Dukh Ke Ab Din: Remembering the Immortal Music of KL Saigal
Remembering the iconic singer KL Saigal.
Remembering the iconic singer KL Saigal. (Photo courtesy: Twitter/@MuVyz)

Dukh Ke Ab Din: Remembering the Immortal Music of KL Saigal

“Do you know?” wondered the stalwart writer OP Dutta, who scripted his son JP Dutta’s films... “Your mother, Zubeida once sang from close to midnight till the early morning hours with KL Saigal?”

I was startled. Dutta Sr had seen the film Zubeida, which I had written for director Shyam Benegal. No one had ever told me about this, not even my grandmother, who was impossibly reticent about her rebellious daughter. Zubeida had aspired to sing for All India Radio, cut records maybe and join the movies; not the permissible career options during the conservative 1940s.

Elaborating on that night, OP Dutta said:

I remember it all so clearly. Saigal saab would host these evening mehfils on his building’s terrace in Matunga for his film industry friends and neighbours. It was the city’s worst-kept secret. Music lovers would drop by. Or should I say gatecrash? That night, Saigal had wound up by midnight. That’s when your mother arrived, accompanied by her aunt I think, and was extremely disappointed that the mehfil was over.
OP Dutta
Khalid Mohamed’s mother Zubeida. 
Khalid Mohamed’s mother Zubeida. 
(Photo: Khalid Mohamed)

Dutta insisted that the story wasn’t an apocryphal one.

Zubeida strode up to Saigal and demanded that he dedicate a song to her. Saigal saab declined. Then although he had downed quite a few glasses of whisky, he looked at her, his eyes lit up. A ladies man to the core, he complimented her,‘You’re beautiful’ and asked her if she would sing along with him. She smiled, ‘Of course.’ They had all of us entranced for hours with the ghazals and geets they sung in tandem.
O P Dutta

I thanked OP Dutta for the anecdote, perhaps I could expand it into a short story some day, but it slipped through the cracks – till I was reminded of those mehfils by retired colonel Kamlesh Puri’s book Madan Puri: My Father the Villain.

A chapter rewinds to Amar Kunj, the two-storey building which Saigal had bought circa 1944 in a tree-shaded lane of Matunga. As far as I know, the building had been constructed about five years before that.

The Puris were closely related to the revered singer-actor who facilitated the career of  the ‘villain’. Madan Puri became a tenant, at an affordable rent, in Amar Kunj. His brothers Chaman and the youngest Amrish Puri, stayed with him and also went on to impact the entertainment industry.

My curiosity was vetted. Kundan Lal Saigal, whose 113th birth anniversary falls today, and my mother singing together? Couldn’t be! After all, he was the first acknowledged superstar of Hindi cinema!

Lore has it that after working as a railway time-keeper, Remington typewriter salesman, and hotel manager, he’d shifted to Bombay, lucked out and rendered 350 songs in that distinctive, sonorously melancholy-drenched voice, besides playing the lead in 38 feature films.

Ramesh (left) and Kamlesh Puri, sons of Madan Puri. (Photo: Khalid Mohamed)
Ramesh (left) and Kamlesh Puri, sons of Madan Puri. (Photo: Khalid Mohamed)

Snapshotclose

  • Film journalist and director Khalid Mohamed writes about the late singer and actor KL Saigal on his 113th birth anniversary.
  • Most from the post-Independence generation don’t know Saigal or the fact that he was venerated by Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey.
  • Khalid Mohamed’s mother Zubeida once sang from close to midnight till the early morning hours with KL Saigal.
  • Late actor Madan Puri was a tenant at KL Saigal’s house Amar Kunj.

10 Most Cherished Saigal Film Songs Across the Generations

  • Ek bangla banenyaara (President)
  • Jab dil hi toot gaya (Shah Jehan)
  • Diya Jalaao (Tansen)
  • Dukh ke ab din (Devdas)
  • Babul mora nai har chhooto hi jaaye (Street Singer)
  • So jaa rajkumari sojaa (Zindagi)
  • Nukhtacheen hai ghame dil (Yahudi ki Ladki)
  • Kisne sab yeh khel rachaya (Dhartimata)
  • Rain gayee ab mera savera (Bhakta Surdas)
  • Jo beet chuki so beet chuki (Pujarin).

