The Street Singer

K.L. Saigal and Kanan Devi in a scene from “Street Singer”. Picture credit – “So Many Cinemas” by B.D. Garga

The phrase “Street Singer” evokes nostalgia for lovers of old Hindi music.  And by old, I mean really old, for this is the name of the 1938 movie starring the singer-actor K.L. Saigal.  It contains gems such as “Babul Mora”, “Jeevan Been Madhur Na Baje” and “Lachhami Murat Daras Dikhaye”.  Yes, I admit, I listen to Hindi songs from the 1930s onwards.  A good friend of mine once mentioned that I have the soul of an old man trapped in my body. As the years pass by and I age, that imbalance is being corrected.  I have not watched any of Saigal’s movies but I grew up listening to his songs and I still listen to them.  I’ve always wondered about the English titles of Hindi movies.  Lest you think that titles like “3 Idiots” or “Page 3” are a new phenomenon there was Saigal’s “President” and “Street Singer”,  Dilip Kumar’s “Leader” and Guru Dutt’s “CID” and “Mr & Mrs 55”.

I haven’t watched “Street Singer” but I assume that Saigal is a street singer in that movie. I do remember a non-celluloid street singer from my childhood.  This was in the seventies and there was a gentleman who would show up probably once or twice a month on our street.  He limped, I think he was afflicted by polio as a child.  He would select a spot on our street, close to the intersection, seat himself by the side of the road and spread out a few books in front of him.  These were the size of pocketbooks and contained lyrics of songs from movies.  He would then sing a couple of songs from the latest movies.  If you wanted to sing or practice those songs, you could buy the books from him.  A crowd would gather around him and after each song, people would place loose change in his spread handkerchief.  He would also take requests.  If the day was hot, he would request a glass of water.  He had a serious face and rather sad eyes.  He walked through the various neighborhoods, probably singing several times a day to earn a living.  I don’t know if he ever sang at gatherings or at the “Ganesha” festivals where singers or bands would be hired.

While he made his living by singing, there was one occasion where he was paid not to sing.  One afternoon as the singer sat down and cleared his throat to start singing, my neighbor hurried out of his house.  He looked harried and said that he had just managed to get his one-year-old nephew to sleep and he really did not wish to have him woken up.  He offered the singer two rupees. This was a princely sum of money in those days.  The singer nodded, collected the money and carried on his peripatetic wanderings in search of the next intersection.

I remember this street singer once in a while and wonder if his ilk is still around.  Television and internet provide entertainment on demand and such singers probably don’t find audiences anymore in the cities.  However, I came across a video on Facebook the other day where an old couple is filmed walking around the streets of Pune singing for a living.  It probably was a hot day and the woman gratefully accepted bottled water from a resident.  Times have changed but its good to know that the bards of yore are still wandering around earning their living by singing for others!

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