Before the Boom of Bombay Cinema, How K.L. Saigal Became the Nation's Voice

It was a voice that made the violin redundant. It was a voice that a common man could identify and sing along with.

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This is the first article in a series on the history of the Indian film industry.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
∼ Charles Dickens

Plotting the beginning of a story is always difficult. Rewind too much and we lose focus, cut to the chase and we lose context.

The story of Indian cinema, as we know it today, could begin with the screening of a series of shorts by the Lumiere brothers at Novelty Theatre, Mumbai in 1896. Or it could begin when H.S. Bhatavadekar shot a wrestling match in 1899. It could even begin with Raja Harishchandra (1913), but as I see it, these were a prelude to that day in 1931 when a certain Punjabi salesman who worked with the Remington Typewriter Company walked into the then privately owned Indian Broadcasting Company, at its offices on 1 Garstin Place near St John’s Church, Kolkata, asking to meet Nipendra Nath Majumdar, the chief producer of Indian programmes.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Majumdar would have looked at his introduction letters and his credentials, of having recorded a couple of Punjabi songs with the India Gramophone Company, and would have passed him onto the resident everyman of music broadcasting at the company that time, Punkuj Mullick. Mullick, a known persona through the radio programmes that he hosted, moonlighted as an actor/singer/arranger/music director for New Theatres. We do not know which song the salesman sang for his audition, but we do know that his recording that day was played on the radio the very next day. We also know that Mullick took the salesman down to New Theatres nearby and introduced him to a set of industrious people who were in the process of building cinema for the new era, for talking movies.

New Theatres’ famous roaring elephant symbol.

But before we get into that story, let us cut to the social milieu of a time dominated by the independence movement and the ripples of the Great Depression. The enterprising Parsis had by the mid-1920s built an assembly line for silent movies with their entrenched studio set-up, churning tens of movies every year with studios like Madan Theatres, Ranjit Movietone and Bombay Talkies leading the charge. In the midst of the freedom movement, people in urban centres still had time to pay less than four annas (25 paisa) for a trip to the travelling bioscopes or the theatres. The scene in these theatres was raucous, with music played out from a pit beneath the screen between loud hawking by vendors, a haze of cigarette and bidi smoke, and of course moving, but mute, images.

Screenings were interspersed by performances of dancers from the local kotha, a jugalbandi or a song by a singer of some repute. It was the moving images that got the audience to the theatre, but by the ’20s the hours spent in there were more than just for watching the silent movie. The crumbling patronage system fostered by the great nawabs and rajas of the hinterland led to a deluge of Dhrupad and Khayal singers, Kathak exponents, sarangi players, the tabalchis and their hangers on to the stage of the common man, to these theatres. Other exponents who lived in more rarefied circles decamped from the palaces to the office of recording companies to cut 78 rpm records that played a song a side. Still others sought to get enrolled with radio stations, on a retainer or royalty basis, like our typewriter salesman, Kundan Lal Saigal.

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In fact, Saigal and the motley crew at New Theatres did a few notches better. B.N. Sircar, the London-trained engineer-turned-theatre owner, had assembled a team that would transform cinema as an art form and give us names that would dominate the industry for the next few decades. Directors and film technicians like Debaki Bose, Nitin Bose, P.C. Barua, Mukul Bose, Bimal Roy, music directors like Punkuj Mullick and R.C. Boral, actors like Prithviraj Kapoor, K.N. Singh, Kanan Bala and writer/lyricists like Naushad and Kedar Sharma. They invented playback singing, montage shots, multilingual films, artificial lighting, cutting film tracks to discs and many other innovations that we have long taken for granted in cinema today.

A handmade poster for Devdas (1936).

Their most significant achievement was to fuse the various independent entertainment forms, like the traditional Indian dance from the kothas, the drama/jatra, the vocal tradition of the Dhrupad, Khayal, Bhairavi, the emerging media of the radio and disc recording, into one singular experience at the cinema. It was they who were instrumental in moving the ensemble from the pit of the stage to the sound recording studio. It was they who gave us Devdas and a generation of filmmakers schooled in their tradition. Together they took New Theatre from a budding start-up to the crucible from which modern Indian cinema was born. Saigal was but the final part in the act that gave this enterprise, a precocious set up staffed predominantly by Bengali bhadralok, a national voice.

Yes, the national voice was Saigal’s. It ruled the radio, people welcomed the enigmatic singer in throngs, his voice caused traffic jams and he was India’s one and only singing superstar. It was a voice that sung and talked with the same effort and timbre. It was a voice that communicated sophistication and dwelt on the nuances of the language to embellish the meaning of each word and syllable. It was a voice that required just an ensemble of a tabla, harmonium and sarangi. It was a voice that made the violin redundant. It was a voice that a common man could identify and sing along with.

Saigal’s oeuvre in his films is but a fraction of what exists on recorded discs. His first record, ‘Jhulana Jhulavo’, sold a monstrous 500,000 copies. He was the first to bring Ghalib’s poetry to the masses. There are ghazals sung by Saigal that have since been rendered by a constellation of masters schooled in the Hindustani tradition of music, unlike Saigal ever was, but these compositions still endure in the same form as they were originally composed by him.

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It was also a voice that started off Saigal with a salary of Rs 200 per month in 1931 at New Theatres to Rs 1,800 per month in 1941 and from thereon Rs one lakh for three films with Ranjit Studios in Mumbai, to his eventual affliction with consumption and death on January 18, 1947.

New Theatres had by that time lost most of their talent to Mumbai, owing to the unravelling of the studio system, the Second World War and the 1947-48 communal riots. Lahore, Mumbai and Kolkata were the troika that harnessed the lost masses of the Indian musical tradition during the last days of the Raj. New Theatres gave this tradition a temporary home, but by the early ’50s the momentum had decisively shifted to Mumbai and there it stayed for good.

Post Script: In one of his last recordings, K.L. Saigal sang “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani” Naushad/ “Shahjahan”. A certain Mohammed Rafi sang with the chorus and was afforded a last line in the song as a solo. Under the watchful eyes of a maestro, a change of guard was enacted.

Multiple sources were used as reference for this article, notable among them the biography of K.L. Saigal written by Pran Neville and “An exploration of Iconicity of New Theatres” by Sharmistha Gooptu.

Manoj Kumar is an England-based information security specialist who moonlights as a blogger with interests in cybersecurity, pop culture, politics and films.