10 Most Cherished Saigal Films Across the Generations

  • Devdas
  • President
  • Street Singer
  • Bhakt Surdas
  • Zinda Lash
  • Dushman
  • Meri Bahen
  • Karodpati
  • Chandidas
  • Lagan

Most from the post-Independence generation don’t know Saigal, or the fact that he was venerated by Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey. Albeit connoisseurs of vintage cinema as well as film and music student, comprising a strong fan following, salute Saigal to this day and age.

Most from the post-Independence generation don’t know Saigal or the fact that he was venerated by Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey. (Photo: Reuters)
Most from the post-Independence generation don’t know Saigal or the fact that he was venerated by Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey. (Photo: Reuters)

Amar Kunj: The Orphaned House

I can’t help ruminating about the second-storey apartment of KL Saigal, who had once crooned Ek bangla banen nyara. Whatever happened to it?

Ironically, the address is no longer ‘nyara’ so to speak. The apartment in Matunga has been locked up for a decade and a half. Needless to lament, it’s in a state of utter neglect.

Madan Puri’s son, film director Ramnesh, continues to reside on the first storey with his children. The family of a retired Indian Airlines pilot occupies the ground floor.

Some years after KL Saigal’s death at the age of 42, Amar Kunj was bought over by a businessman, but he has chosen never to visit the place or even collect the rent. The Puris and other tenants, in the event, deposit a monthly rent of around Rs 75 at a bank. At the outset, the monthly rent was Rs 45.

No one is willing to buy or re-develop the greying building. Saigal’s son Madan Gogi passed away after severe addiction to alcohol. Nothing is known about the whereabouts of the icon’s daughters Neena and Beena, except that Neena had resettled in Delhi.

Subsequently, whoever rented the Saigal apartment, met with a premature death.

The building which KL Saigal owned and lived in, Matunga, aka Punjabi Gully or Hollywood Lane. 
The building which KL Saigal owned and lived in, Matunga, aka Punjabi Gully or Hollywood Lane. 
(Photo: Khalid Mohamed)

Surely, it cannot be irrationally believed that the flat is ‘jinxed’. To that Colonel Kamlesh Puri responds:

Of course not. But some people are superstitious and nothing can be done about that. Not that Amar Kunj is haunted, not at all. We certainly don’t hear Saigal saab singing away forlornly in the nights. Such things only happen in the movies.
Colonel Kamlesh Puri

Meanwhile, the Matunga lane named R P Masani Marg is still better known by its nicknames Punjabi Gully and Hollywood Lane, since it once housed almost 40 film personalities, a majority of them from Punjab.

Currently, a nearby building in this Hollywood lane where Prithviraj Kapoor lived and where his sons Raj, Shashi and Shammi Kapoor grew up, is being re-developed. (Photo: Twitter)
Currently, a nearby building in this Hollywood lane where Prithviraj Kapoor lived and where his sons Raj, Shashi and Shammi Kapoor grew up, is being re-developed. (Photo: Twitter)

Matunga’s Tree-Shaded Lane Nurtured Many of Bollywood’s Greatest

Currently, a nearby building in this Hollywood lane where Prithviraj Kapoor lived and where his sons Raj, Shashi and Shammi Kapoor grew up, is being re-developed. Among the others who resided in the star-studded lane count  KN Singh, AR Kardar, Manmohan Krishna, Subiraj and  his wife ‘Baby’ Naaz, producer PN Arora and Sitara Devi till they split,  JK Nanda, Trilok Kapoor, Jagdish Sethi, and years later, Mithun Chakraborty.

Among the other famous Hollywood Lane-wallas, were Manna Dey and Jayant, whose sons Amjad and Imtiaz became actors.

It’s a lane redolent of film history, but a scarce few today have survived there. In fact, very few are even aware that KL Saigal’s home, instead of being preserved as a part of cinema heritage, is orphaned today. It’s in this lane that immortal music once rent the air.

For me, Amar Kunj is now also the place where my mother, Zubeida, sang all night long under the star-lit sky, never, ever to be recorded.

(This story was first published on 11 April 2016 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the singer’s birth anniversary.)

(The Quint is now on WhatsApp. To receive handpicked stories on topics you care about, subscribe to our WhatsApp services. Just go to TheQuint.com/WhatsApp and hit the Subscribe button.)

Follow our Flashback section for more stories.