Kundan Lal Saigal: Hindi Cinema’s first Superstar


Sharada Iyer


Acknowledged as one of Hindi Cinema’s greatest legends, Kundan Lal Saigal was hailed as ‘Shahenshah-e-mausiqi’ (emperor of music) as well as the ‘ghazal king’ and became a phenomenon in his lifetime.  He appeared at a time when recording techniques were rudimentary and the film industry was on the brink of changing from ‘silent films’ to ‘talkies’. As songs started becoming an integral part of movie scripts, he had to devote his time equally between acting and singing.  Within a short span of 15 years and without any formal training in music, the irresistible spell cast by his golden voice remains unparalleled and his songs recorded eighty years ago evoke the same kind of magic even today…

Often while writing columns on superstars of Hindi Cinema, the counting incongruously starts with the triumvirate of Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand-Raj Kapoor who dominated a large part of the Black&White era. But what is forgotten is that these three towering personalities though incomparable and charismatic have charmed the audience only from 1948. Such articles choose to ignore the fact that the film industry which started in 1913, was already 35 years old by the time these stars made their debut. There were other luminaries before them whose immense contribution to the world of Hindi Cinema in its nascent stages has often been undermined and overlooked with the passage of time, the brightest among them being -Kundan Lal Saigal.

Apart from being the film industry’s first ‘Superstar’, K L Saigal is also hailed as the ‘founding father’ of Hindi film music as well as the ‘architect’ of the market for film records. The phenomenal success of his film ‘Devdas’ in 1935 and the songs sung by him in the film prompted New Theatres to release gramophone records of film songs under its own label. Thereafter, Saigal’s each and every song was separately recorded and had unprecedented sales all over the country. HMV, which had earlier ignored film songs, realized the power of film music and began recording every film song thereafter even producing records of earlier popular hits.

In 1933, the bandish ‘Jhulana jhulao…’ in raag Jaunpuri, a non-film song, became Saigal’s very first recorded song on gramophone and created history by selling over 5,00,000 copies. His records were played in shops and restaurants to attract customers. Saigal’s songs attained the supreme status of ‘people’s music’ and his foremost legacy is thus the introduction and popularizing of film songs to the Indian public as he took screen music into every home and in doing so lent dignity and stability to film music. He is said to have turned music into a simple emotional poetry of the soul and the music maestros of his time were stunned by his instinctive knowledge of the ragas which they felt had the touch of divine.

Jhulana jhulao

That Saigal was destined to become a phenomenon in his lifetime can be best understood by looking at the events of his life which eventually led this school drop-out from Jammu to reach Calcutta as a young lad and become associated with B N Sircar of the New Theatres and finally end up in Bombay, which was to become the mecca of the Hindi film industry…

Early life:

Born on 11th April, 1904, to Amar Chand (a tehsildar in the service of the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir) and Kesar Devi (a home-maker who loved singing bhajans and folk songs), Kundan Lal Saigal was the third of their four sons and probably inherited his musical genes from his mother. Ironically his parents engaged a music tutor for his elder brother overlooking the real talent in their home.

Right from a very young age Saigal loved to accompany his mother and would sing along with her in the local ‘Ram Lila’ celebrations and played the part of Sita, the singing heroine and would be thrilled with the applause he received. His alarming disinterest in studies and his growing love for music caused worry to his parents especially to his father who was very upset. No punishment had any effect on him and sometimes when he would be made to work in the kitchen, instead of feeling bad, he picked up tips which in later years is said to have turned him into an expert cook.

Saigal picked up singing from listening to wandering minstrels, folk singers and famous classical musicians who visited the maharaja’s court. When his father retired and the family moved to Jullunder, he picked up Punjabi folk tunes also. With the passage of time, his quest for understanding the special meaning and mystery of music made him more and more restless and one day around 1922-23, he decided to leave home without telling anybody and for the next eight years travelled to different cities and  took up small jobs but he continued singing and kept his passion for music alive. However, he kept in touch with his mother to convey news of his well-being during this period.

