Down melody lane



KL SAIGAL TheDefinitive Biography by Pran Nevile. Penguin/2011

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle.  June 08, 2011

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, as we did not have a television at home, our media habits were fairly restricted to All India Radio. As the old Hindi film music played, my mother would sing along and often point out the highlights of the particular song. She was also instrumental in shaping our opinions (however relevant they might be) on particular singers. For her, Mohd. Rafi was no good (it’s only later we disagreed on this, forever), Kishore was ok, Talat was pure silk, Mukesh was a star singer as he was closest to the singer superstar K.L. Saigal (to this I still agree, the K.L. Saigal bit I mean). So when this book came, packaged with archival stills, filmography, synopses and even film reviews of Saigal’s films, I grabbed it.
With an attractive cover, written by the eternal nostalgist Pran Nevile, famous for his writings on Lahore, this book promised to be treat for Gen Next nostalgists like oneself. The definitive biography of Kundan Lal Saigal. Very few would disagree that the man, the eternal Devdas, truly was India’s first superstar. Tragedy King, Romantic Hero, Angry Young Man came much later.
In his introduction, Pran Nevile interestingly highlights the journey of Indian music, from the origins till it became synonymous with films and reached the masses. As a reader, this is an important chapter to understand the interesting points of convergence between mediums, disciplines and the various technologies. More importantly, he paints the scenario like a stage backdrop now ready for the superstar’s entry.
The book takes us through the milestones of Saigal’s life, based on the writer’s research, his interactions with the family members, film fraternity, fellow fans and his own memories of the great Saigal experience. One gets a peek into the life of an adolescent possessed with only music from his very early years as he accompanied his mother singing bhajans, his anxiety over his broken voice, the untrained genius who went around an undivided India doing odd jobs till he finally heard his calling and devoted himself to singing.
Acting was a bonus and the star arrived in 1932 with his debut hit Mohabbat ke Aansoo, produced by The New Theatres, Calcutta. Success was followed by super success. It is from here that the book slowly starts moving from a definitive biography to a chronological listing written well. The reader goes through the star’s journey, film after film, Puran Bhakt, Chandidas, Devdas, President, Street Singer, Bhakt Surdas, Tansen, hit after hit, in awe but often missing a probe into the man, forever pasted as the singing hero but nothing beyond.
In an era, when film viewing in India was more of a musical experience, one truly misses a peek into the star’s inner life; an investigation into Saigal’s oblivious lens of stardom, elements that only Pran Nevile could’ve provided. For example, it was an insight to learn that Saigal never particularly enjoyed his shift to Bombay and that his heart longed for the company in Calcutta. For the forever fans of Saigal, I am sure this too would be a fact well known. Interestingly, his personal account of attending Saigal’s only concert in Lahore, struggling in the queue, purchasing a ticket in black provides a far lucid account than many of the other chapters.
Personally, what come as a revelation is Saigal, the poet. His verses were a private affair, only in the company of his family and very select friends. Nevile brings those lines out for us. By the end the book is written by a die-hard fan, who’ll hear or say nothing less than a compliment. Hence, Saigal’s alcohol problem in the later years, a fact well-known in the Saigal circuit, is a touch and go. This clearly is a book by a fan for a fan. In the second half, Pran Nevile does a commendable job by providing lyrics of Saigal’s hit songs, his film reviews that appeared then, even web links to find the man on the virtual world.
What one longs for, is a bit more on the man himself. Baalam aye baso more man mein…

Vishwajyoti Ghosh is a Saigal fan and the author of Delhi Calm

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