raani De Daaro Naa Bansari Mori Re” whereas in Yahudi ki Ladki, he sang two ghazals “Nuktacheen Hai Gham-e-Dil” and “Ye Tasarruf Allah Allah Tere Maikhane Mein Hai” along with a dadra “Lag Gayi Chot Karejwa Mein” and a geet “Lakh Sahi Hain Pi Ki Batiyan”.
A singer who could sing bhajans with such sublime emotional feelings — “Bhaju Main To Bhaav Se Shiri Giridhari” and “Raadhe Raani De Daaro Naa Bansari Mori Re” in particular, as well as sing the ghazals of Ghalib — “Nuktacheen Hai Gham-e-Dil” and eight others with a masterly command on Urdu poetry, deep understanding of the thought and above all, keeping the melody in its true eloquence had to be taken note of. Undoubtedly, he was an exceptionally talented singer.
At the time, the talkie was in search of a singing star. The films which had been made in India, as indeed elsewhere in the first phase of filmmaking, were silent films but with technological development it became possible to record sound with picture. Since the technology of recording and then playback to synchronise with the moving image had not been invented, the song had to be recorded live while the film was being shot. It can be said that Saigal was the architect along with other early music composers of a new form of singing — the film song; among the women it was Noor Jehan. The peculiarity of the form along with its ready reliance on technology made it easier for Saigal to make a breakthrough as many of the early critics pointed out that only the improvement of recording technology, especially of the microphone, made it possible for Saigal to emerge as a vocalist, for live music required a different technique while performing.
All the bandish in the earlier forms like geet, ghazal, thumri, dadra, qawwali and khayal were being reset for the new emerging form of the film song.
While in theatre, singing as well as the background score was based on improvisation, in this new format the song was not only sung live it had to be fitted into the three minute format because the seventy eight rpm discs just had this capacity to playback and not more. The entire gamut of composition that is the bandish was directly controlled with an asthai and a couple of antaras with a few interval pieces inserted in the middle. This was the emergence of a new form of music — vocal music — which had not been experienced before.
In the recorded history of ghazal singing, the name of the first and foremost amongst countless singers, Saigal was closely followed by another legend Begum Akhtar who also enriched the genre. Saigal was amongst the earliest singers who sang and recorded ghazals of Ghalib. He sang nine of his ghazals namely “Aah Ko Chahiye”, “Dil Se Teri Nigah”, “Har Ek Baat Pe Kehte Ho”, “Ibne Mariyam Hua Kare Koi”, “Mein Unhein Chheroon”, “Nuktacheen Hai Gham-e-Dil”, “Woh Aake Khwaab Mein”, “Phir Mujhe Deeda-e-Tar Yaad Aaya” and “Ishq Mujhko Nahin Vahshat Hi Sahi”.
It is a coincidence that Begum Akhtar also sang nine ghazals of Ghalib — “Ibne Mariyam Hua Kare Koi”, “Aah Ko Chahiye”, “Dard Minnat Kash-e-Dawa Na Hua”, “Taskeen Ko Hum Na Royen”, “Zikr Us Parivash Ka”, “Dil Hi To Hai Na Sango Khisht”, “Phir Mujhe Deeda-e-Tar Yaad Aaya”, “Koi Ummeed Bar Nahi Aati” and “Dayam Para Hua Tere Dar Par Nahi Hoon”. While comparing these eighteen fabulous masterpieces of these two great singers, the words appear to be enriched by tonal rendition.
In a society that prizes oral traditions, it was Saigal and other singers who kept the verses of a large number of Urdu poets, known and unknown alive, through their singing. Seemab Akbarabadi was a great poet. Saigal, by singing a few of his ghazals, “Ab Kya Bataun Mein”, “Ae Bekhabari Dil Ko Deewana Bana Dena”, “Duniya Mein Hun Duniya Ka Talabgar Nahi Hun”, “Jaag Aur Dekh Zara”, “Jalwa Gahe Dil Mein” made the poet immortal. When Saigal sings the verses of Arzu Lucknavi “Bahut Us Gali Ke”, “Ghar Ye Tera Sada Na Mera Hai”, “Idhar Phir Bhi Aana”, “Jeevan Asha Ye Hai Meri”, “Main Sote Bhaag Jaga Doonga”, “Matwale Pane Se Jo Ghataa Jhoom Paree Hai”, “Preet Mein Hai Jeevan Jokhon”, “Sanwariya Prem Ki Bansi Bajaye”, “Yeh Kaisa Anyay Data” and in “Chhatee Se Dhuan uthaa Hai Jo Boond Paree Hai” the listeners become enthralled and spellbound. The ghazal of Zauq, “Layee Hayat Aaye”, has also mesmerised the listeners. Saigal, besides singing ghazals of these four lyricists — Ghalib, Zauq, Arzu and Seemab — also sang a number of ghazals of noted poets of his time Kidar Sharma, Jameel Mazhari, Pandit Sudarshan, Safdar Aah, D.N. Madhok, Khumar Barabankvi, Aga Hashr Kashmiri, Ameer Minai, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Bedam Warsi, Swami Ramanand and Pandit Bhushan.
With the passage of time, however, learning of Urdu has been associated with a particular section of society. On a popular level, had it not been for the legendary Saigal or Begum Akhtar, the dewans of Ghalib and other outstanding luminaries would have remained buried in the archives of colleges, universities and other research institutions.
The lives of famous people are often shrouded in mystery and so mythicised. It is more so if the person happens to be from show business that after making a dramatic breakthrough blazes across the firmament and then dies young. Kundan Lal Saigal fitted this prototype of a self-consuming hero. He seemed to appear from nowhere and began to dominate film music and after about fifteen years of unprecedented popularity died in his early forties.
Saigol died on January 18, 1947.