There is not much written record of his exact whereabouts during this time but there are stories, from people whom he met or stayed with for short periods of time, about his taking up odd jobs in different towns and cities. However, there is no evidence that he learnt music from any teacher during this period. Finally he landed in Calcutta but there are different versions as to how he exactly came in contact with B N Sircar to start his tryst with New Theatres which turned him into the legend that he became later.  

The ‘Saigal Era’:

devdasSaigal took the country by storm and the period between 1932 and 1945 is often referred to as the ‘Saigal era’. Never before had the Indian screen presented such a glorious singer with so much emotion and pathos in his voice. People didn’t merely love Saigal. They revered his glorious voice which directly touched their hearts. 

He had the good fortune of singing songs composed by accomplished music directors like R C Boral, Pankaj Mullick, Timir Baran, Khemchand Prakash, Gyan Dutt and Naushad and got to work in some great films under the baton of brilliant directors like P C Barua, Nitin Bose, Jayant Desai, Hem Chunder and Phani Mazumdar who contributed immensely in turning him into the greatest actor-singer of his time.

With ‘Alam Ara’ in 1931, sound was introduced in Indian Cinema and songs became an integral part of our movies. In 1932, New Theatres launched Saigal with the film ‘Mohabbat Ke Aansoo’ followed by ‘Zinda Laash’ and ‘Subah Ka Sitara’. Though he did not gain popularity with these three films, appreciation came his way with hits like ‘Puran Bhakt’ and ‘Yahudi Ki Ladki’ in 1933 and ‘Kaarwan-e-Hayat’ and ‘Chandidas’ in 1934. In fact, the latter film was a super-hit establishing him as an actor-singer of reckoning.

In 1934, he married Asha Rani and the couple had a son and two daughters and also adopted his niece as their own.

The ‘Devdas’ phenomenon:

The spectacular success of Devdas, released in 1935, turned Saigal into a national icon and the powerful appeal of the romantic-tragic hero made ‘Devdas’ a cult figure. Apart from a sterling performance, his enchanting melodies created a sensation among the youth of that time. Songs like ‘Baalam aayo baso more man mein…’ and ‘Dukh ke din ab beetat nahin…’ became an addiction for millions of his fans. They would throng the cinema halls to watch Saigal, with his drooping lock of hair and would memorize the dialogues in a bid to imitate him. The film set the pace for the popularity of doomed hero on Indian screen and the term ‘Devdas’ replaced ‘Majnu’ to symbolize a deeply dejected lover.

Balam aaye baso morey man main

Post ‘Devdas’:

After ‘Devdas’, a spate of films came and there was no looking back. Films like ‘Inquilab’, ‘President’, ‘Crorepati’, ‘Pujarin’ , ‘Street Singer’, ‘Zindagi’, ‘Tansen’, ‘Shah Jahan’,etc., had Saigal gems like ‘Ek Bangla Bane Nyaara…’, ‘Piye ja aur piye ja…’, ‘Andhe ki laathi tu hi hai…’, ‘ Diya jalaao jag mag jag mag…’ ‘Nuktacheen hai gham-e-dil…,’ ‘Karun kya aas niraas bhai…’, ‘Soja rajkumari soja…’, ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya…’, ‘Chaah barbaad karegi maloom na tha…’, etc.

Aye Qatibe-Taqdeer

Do naina

Main kya jaanu

Diya jalao

In fact, today on You tube, one can listen to the classic-‘Baabul mora, naihar chhuto hi jaaye…’, sung by many great ghazal singers and exponents of classical music like Jagjit Singh, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Begum Akhtar, Kishori Amonkar, Ghulam Ali, Girija Devi, etc. No doubt, they have all added their brilliance to this thumri  composed by R C Boral and set to raag Bharavi, but without exaggeration it can be stated that none can even come close to the magic Saigal brought to the song. It is his resonating voice and rendition which remains in our hearts long after we have ceased to listen to the song.

A special feature of the song is that it was recorded live with Saigal walking the streets, singing and playing the harmonium, while a mike followed him in a truck behind. This was done because Saigal who plays a street singer in the film wanted the song to appear natural and in tune with his character.

