When Kundan Lal Saigal appeared on the scene, film music was taking its first baby steps. Films started being made in India with Raja Harishchandar in 1913. It was a silent film and the most that was missed in this new medium of expression was music. Most of popular music was still dominated by theatre; films were seen more for the special effects and the phantasmagoria that could be conjured up on the screen. With the advent of the talkie Alam Ara in the early part of the 1930s, cinema in India went through a revolutionary spiral.
Music, in particular the song, became an essential part of the fare that robbed the theatre of one of the most important selling points. While in theatre the singing as well as the background score was based on improvisation, in this new format the song was sung live. Besides, it had to be fitted into the three-minute format because the seventy eight rpm discs just had this much capacity to play back 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. It could be said that, with the advent of the gramophone recorder and player with its limited capacity, this format had taken its initial shape in the first three decades of the twentieth century.
For more than ten years, since the actor had to sing live while the scene was being shot as there was no technological provision of the playback, most of the actors were actually vocalists. But there was a problem at hand. The vocalists who were from the gharana tradition and usually sang the kheyal or even thumri/ dadra were not willing to adapt to the new format where the freedom of “khula gana” was hugely compromised by the three minute limitation; with everything laid down and nothing left for the creative improvisational genius of the vocalist.
Second, most of the hereditary musicians thought it was beneath them to be part of the expression where music or vocal music was only one part of the artistic expression; the others being hogged by the story, the plot, the direction, the acting and the visual setting. Music was in the process of losing its autonomous status — being cast in the interpretative role of explaining a scene or a situation.
Among female vocalists, there was perhaps greater acceptance of this new rising form because they sang the dhrupad and the kheyal less, compared to thumri and dadra and other semi classical forms like chaiti and baramase. So there was great abundance of talent but a dearth of males. Most of them were either actors forced to sing like Ashok Kumar who can be heard in Achoot Kanya or it was the vocalists who were not top of the line.
The early male vocalists were Pahari Sanyal, Bhai Chela, K.C. Dey with assistance from composers who were not strictly vocalists like Master Ghulam Haider. Even a little later, the likes of Surendra, G.M. Durrani and Karan Dewan were no great vocalists but were there just to perform the essentials of a song because it was a necessary requirement for acting.
It can be said that Saigal was the architect along with early music composers of the creation of a new form of singing — the film song, as indeed 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. 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.
Amazingly enough, Saigal received practically little formal training in singing and acquired his knowledge of musical arts from unorthodox sources. His hometown Jalandhar was a fertile land in music and more often than not all-night musical soirees were held there. Young Saigal, though barely 12 then, regularly attended those musical soirees. He would watch with keen interest the performances of the visiting thumri singers of Lucknow and Banaras and would endeavour to imitate them.
He would get an opportunity to demonstrate his art whenever his mother took him to local cultural or religious functions and encouraged him to sing bhajans of Meera, shabds from the Sikh scriptures (his mother was a Sikh herself) and passages from Kabir’s Saakhi. Many of these were in the classical mould.
While an adolescent, he was blessed and initiated into riaz by Pir Salman Yousaf, a Sufi who lived in Jammu. Saigal’s beginning in the filmdom was, however, rather humble. His maiden film Mohabbat ke Ansu and the next Subah Ka Sitara (1932) barely succeeded, whereas the third one Zinda Laash was a total flop. In Rajrani Meera (1933), the established stars Duraga Khote and Prithvi Raj Kapoor were assigned the leading roles but they shared the ignominy of another box office disaster. Saigal was offered roles in Puran Bhagat and Yehudi Ki Larki (both 1933) that most appropriately suited his temperament and with the release of both of these films, Saigal as a singer-actor finally came good.
Saigal’s next venture with the New Theatres, Roop Lekha (1934) badly failed and Daku Mansoor also turned out to be an ill-fated attempt. The film that made Saigal a super-star almost over-night was P.C. Barua’s Devdas (1935).
In a career of fifteen years, Saigal acted in 36 feature films — 28 in Hindi, seven in Bengali, and one in Tamil. In all, Saigal rendered 185 songs which include 142 film songs and 43 non-film songs. Of the film songs, there are 110 in Hindi, 30 in Bengali and two in Tamil. There are 37 non-film songs in Hindi, and two each in Bengali, Pashto, Punjabi and Persian. His non-film songs comprise bhajans, ghazals and horis. He rendered the ghazals of poets like Ghalib, Zauq and Seemab.
(K.L. Saigal died on January 18, 1947)