13 April 2015

Songs in the Streets

My Mumbai Mirror column yesterday:

Kundan Lal Saigal would have turned 111 on 11 April. But here's a question. Why should you care?

When I was a child in Delhi in the early 80s, a family friend I called Vinoo Uncle sometimes sang me to sleep. The song was always "So ja rajkumari". I remember it in the best way a lullaby can be remembered: as a silken cocoon which never failed to rock me softly into slumber. 

It was only decades later that I learnt that it was a song made famous by KL Saigal. Saigal sang it for a film called Zindagi, directed by PC Barua, who made the original 1935 Devdas. (Zindagi, which repeated the Devdas star couple Saigal and Jamuna, was the highest-grossing film of 1940, and I recently learnt that it might be the only film Manto ever reviewed.) 

But Saigal appeared in my life much before I discovered all that. When I was 11, I lived with my nani in Calcutta, and every time I expressed irritation about the music classes I had to take, she would tell me how as a child she had badly wanted to learn to play the violin. And for some reason, the story of her (unfulfilled) musical ambitions was tied to her having been a Saigal fan. I had no idea who Saigal was, except that when Nani told me this story, her eyes would acquire a faraway look as she started to hum some quivery-quavery song of a type which the 11-year-old me could only definitely identify as "old". 

This, while somewhat imprecise, was not untrue. Kundan Lal Saigal was born on 11th April 1904. And if you remember that he was dead before independence, it is absolutely remarkable that so many people continued to sing his songs into the 80s. My nani was perhaps an unsurprising candidate: born in a village in Uttar Pradesh, she would have arrived in Calcutta at the end of the 30s, when Saigal's popularity was at its peak, and she a teenager with adolescent romantic yearnings. Why Vinoo Uncle knew or sang Saigal is less easily explainable: he must have been barely four when Saigal died, in January 1947. But he had a younger sister he may well have sung lullabies to, and they were growing up in Lucknow, the city that produced the song's lyricist, Saiyid Anwar Husain, better known as Arzu Lucknawi. 

But somewhere between the 80s and 2011, I acquired a taste for Saigal. I may not be able to write the paeans to his Bhairavi that biographers of a certain age do, but I was enough of an admirer of "Diya Jalao" and "Ek Bangla Bane Nyaara" to feel slightly conflicted when Ram Sampath composed an parody of his slightly nasal, melancholic, lyric-heavy style, called "Saigal Blues". I must admit that "Is dard ki na hai dawaai, Majnu hai ya tu hai kasaai" fitted perfectly with the irreverent faux-tragedies that filled Delhi Belly, but when I laughed out loud, I wondered if I was betraying Saigal. And my nani. 

This week, as Saigal turned 111, I reopened my copy of Pran Nevile's 2011 biography of him. Like so many Indian biographies of musicians and performers, the book is liberal with anecdotes and scanty with facts - perhaps inevitably so, given how little documentation appears to exist of Saigal's early life. But even these often conflicting origin myths do locate Saigal in the wider context of a North Indian musical milieu, of which little survives today. Nevile conjures up a Jammu in which "famous classical musicians... trained professional singing girls who then looked for patronage from the Maharaja's court", and where a pir could tell a boy to focus on zikr and riyaz for two years. Somehow it seems perfectly fitting that Saigal, having decided to become a singer, should leave home and spend eight years doing all sorts of jobs in the cities of North India - Moradabad, Lahore, Kanpur, Bareilly, Simla and Delhi - while picking up music seemingly from everywhere. The world of Saigal's childhood is a world in which a boy from a well-to-do family still wanted the singing part of Sita in Ramlila. It is a world of "wandering ministrels (sic), temple priests, faqirs and jogis", in which kissa singers sold satirical verses for an anna, and not just religious festivals, but the hawking of goods involved music. 

This was the matrix which early cinema drew on to create a film like Street Singer (1938), and into which its music fed back. In Nevile's words, "paanwallas, tongawallas, peons, clerks, hawkers, students and teachers could be heard humming Saigal's ghazals". And Lahore's famed kothas rang with Urdu ghazals popularised by Saigal. 

Nevile credits Saigal's songs for popularising film music on records. But cinema and recorded music were then far from replacing live performance; something best illustrated by the fact that cinemas in Lahore combined film screenings with live song-and-dance performances: "Ek ticket mein do maze". 

The story of Saigal could be the story of many things: of Indian cinema's first properly mobbed superstar; of the rise of gramophone recording; of Hindi cinema before it became Bombay cinema - when Indian cinema was being produced almost entirely from Calcutta, with several films made in Bengali and remade in Hindi. As the industry shifted base, Saigal, too, moved to Bombay, but died soon after, an alcoholic, at the young age of 42. (There is a strange echo of Manto here, who died soon after leaving Bombay, also an alcoholic in his forties.) Will someone not make the bio-pic?

Published in Mumbai Mirror.

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