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Kundan Lal Sehgal

Kundan Lal Saigal

Kundan Lal (K.L.) Saigal (April 11, 1904January 18, 1947) was an Indian singer and actor who is considered the first superstar of Bollywood, the Hindi film industry which was centered in Calcutta during Saigal's time, but is currently centered in Bombay.

Early life

Kundan Lal was born at Jammu where his father Amar Chand was a tehsildar at the court of the Raja of Jammu & Kashmir. His mother Kesar Bai was a deeply religious lady who was very fond of music. She used to take her young son to religious functions where bhajan, kirtan and shabad were sung in traditional styles based on classical music. Kundan was the fourth-born child of five and his formal schooling was brief and uneventful. As a child he occasionally played Sita in the Ramlila of Jammu. Saigal dropped out of school and started earning money by working as a railway timekeeper. Later, he worked as a typewriter salesman for the Remington Typewriter Company, which allowed him to tour several parts of India. His travels brought him to Lahore where he befriended Meharchand Jain (who later went on to start the Assam Soap Factory in Shillong) at the Anarkali Bazaar. Meharchand and Kundan remained friends when they both moved to Calcutta and had many a mehfil-e-mushaira. In those days Kundan was a budding singer and Meharchand encouraged him to pursue his talent. Kundan Lal often remarked that he was what he was because of Meharchand's encouragement and early support .He also briefly worked as a hotel manager. Meanwhile, his passion for singing continued and became more intense with the passage of time.

Career at New Theatres

In the early 1930s, he was hired by B.N. Sircar, head of the Calcutta-based film studio, New Theatres. Here, Kundan met R.C. Boral, the highly respected music composer of the pioneering film company. R.C. Boral took an instant liking to his talents. Saigal was employed by New Theatres on a contract basis of Rs. 200/month. There he came into contact with contemporaries like Pankaj Mullick, K. C. Dey and Pahari Sanyal. In a short span of time, he stood tallest among them with his brilliant singing and popularity.

The first film in which Saigal had a role was the Urdu film Mohabbat Ke Ansoo, followed by Subah Ka Sitara and Zinda Laash, all released in 1932. However, these films did not do very well. It was in 1933 that his four bhajans for the film Puran Bhagat created a sensation throughout India; thereafter, Saigal never looked back. Films that followed were Yahudi Ki Ladki, Chandidas and Rooplekha. As a youngster, India's melody queen herself, Lata Mangeshkar, is alleged to have said that she wanted to marry K.L. Saigal after seeing his performance in Chandidas. In 1935, Saigal played the role that would come to define his acting career: that of the drunken title character in Devdas, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel of the same name and directed by P.C. Barua. His songs in the film, Balam Aaye Baso Moray Man Mein and Dukh Ke Ab Din Beetat Naahi, became feverishly popular throughout the country.

Saigal picked up Bengali very well and acted in seven Bengali films, produced by New Theatres. Rabindranath Tagore first heard Saigal before giving consent for the first time to a non-Bengali singing his songs. Saigal endeared himself to the whole of Bengal through his 30 Bengali songs.

Saigal's association with New Theatres continued to bear fruit in subsequent films that became all the rage, which created success after success with films such as Didi (Bengali)/President (Hindi) in 1937, Saathi (Bengali)/Street Singer (Hindi) in 1938, and Zindagi in 1940, with Saigal in the male lead. These films were lapped by audiences mainly for Saigal's songs. There are a number of immortal songs of this era which form the rich heritage of film music in India. Also, it is well-known that in Street Singer, Saigal rendered the song Babul Mora live in front of the camera, even though playback was becoming the preferred method of singing songs in films.

Move to Bombay and Death

In December of 1941, Saigal moved to Bombay to work with Ranjit Movietone. Here he acted and sung in a number of hit films. His voice, music and songs took him to even greater heights. Bhakt Surdas (1942) and Tansen (1943) were huge hits during this period. The latter film is still remembered for Saigal's amazing performance of the song Diya Jalao in Raga Deepak; in the same movie, he also sang a wonderful song "Sapta Suran,Tin .. Gaa-o Saba Guni Jan" - which is about music, and is a special treat for all the lovers of music. In 1944, he returned to New Theatres to complete Meri Behen. This film contained such Saigal gems as Do Naina Matware and Ae Qatib-e-Taqdeer Mujhe Itna Bata De.

By this time, alcohol had become a predominant factor in Saigal's life. His dependence on alcohol and begun affecting his work and his health. It was said that he could only record a song after having being fortified with liquor. He survived ten years of drinking, however, his alcoholism was too advanced for even a single attempt at abstinence, and Saigal died in his ancestral city of Jalandhar on January 18, 1947, at the age of 42. However, before his death, he was able to churn out three more hits under the baton of Naushad for the film Shahjehan (1946). These are Mere Sapnon Ki Rani, Ae Dil-e-Beqaraar Jhoom, and of course, the immortal Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya. He released his last film, Parwana, in 1947. Saigal was survived by his wife Asha Rani (whom he married in 1935) and three children, one son and two daughters, who are, Madan Mohan, Nina (born 1937) and Bina (born 1941).

In a career of fifteen years, Saigal acted in 36 feature films - 28 in Hindi/Urdu, 7 in Bengali, and 1 in Tamil. In addition, he acted in a short comedy Hindi/Urdu film, Dulari Bibi (3 reels), released in 1933. After Saigal's death, based on the life and times of K.L. Saigal, B.N. Sircar released a documentary film called Amar Saigal in 1955. In the film, G. Mungheri performed the title role of Saigal. The film contained 19 songs lifted from Saigal's films. In all, Saigal rendered 185 songs which includes 142 film songs and 43 non-film songs. In the film songs category, there are 110 in Hindi/Urdu, 30 in Bengali and 2 in Tamil. In the non-film category, there are 37 in Hindi/Urdu, and 2 each in Bengali, Punjabi and Persian. His non-film songs comprise of Bhajans, Ghazals and Hori. He has rendered the creations of legendary poets such as Ghalib, Zauq, Seemab and others.

Saigal's distinctive singing voice was so melodious and popular that he was idolized by the first generation of post-independence Bollywood playback singers, including Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, and Kishore Kumar. Even today, the name K.L. Saigal conjures up images of the great Indian singing film star of the 1930s and 1940s with the unmatched golden voice.

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