Babul mora

Such was the impact of his singing and the level of his reverence that the first generation of playback singers of Hindi cinema, viz., Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh and Talat Mehmood as well as his contemporary C H Atma are said to have idolised Saigal and tried to adopt his style of singing as can be seen from their first recorded songs. Lata Mangeshkar in one of her early interviews is said to have confessed her love for Saigal.

Saigal, the actor:

Saigal’s acting abilities were always overshadowed by his singing genius. He belonged to the era when singer-actors were ruling the industry. For him acting was only a means to showcase his singing talent. But to his credit, he came up with very natural performances in all his films. Though not considered conventionally good-looking, at 6’1”, he was very tall, lanky and had a deep baritone with excellent diction and clarity of dialogue delivery. He was actually bald and wore a wig in his films. Yet there was something about his common-man demeanor which appealed to the public and they thronged the movie halls to see and hear him.

The fact that the choice of his roles –that of a singer, a poet, a saint, a gypsy, etc., matched his personality and allowed him to have great songs picturised on him was a big plus point. He was brilliant in ‘Devdas’ ,’Tansen’, ‘Street Singer’, ‘Bhakt Surdas’, ‘My Sister’, etc. and his pairing with the beautiful Khurshid in ‘Tansen’,  Suraiyya in ‘Parwana’ and Jamuna in ‘Devdas’ was a delight to watch.

More balapan ke saathi(duet)

None of his contemporaries in Calcutta or Bombay could match his singing prowess. Ashok Kumar did offer some competition but Saigal’s talent was peerless.

Shift from Calcutta to Bombay:

The Second World War brought about many changes. There was a rush for newer equipments and the studio system started disintegrating. New Theatres was affected. As the hub of the film industry shifted to Bombay, even though the industry there could not match up to the creative excellence of their Calcutta counterparts in terms of direction as well as music, the atmosphere became more commercial and Saigal’s health suffered.

Many of the artistes shifted to Bombay and eventually Saigal also had to move out. He was hired by Ranjit Movietone in Bombay for a contract of three films at a princely sum of rupees one lakh, unheard of in those days.  His very first film  under the contract was ‘Tansen’ which turned out to be a runaway hit with all thirteen songs creating a sensation. His last movies were ‘Parwana’ and ‘Shahjahan’ and had music by the great Naushad . Together they created immortal melodies like ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya…’, ‘Chaah barbaad karegi…’, ‘Ruhi, ruhi ruhi… ,’


Jab dil hi toot gaya


Treasury of ghazals

He also bequeathed to the world of music a rich repertoire of non-film ghazals and bhajans. He selected and composed some on his own especially Ghalib’s poetry and preferred to sing them at private gatherings with his friends. In fact, it was his ghazals which first fetched him popularity among the connoisseurs of the music world before his film songs became a rage.

Nukta cheen

Ghazal-duniya mein hoon

Mirza ghalib-non-film


Saigal was a very unassuming, humble and kind-hearted man who was always ready to help anyone. Once he is said to have given away his diamond ring to help a poor widow. It is sad that a singer as gifted as Saigal fell prey to the vice of alcohol and started taking a small peg of whiskey (which he referred to as ‘kaali paanch’) in between rehearsals and this ultimately took a toll on his health. He was also suffering from acute diabetes and it was with great difficulty that he managed to finish his last two films. Music director Naushad managed to convince him to record the songs of ‘Shahjahan’ without his usual whiskey and when he heard this version, Saigal lamented that if only he had met Naushad earlier in his life, he could have lived a few more years.

