Jab Dil Hee Toot Gaya : The Loneliness of K. L. Saigal
By Dr Asif Javed
My earliest memory of Saigal is from the late 60’s. There used to be a program of old filmi songs from All India Radio. It always began with a song of Saigal whom I did not like then. One day as I was listening to a song on radio, my father walked in. He was an old fashioned, Aligarh-educated lawyer, who did not pay much attention to music—or so I thought. But that day, as I tried to turn down the volume, he asked, “Isn’t that Saigal?” Being told yes, he paused for a few seconds, listened attentively, and as the song finished, slowly moved away, humming the tune. Looking back, I suspect, he was nostalgic since Saigal had been the most popular singer in his youth. Those few minutes, changed my perception of Saigal.
“I am just an ordinary person with no acting experience. I used to be a salesman and singing is my hobby,” is how K.L. Saigal described himself to a young Kidar Sharma (KS) who had knocked at his door seeking help to enter the Calcutta film world of early 30’s. “Unpretentious, humble, gracious, and a man of few words,” is how Saigal came across to KS who was to write the dialogues and songs for the all-time classic, Devdas. The two Punjabis became lifelong friends.
Saigal’s voice has been described as “nasal, deep, penetrating, free flowing, feeling-laden with astounding range” by experts. But how good was Saigal as a singer? I am no connoisseur of music but just look at the names of those who were influenced by him: Mukesh, Rafi (early years), C.H. Atma, M. Kalim and Kishore Kumar. Just listen to Mukesh sing his first hit in Pehli Nazar for Anil Biswas; he almost sounds like Saigal in dil jaltahey to jalney de. Kishore was so obsessed with Saigal that he travelled to Bombay from Calcutta to see him. Saigal’s life was ebbing fast by then; the meeting never took place.
S.D. Burman once visited Ashok Kumar and overheard his younger brother Kishore, then an unknown, aspiring singer imitating Saigal. His advice: “Saigal was great but you need to create your own style.” Kishore complied and in his time, became the most sought after singer in India. But Saigal remained his ideal. In 1987, HMV approached him and reached an agreement: Kishore was to sing some selected Saigal songs. Kishore was thrilled, agreed but then had second thoughts and backed out. His reason: “Saigal was the best of all times. I do not want to insult his memory, lest any of my admirers feels that I sing better than him.” There you have it.
Mauseeqar-a-Azam, Naushad Ali, who worked with Saigal in Shah Jahan--Saigal’s last movie-- once described him as “one of a kind, decent, simple, almost innocent being.” In the cutthroat culture of filmdom, Saigal was indeed an anomaly.
Devdas , an all-time classic, was ready for release when it was decided to add one more song at the last minute. KS and Saigal sat together the whole night. While KS wrote down the lines, Saigal himself composed the tune; the result---dukh key ab din beetat nahin. Such was Saigal’s devotion to his craft.
For music fans, here is a quote from Bollywood Melodies, a book by Ganesh Anantharaman:
“Saigal’s supreme effort at singing was, of course, R. C. Boral’s, Bhairavi Thumri ‘Babulmora naihar chooto hi jaaye’ in Street Singer (1938). In terms of authenticity and feeling, no other Bhairavi comes close to matching this Boral-Saigal masterpiece. Saigal, playing the protagonist, insisted that this song be recorded live as he is walking the street, though playback was well in vogue by then. Saigal knew that it was through his voice that he conveyed the truths of his character, and the truth of street singer needed a live recording. The director complied, and the song was recorded live with Saigal walking the streets, singing while a mike followed him in a truck just behind! No other singer would have dared a live recording. No other singer, therefore, has sung as intense a Bhairavi.”
Saigal was idolized by thousands across India including women. And yet, he remained single all his life. It is said that he was lonely and longed for love. By nature, he was reserved and shy and this became his handicap. How ironic that the superstar of his era could not muster up the courage to ask a woman out. Some say that, like Sahir, he too considered himself ugly. Alcoholism may have been his escape from loneliness and loveless existence.
