Perhaps Saigal appeals to you only when you are into your late thirties, when you are not looking for mere dazzle, but a mellower, lasting impact. I remember as a teenager I used to be amused at my neighbour getting ecstatic with Saigal’s ‘Ek bangla bane nyaara’. Too slow and too morbid, I thought. Today I find the same song mesmerizing. Many of Saigal’s songs evoke in me an intensity of feeling that’s hard to describe, one that is almost fearsome in its grip. Saigal, I now believe, is the only playback singer who simultaneously speaks to your head and heart. His technical finesse is superb. Combined with his feeling-laden voice, he is truly without peer.

Without peer he was in the 1930s. It was a decade when sound had just come to films in India, when recording techniques were still rudimentary. To Saigal goes the credit of defining, and excellently at that, the possibilities of playback singing. In blazing a trail, he set impossibly high standards for others to match, let alone exceed. His contemporaries (Surendra, G.M. Durrani and C.H. Atma) tried, but they could only be followers. The next generation of playback singers—Mukesh, Talat, Kishore and Rafi— were content to model themselves after him. By the mid-1940s, Saigal was not just a superstar. He was the first institution in playback singing.

Ek Bangla Bane Nyaara, President (1937).

That here was history in the making was amply clear when his first non-film record containing the bandish ‘Jhulana jhulaao ri’ set to Raag Jaunpuri reportedly sold no less than five lakh pieces in 1932, in an era when record players were owned by very few. As you listen to Saigal navigate the complex taans with astonishing ease, you understand why classical musician Ustaad Faiyyaaz Khan conceded that here was a magic even classical artistes feared. This despite the fact that Saigal had only the sketchiest training in music! B.N. Sircar of New Theatres gladly accepted Saigal as part of his company, and thus began Saigal’s tryst with stardom as actor and singer.

A year later, in Yahudi Ki Ladki, Saigal sang the most definitive Ghalib ghazal ‘Nukta cheen hain gham-e-dil’. Many others have sung it in films later, but Saigal’s Bhimpalasi shades to this ghazal make it tower over all other versions. With little training in classical music, Saigal created the first classical ghazal in Hindi films with this song. Yet, he uses his voice only to enhance the beauty of Ghalib’s verse; never to overpower it. With the sensitivity of a true artiste, Saigal knew where to draw the line.

With Devdas (1935), Saigal became a national icon. He succeeded as an actor too in the film, but all his acting talent paled before the impact of his singing voice. Through two songs, ‘Baalam aaye baso more man mein’ and ‘Dukh ke ab din beetat naahin’, Saigal brought alive the doom and despair of Devdas compellingly. The latter song in Raag Des is a study in understatement. A lesser singer could have become maudlin in the interlude, where Devdas laughs at himself over the wreck he has become, but Saigal conveys despair artfully, deftly stopping short of self-pity. As his biographer Raghava Menon puts it in the book Pilgrim of the Swara, Saigal was too sensitive an artiste to define all your feelings for you. He took you into the world of feelings sure, but left you to navigate your course there.

Dukh Ke Ab Din Beetat Naahin, Devdas (1935).

Saigal’s supreme effort at singing was, of course, R.C. Boral’s Bhairavi Thumri ‘Babul mora naihar chooto hi jaaye’ in Street Singer (1938). In terms of authenticity and feeling, no other Bhairavi, not even Naushad’s own composition for Saigal, ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya’, comes close to matching this Boral–Saigal masterpiece. Saigal, playing the protagonist, insisted that this song be recorded live as he is walking the streets, though playback was well in vogue by then. Saigal knew that it was through his voice that he conveyed the truths of his characters, and the truth of the street singer needed a live recording. The director complied, and the song was recorded live with Saigal walking the streets, singing and playing the harmonium, while a mike followed him in a truck just behind!

No other singer would have dared a live recording. No other singer, therefore, has sung as intense a Bhairavi.

Babul Mora Naihar Chooto Hi Jaaye, Street Singer (1938).

By the late 1930s, New Theatres was in shambles, and Saigal, like many others, moved from Calcutta to Bombay and joined Ranjit Movietone. But not before he gave us yet another unforgettable song—the effervescent ‘Main kya janoo kya jadoo hain’ set to the notes of Yaman Kalyan by Pankaj Mullick. You only have to attempt the second ‘kya’ in the above line to realize how effortless Saigal made really tough taans seem. In Bombay, Saigal smoothly adjusted to new composers Khemchand Prakash (Tansen), Gyan Dutt (Bhakt Surdas), and Naushad (Shahjehan). The hits he sang for each of these composers were proof that the Saigal magic was largely his own, and not confined to the compositions of Boral or Mullick. When Saigal left New Theatres, it was the latter that dwindled irretrievably. The singer went on to achieve newer peaks in Bombay, embellishing many a composer’s tunes with his characteristic intensity, and giving a fillip to their careers in the process. ‘Diya jalao’ in Raag Deepak, ‘Baagh lagaa doon sajani’ in Megh Malhar and ‘Kaahe gumaan karen’ in Pilu were his gifts to composer Khemchand Prakash in Tansen (1943). ‘Madhukar Shyam hamaare chor’ (Bhakt Surdas, 1942) is Gyan Dutt’s most renowned song. For Naushad, composing for Saigal in Shahjehan (1946) meant a break with his folk-oriented tunes, as he got the emperor of melody to put over something as weighty as ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya’ or ‘Aye dil-e-bekaraar jhoom.’

Aye Kaatib-e-taqdeer Mujhe Itna Bataa De, My Sister (1944).

My own personal favourite of the Saigal of the 1940s is, ironically, in a film for which he returned to Calcutta just that once—My Sister (1944). In ‘Aye kaatib-e-taqdeer mujhe itna bataa de’, scored by Pankaj Mullick, Saigal comes closest to the magic he created in ‘Dukh ke ab din’ and ‘Babul mora’. The way he articulates the lament ‘Kya maine kiya hain’ in the song leaves you spellbound. If Bhairavi it has to be in the 1940s, I’d pick ‘Aye kaatib-e-taqdeer’ over ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya’ as the better one, exemplifying all that Saigal’s music stood for. It is possible that in the two years between My Sister and Shahjehan, Saigal’s health had deteriorated sharply. He was always too fond of alcohol, and in the later years used to insist that only after consuming what he mockingly called ‘Kaali Paanch’ could he sing at all. Naushad pleaded with Saigal to record when sober, and the singer agreed, saying he’d compare the versions he rendered with and without alcohol, and decide which one was better. When Naushad played the two versions of ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya’, Saigal picked the sober one as better, and was amazed to be told that. ‘Kaash tum pehle aate mere zindagi mein’ was his response to Naushad. He succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver soon after.

Excerpted with permission from Bollywood Melodies A History of the Hindi Film Song, Ganesh Anantharaman, Penguin Random House India.