And so it was on 18th January, 1947, at the young age of forty-two, even before our country became independent, this musical genius departed leaving behind gems in his deep sonorous voice. He made his songs sound so effortless and it is only when we try to sing them do we realize the finesse in his technique and the true power of his hold over ‘swara’ and ‘sur’ in the composition. He set very high standards for the singers after him and thus became the first institution in playback singing…

saigal3Tribute to Saigal by the great music director Naushad :

“Aisa koyee fankaar-e-mukammal nahin aaya

Nagmon ka barasta hua badal nahin aaya

Mausiquee ke maahir bahut aaye hain lekin

Duniya mein doosra koi Saigal nahin aaya”

(English Translation: A perfect artiste like Saigal, a cloud bursting with melodies has yet to be seen again, many maestros of music have appeared on the scene, but no one has been able to match Saigal’s genius)






20 thoughts on “ Kundan Lal Saigal: Hindi Cinema’s first Superstar

  1. I’m speechless! As a college student, I was a die hard fan of Saigal. In fact, I have sung his famous song Aye Kaatib-e-taqdeer from My Sister on college stage. Won’t boast that many people understood it. 😀

    Thanks a lot Sharda, for such a beautiful article! Read it twice. The links were gems! I already have the entire collection of Saigal and Pankaj Mullick in video, nonetheless, they made reading more pleasurable. They say that ghazal began from Saigal and ended with Talat. And, I have a mind to agree!

    There’s a tale about Saigal. During 42 in Lahore, Saigal was doing a stage show. Suddenly there was loadshading and the mike stopped working. The cloud was getting restive. Suddenly, a 16 years old kid clambered on the stage and nearly screamed the song Aye Kaatib-e-taqdeer. The restless crowd was mesmerized! Once the electricity was restored, Saigal, always the royal one, asked the kid, “Kya chahte ho bataur inam?” The kid asked the honor to sing with the maestro. Saigal brought him to Bombay and made the child sing a single line with him. The song was Mere sapno ki Rani, roohi roohi, roohi, composed by Naushad. The singer was Mohd Rafi. This story was told to me by Naushad himself, and it was really loving to see him enacting the scene! 😀

    Can’t thank you enough for this post! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow!Thanks so much for your appreciation for my article… I am really touched 🙂 Thank you for sharing that piece of nugget about Rafi & Saigal. I had read about it once but cannot thank you enough for adding to the veracity of the information… And great to know you are a singer and have sung Saigal’s songs on stage… 🙂 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, no! I’m not a singer. I’m a flute player. But, all musicians are singers, because they in fact sing the song in their mind while playing their instrument. I meant there was a college function, where I sang that song. I’m basically a Indian Classical flute player with deep interest in old film music.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Brilliant post!! Loved devouring every word of it. Valuable information about a gem and a founding father of the great institution of indian film music. His years of struggle simply illustrate his passion for music and that itself makes him a great soul… The video clips only help to bring alive the whole saga. Looking forward to more ….

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Amazed, yet again. Your virtuosity, your thoroughness and your spirit of perfection reflects in each of your posts. However, this time round, you have excelled yourself. If ever there is a Filmfare award for Bollywood chroniclers, this lesser mortal would surely nominate you for the same.

    As a bathroom singer, I have often regaled my neighbours with a rendering of ‘Baabul mora….’. Whenever the blues hit me, the song ‘Kaho na aas niraas bhayi…..’ uplifts my spirits. When an improptu movie had to be made on my ancestral home, the only song I could think of as a backdrop was ‘Ek bangla bane nyaara….’.

    A reblog would be my way of thanking you for this superb piece about a person whom we admire so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi AKB!I dont know how to thank you for your inspiring feedback. I am really touched by your praise and your kind words of appreciation. It feels so good when my posts find their way into the hearts of true lovers of Cinema like you and you enjoy reading them as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing them…..
      Filmfare award..Wow! Thnx so much! Coming from a seasoned blogger like you, it means a lot to me… 🙂
      Thank you 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “Such articles choose to ignore the fact that the film industry which started in 1913, was already 35 years old by the time these stars made their debut. There were other luminaries before them whose immense contribution to the world of Hindi Cinema in its nascent stages has often been undermined and overlooked with the passage of time, the brightest among them being – Kundan Lal Saigal”.

    Epic. Am sure, KL up there must be smiling.

    Thank you for the enlightening Saigal-era tour.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow! The single post I’ve enjoyed the most. Glad to have read it. You won’t believe it, coincidentally I was actually humming/singing Main Kya Jaanoon last evening and then I read this and found the link to the song in your post. An absolute delight!
    More such, please!

    Liked by 1 person

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