Meer Taqi Meer, the celebrated Urdu poet once wrote ‘Sirhaney meer key ahista bolo, abhee tak rotey rotey so gaya hei’. I find it impossible to translate the sentiments expressed in this couplet, just as when I listen to the renderings of KL Saigal, I find it impossible to reason why he makes me cry.
It’s been exactly 65 years, to the day, since KL Saigal passed away. He was loved by one and all, and yet his funeral in Jullunder, in the small hours of the morning, was attended by a small group of 30-40 relatives and friends, as pre-Partition communal riots raged all around. In Bombay, Lata Mangeshkar could not bear the news of Saigal’s demise and put away her newly-purchased radio set to keep the news out. Saigal was just over 42.
Saigal’s renditions of ghazals would transport one to a different world. ‘Matwale pane se ghata jhoom parhee hai’, a ghazal of Seemabh Akbarabadi, was one such. It was the complete evocation of a ghazal by Saigal, who never mimicked classical music, either vocally or through accompanying instruments. When Saigal sang Mirza Ghalib’s verses — ‘Ay qatibe taqdeer mujhe itna bataa de, quon mujhse khafaa hai’ — the poet’s insight came alive as Saigal breathed life into the poetry.
Saigal’s singing was not confined to ghazals. He sang bhajans and devotional songs as well. I used to listen to ‘Bhaju mein to bhav se shree girdhari’ and ‘Nain heen ko raah dikha prabhu’ on a 78 rpm gramophone. More than 50 years have passed since, but the magic hasn’t faded. It is incredible how a singer not trained in classical music could sing Urdu ghazals and Hindi bhajans with such fabulous command and authority.
Saigal was also an excellent human being, at once kind and generous. Once when his driver Yousuf fell ill, Saigal visited him with fruits and medicines. After enquiring about Yousuf’s health, Saigal started massaging his legs. “Sahib, wo to ek farishta the (Sir, he was an angel),” Yousuf later said.
In 1945, renowned producer-director Kidar Sharma and Saigal were invited by a prominent individual to his bungalow at Mumbai's Vile Parle. After a while, Saigal slipped out along with Sharma, for a stroll on the nearby beach. They heard a faqir singing a Ghalib ghazal. They sat on the sand and listened. Saigal was overwhelmed. Later, he took out R5,000 and gave it to the faqir. To Sharma, he explained in Punjabi, “Uppar waley ney kee mannu gin key dittey si?” (Did the ‘Almighty’ count before he gave me?)
By the end of 1946, Saigal, a diabetic, had a premonition of his death. He left Mumbai for Jullunder, reaching there in the early hours of November 26. At the railway platform, he saw a beggar shivering with cold. Saigal, according to his niece and nephew who later narrated this anecdote, took off his coat and gave it to the beggar, along with all the money he had in his pocket.
As his health deteriorated, Saigal had to call his religious guru from a neighbouring village to pay his last respects. Since he was very fond of sarson ka saag, a mound of saag was prepared and distributed among all as his last wish. And with his melodies forever alive in the hearts of music lovers, who says Kundan Lal Saigal is dead?
( Satish Chopra is a Delhi-based writer )
The views expressed by the author are personal