I had reviewed this book for the Sunday supplement.
KL Saigal: The Definitive Biography
By: Pran Neville
Price: Rs 299
I haven’t heard KL Saigal sing. But, I have heard my mother humming two of his songs: the haunting lullaby — So ja rajkumari so ja and Ek bangla bane nyara. Whnever there were talks about favourite music composers and singer-actor, my mother’s generation swore by the modern-day Tansen’s voice. His repertoire was big: bhajans, ghazals, thumris and film songs. However, Kundan Lal Saigal’s greatest legacy was his rendition of Ghalib’s ghazals.
It is therefore with great interest that I began reading KL Saigal: The Definitive Biography by Pran Neville. The highlights of the book are: comprehensive list of Saigal’s songs, translations of his Urdu couplets, information about his mentors and associates at the New Theatres in Calcutta, his heroines, complete filmography and even the reviews published in Filmindia.
Although Saigal was a national icon in the 1930s and 1940s, there was an aura of mystery associated with him. There are no diary entries, no letters and just one interview to Jayathi, a Bengali magazine, where Saigal said: "I am not a singer. I can only be called a phraser. I have had no classical training except what I heard and remembered. I think of meaning of the words and wrap the tune around it."
This biography, which hopes to fill in the gap between his personal and professional life, doesn’t quite succeed. There are tidbits about his family life: his mother, Kesar Devi, an accomplished singer of bhajans, thought that Saigal had inherited love for singing from her. Chaman Puri (actor Amrish Puri’s brother) reminisces about "bhaisaab’s" culinary skills. His intimate circle of friends remember Saigal as an introvert and a modest man. But all of that doesn’t quite suffice to elaborate more on the man.
The book doesn’t have conclusive information about how he got his break with the New Theatres, the then leading production house of Calcutta. One version says that the late Pankaj Mullick heard Saigal’s audition at the Calcutta radio station. Mullick was so impressed that he recommended Saigal for the role in the New Theatres, Mohabbat ke Ansoo. Rai Chand Boral, music director at the New Theatres, met Saigal through Harish Chander Bali and was completely mesmerised by him. Boral then spoke to BN Sircar, the head of the production house, about employing Saigal.
It was known that "gane ka badshah’s" drinking habit had hastened his death in 1947. However, it’s not clear when he took to bottle. There are contradictions in the biography. In the chapter on Saigal’s Ghalib, the author says, "Saigal’s devotion to the bottle and a detachment from his own life and environment could be attributed to Ghalib’s influence on him. Both were gentlemen to the core and drank to stimulate their creative genius." However, in another chapter, there is a mention of Nitin Bose blaming himself for Saigal’s drinking habit. Bose and Saigal had shared a special affinity at the New Theatres and the former had said that he would always cast Saigal in his movies. However, when the role in both Hindi and Bengali version of Dhoop Chhaon was bagged by Pahari Sanyal, a heartbroken Saigal took his first drink, which later became a habit.
The biography’s biggest strength is that it succeeds in describing the aura of the times Saigal lived in: the transition from silent movies to talkies, singing girls, kotha culture, gramophone celebrities, the intellectually stimulating Calcutta and crassly commercial Bombay. This description is also the book’s weakness, because there is so much "period" information that you forget the book is on Saigal.