Kundan Lal Saigal often abbreviated as K. L. Saigal (11 April 1904 – 18 January 1947) was an Indian singer and actor who is considered the first superstar of the Hindi film industry, which was centred in Kolkata during Saigal’s time, but is currently centred in Mumbai.
Saigal was born at Jammu where his father Amar Chand was a tehsildar at the court of the Raja of Jammu & Kashmir. His mother Kesar Bai was a deeply religious lady who was very fond of music. She used to take her young son to religious functions where bhajan, kirtan and shabad were sung in traditional styles based on classical Indian music. Saigal was the fourth-born child of five and his formal schooling was brief and uneventful. As a child he occasionally played Sita in the Ramlila of Jammu. His ancestral home is Jalandhar, Punjab, India.
Saigal dropped out of school and started earning money by working as a railway timekeeper. Later, he worked as a typewriter salesman for the Remington Typewriter Company, which allowed him to tour several parts of India. His travels brought him to Lahore where he befriended Meharchand Jain (who later went on to start the Assam Soap Factory in Shillong) at the Anarkali Bazaar. Meharchand and Kundan remained friends when they both moved to Calcutta and had many a mehfil-e-mushaira. In those days Saigal was a budding singer and Meharchand encouraged him to pursue his talent. Saigal often remarked that he was what he was because of Meharchand’s encouragement and early support. He also briefly worked as a hotel manager. Meanwhile, his passion for singing continued and became more intense with the passage of time.
In the early 1930s, classical musician and music director Harishchandra Bali brought K.L. Saigal to Calcutta and introduced him to R. C. Boral. R.C. Boral took an instant liking to his talents. Saigal was hired by B. N. Sircar’s Calcutta-based film studio New Theatres on a contract of Rs. 200 per month. There he came into contact with contemporaries like Pankaj Mullick, K. C. Dey and Pahari Sanyal.
Meanwhile, Indian Gramophone Company had released Saigal’s record containing a couple of Punjabi songs composed by Harishchandra Bali. In this way, Bali became Saigal’s first music director. The first film in which Saigal had a role was the film Mohabbat Ke Ansu, followed by Subah Ka Sitara and Zinda Lash, all released in 1932. However, these films did not do very well. Saigal used the name Saigal Kashmiri for his first three films and used his own name Kundan Lal Saigal (K. L. Saigal) from Yahudi Ki Ladki (1933). In 1933, four bhajans sung by Saigal for the film Puran Bhagat created a sensation throughout India. Other films that followed were Yahudi Ki Ladki, Chandidas, Rooplekha and Karwan-E-Hayat. As a youngster, Lata Mangeshkar is alleged to have said that she wanted to marry K.L. Saigal after seeing his performance in Chandidas (1934). In 1935, Saigal played the role that would come to define his acting career: that of the drunken title character in Devdas, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel of the same name and directed by P.C. Barua.His songs in the film Devdas (1935), Balam Aaye Baso Moray Man Mein and Dukh Ke Ab Din Beetat Naahi, became popular throughout the country.
Saigal picked up Bengali very well and acted in seven Bengali films, produced by New Theatres. Rabindranath Tagore first heard Saigal before giving consent for the first time to a non-Bengali singing his songs. Saigal endeared himself to the whole of Bengal through his 30 Bengali songs.
Saigal’s association with New Theatres continued to bear fruit in the successful films Didi (Bengali), President (Hindi) in 1937, Desher Mati (Bengali), Dharti Mata (Hindi) in 1938, Saathi (Bengali), Street Singer (Hindi) in 1938, Dushman (1939), Jiban Maran (1939) and Zindagi in 1940, with Saigal in the lead. There are a number of songs of this era which form the rich heritage of film music in India. Also, in Street Singer, Saigal rendered the song Babul Mora Naihar Chhooto Jaye live in front of the camera, even though playback was becoming the preferred method of singing songs in films.
In December 1941, Saigal moved to Mumbai to work with Ranjit Movietone. Here he acted and sang in a number of successful films. Bhukt Surdas (1942) and Tansen (1943) were hits during this period. The latter film is still remembered for Saigal’s performance of the song Diya Jalao in Raga Deepak; in the same movie, he also sang “Sapta Suran,Tin .. Gaa-o Saba Guni Jan”. In 1944, he returned to New Theatres to complete My Sister. This film contained the songs Do Naina Matware and Ae Qatib-e-Taqdeer Mujhe Itna Bata De.
By this time, alcohol had become a predominant factor in Saigal’s life. His dependence on alcohol had begun affecting his work and his health. It was said that he could only record a song after being fortified with liquor. He survived ten years of drinking; however, his alcoholism was too advanced for even a single attempt at abstinence, and Saigal died in his ancestral city of Jalandhar on 18 January 1947, at the age of 42. However, before his death, he was able to churn out three more hits under the baton of Naushad Ali for the film Shahjehan (1946). These are Mere Sapnon Ki Rani, Ae Dil-e-Beqaraar Jhoom and Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya. Parwana (1947) was his last film, released after his death, in which he sang under the baton of Khawaja Khurshid Anwar. The four songs which Saigal sang in Parwana are: Toot gaye sab sapne mere, Mohabbat mein kabhi aisi bhi haalat, Jeene ka dhang sikhaae ja, and Kahin ulajh na jaana. Saigal was survived by his wife Asha Rani (whom he married in 1935); three children, a son and two daughters: Madan Mohan, Nina (born 1937) and Bina (born 1941); and an adopted child, his late elder brother’s daughter, Durgesh Nandani, whom he adopted when he was still single.
In a career of fifteen years, Saigal acted in 36 feature films – 28 in Hindi, seven in Bengali, and one in Tamil. In addition, he acted in a short comedy Hindi film, Dulari Bibi (three reels), released in 1933. In 1955, B.N. Sircar released a documentary film based on the life of K.L. Saigal, Amar Saigal. In the film, G. Mungheri performed the title role of Saigal. The film contained 19 songs lifted from Saigal’s films. In all, Saigal rendered 185 songs which includes 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 hori. He has rendered the creations of poets such as Ghalib, Zauq, and Seemab.
Saigal’s distinctive singing was revered and idolised by the first generation of post-independence Hindi Film playback singers, including Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar, Mohammad Rafi, and Mukesh. Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar has even gone on record in an interview that they consider Kundan Lal Saigal to be their musical guru. K L Saigal became famous because of the ‘new’ technology of 78 rps lac records and players. Mukesh started his career as a copycat of K L Saigal but went on to develop his distinctive style. These records were recorded in one take with all instruments playing along. Today this may not be possible.In 1970 one such record was priced at Rs 15 in today’s money Rs 1500 for two songs.