KS narrates another incident from Saigal’s early days. Saigal used to sell typewriters in Calcutta. To supplement his income, he would also sell saris that an aid carried with him. Now, there was a young girl, Najma, who lived in one of the slums. She would often stop him, look at a certain green sari that she liked but couldn’t afford. One day, she made Saigal promise to return the next day since she expected to have the required Rs 10. The next day, when he came, there was s sound of wailing from that house. It turned out the young woman had died unexpectedly during the night. Saigal spoke to her sobbing brother who was struggling to come up with the money needed for burial. A shaken Saigal donated the same green Sari to be used as her shroud. A sensitive man by nature, Saigal was so moved by the tragedy that he stopped selling saris altogether.
Hamid Akhtar and Sahir Ludhianwi once went to Saigal’s house in Bombay, hoping to see him sing. Saigal was averse to sing for visitors unless the request came from a child. Being informed of this by Saigal’s servant, they managed to find a child from the neighborhood, who asked Saigal to sing. The great one immediately picked up his harmonium and duly obliged. One wonders whether the lack of a family of his own had left him with a void that he tried to fill in by making children happy.
“Saigal had two passions,” writes KS in his autobiography, “music and alcohol; one made him and the other destroyed him.” The menace of alcoholism has claimed many precious lives; among its famous young victims are gems like Manto, Akhtar Shirani and Majaz. It is generally assumed that social drinking some times leads to alcoholism. In Saigal’s case, however, there are some other theories too. KS notes that Saigal suffered from Sciatica and drank to dull the pain. There is also a suggestion that Saigal had convinced himself that he sang better under the influence of alcohol. Just before recording, he would ask his driver to bring alcohol from the car, would consume some and then would declare himself to be ready. Once a drunk Saigal staggered into the recording room. Seeing his condition, the music director was ready to cancel the recording when Saigal said: “Please forgive my staggering but I do not sing with my body but soul.” He steadied himself by keeping a foot on a chair and gave a flawless performance—in just one take. At the end, there was a spontaneous applause from the musicians.
KS has also narrated an incident that shows Saigal as a humane, gracious giver. There was a drinking party in Juhu where Saigal went along with KS. As the party was in full bloom, Saigal felt restless and asked KS to accompany him for some fresh air outside, on the seashore. It turned out that his sensitive ears had picked up a faint sound of a blind beggar who was singing Ghalib’s Nukta cheen hai gham-e-dil. Saigal was moved to tears, sat at the feet of the beggar, put his hand in his pocket and gave him whatever he had in it. When they returned, someone reminded him that he had Rs 5000 in his pocket, all given away, without counting, at an impulse. And Saigal’s response: “You think the one who gives me ever counts?” Such was his generosity and nobleness!
In 1947, Saigal returned to his roots in Jallandhar. Years of heavy drinking had taken its toll; his liver was almost destroyed by then. He was hoping to recuperate and then give up acting altogether, concentrating on playback singing instead. But unbeknownst to him, the doctors had already given up on him and told his family to let him have alcohol if he so desired. One day, he asked his brother for alcohol. The brother, pretended to pour alcohol but instead, gave water, hoping that he would not notice. Saigal took a sip and quoted,“Bajaye mein diya pani ka ik gilas mujhey, Samajh liya mere saqi nebadhawas mughe.” These were his last words. The man who had immortalized Meer, Ghalib, Zauq, Hasrat, Amir Minai and Seemab Akbarabadi with his golden voice, it seems, remained a poet to the very end.
At the very end of Anton Chekhow’s famous story, Uncle Vanya, one of the characters says: “My heart aches. There is nothing for it. We must go on living, through long, long chain of days and weary evenings. When our time comes, we shall die without a murmur. And there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered, that we have wept, and that life has been bitter to us. We had no joy in life. We shall rest; we shall rest.”
And rest he did; with Naushad’s eternal, Jab dil hee toot gaya, playing at his funeral pyre, Saigal bade his admirers a final farewell as he embarked on his journey to eternity. (The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA, USA and may be reached at email@example.com)