Jagjit Singh is no more — but he lives forever

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

In the past few days the world has lost two great personalities, each an ustad in his own field: from the west Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple and all the i-devices that have transformed the way people communicate; from the east Jagjit Singh who infused new form into the ghazal.

Both of them had relatively difficult starts in life and were not particularly fond of formal studies, but rose to success by pursuing their own passions with intensity, undeterred by initial setbacks. Both were perfectionists: one can remember Jagjit Singh getting upset when the sound system had a momentary defect during one of his concerts. He showed signs of irritation and stopped singing until the fault was corrected: everything had to be just right, otherwise he wouldn’t perform!

Born to Sikh parents who had settled in Rajasthan, Jagjit Singh later shaved his beard for no particular reason, as he averred himself. He was named Jagmohan, but family and siblings fondly called him Jeet, and then he became better known by his more famous name when, upon the advice of a guru, his father changed Jagmohan to Jagjit Singh. His father wanted him to become an engineer, but he switched to history and later dropped out of an MA course at Kurukshetra University, and in 1965 at the age of 24 he took the train to Bombay to develop further his singing talent. In that same year I too took the train: from Bombay to Kolkata to study medicine. Little did I know that some day the ghazals of Jagjit Singh would come to occupy such an important space in my life, which in turn would become so entwined with Mother India from north to south and east to west, with Punjab striking chords of resonance that seem to be primordial…

In his own words (in an interview given to The Pioneer a few years ago), Jagjit Singh said: ‘I was drawn to music from my early childhood and was very keen to pick up classical techniques. Actually, my father was a great music lover. He used to hum classical numbers at home… I was exposed to shabads that are always based on ragas. I used to listen to the radio a lot and in those days classical music held sway…I was good at memorising whatever numbers I heard and practised them at home. My family and friends were impressed with my singing and I got a lot of encouragement from my father.

‘…the little Urdu I learnt as a child helped me develop my skills as a ghazal singer. My first public appearance on stage was at a Kavi Darbar that used to be held in our town every Gurupurab. Big names like Asa Singh Mastana, Rajkavi Inderjit Singh Tulsi, Surinder Kaur and others had come for that. I was asked to render a shabad in their presence. I had recast the shabad in my own style and set it to tune based on Raga Bhairavi. The audience liked it very much and I was told to sing one more number. That boosted my confidence. There was no looking back after that.’

In fact his father ‘sent young Jagjit to learn the nuances of music under a blind teacher, Pandit Chhaganlal Sharma. He later trained under Ustad Jamal Khan of Sainia gharana for several years and gained knowledge in the khayal, thumri and dhrupad forms.’

In Bombay he paid Rs 35 per month to share a dirty and dingy place with four friends, all from Punjab, but they were great company. His friends helped him to find odd jobs, and he used to perform regularly at private functions like weddings and mundans. Shortly after, he got a break with radio but he had to move from studio to studio and producer to producer offering his services. Although ‘nobody heard me’ he persisted with HMV, which was the only record company in those days, and in 1965 they agreed to cut a disc for him, an EP (Extended Play polyester records consisting of four tracks over two sides and played at 45 rpm as against the two track, shellac-based 78 rpm records that were being phased out by the early 60s), shared with Suresh Rajvanshi, but which nevertheless became quite a hit and the next year, HMV offered him his first solo EP.

But the struggle continued because ‘even after cutting my own records, I wasn’t very much richer or better known. I think my first real break came after 1968 when Vividh Bharati went commercial. That’s when advertising was first allowed on the broadcast medium and jingles became very popular. I started writing, composing and singing those ad jingles on radio. I particularly remember doing jingles for Orkay and Omo soap. That allowed me to make some money and for the first time, I had a steady source of income.’


By 1970 his future wife Chitra had entered his life. She came from a musically talented family herself. They did their first international show together in East Africa in 1969, singing not ghazals but popular film songs such as Roop tera mastana and O mere sona re sona re, which were the rage then, making the shows a big hit and putting them on the road to public fame. In 1976, HMV finally felt they were ready to do their own long-play, and thus was recorded Unforgettables which became the turning point in his career. He was recognised as a ghazal singer worldwide.

Before that he had performed mainly at private parties where he sang ghazals, bhajans and shabads. But after Unforgettables, everybody wanted him to sing his own compositions. More foreign tours followed, taking them to the most prestigious auditoria in the world – Royal Albert Hall, the Palladium, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Esplanade in Singapore. He was also the first Indian to sing at Sun City in South Africa to a capacity audience of 6,000 people.

With success came money and recognition and a widening of the social circle, and their life underwent many changes, ‘but let me tell you I never hankered after these things. It was good to be recognised and have enough money but I was happy with the slow pace of the changes.’ Like Steve Jobs, he too maintained a simplicity throughout his life. Many great men have shared this characteristic – Albert Einstein’s favourite ‘belt’ around his morning gown was an old tie!

Simplicity was also his objective when he turned to ghazal singing: he wanted to make the genre more acceptable and popular, and to be played to larger audiences rather than to the usual small select groups of 60-70 people. It is best to hear in his own words the unfoldment of the ghazal saga in his professional life: ‘most popular Hindi film songs from the 1950s were based on ghazals. If you hear any old Hemant Kumar number, say Yaad kiya dil ne kahan ho tum, they were mostly ghazals. Composer Madan Mohan set so many ghazals to his inimitable tunes. To give just some examples, Yun hasraton ke daag or Mai re main kaase kahun peer. Even then ghazals were preferred because they reflected sensible poetry, there was no silly tukbandi (rhyming). When I branched out on my own, I was determined to polish up the genre and make it more acceptable to modern tastes. I read ghazals thoroughly and in my early years I would select classics by Ghalib, Mir, Jigar, Firaq and Daagh.

‘Later, I turned to more contemporary writers like Nida Fazli, Wasim Brelvi and Bashir Badr. My knowledge of Urdu being limited, I chose only simple poems and set them to simple tunes. I also introduced Western instrumentation to make the overall effect livelier. Incidentally, that idea I borrowed from film music, it wasn’t exactly original.’ And humble too, in acknowledging his indebtedness to others.

I bought The Unforgettables in England in 1978 or so, and then A Milestone, adding to my collection of western classical records, the 33 RPM discs in which form they were sold then. Around the same time I bought the latest model of a ‘3-in-1’ music system, of the make AIWA. Regularly, in the early hours of the morning, to soothe my mind befogged with surgical facts and figures, I used to put on these records and let myself go. Of course the lights used to be switched off, and the only illumination visible was the flickering of the colours of the electronic dials on the front of the apparatus, which looked almost magical as they danced in waves recording the amplitude, frequency and so on of the sounds coming out of the gramophone.

From baat niklegi to phir dur talak jaegi through, later on in Jagjit’s repertoire, sawan da mahina yaro to hoton se chhulo tum and myriads more – with his melodious voice and exquisite compositions, intrinsically poetical, Jagjit Singh knew how to generate and respond to the yearnings and emotions of joy, anguish, sorrow, love, melancholy, and so much more, of his audience. With some other singers, at times one got tired of listening to one or other of the same song over and over again. The uniqueness of Jagjit Singh’s composition and rendering, soulful or lively as the occasion demanded, is that one always looked forward to many encores. Such was his magic, and it will ever remain.

Pain and melancholy

After they lost their only son Vivek, 17-year old, in an accident in 1990, they were naturally shattered, and Chitra has not been able to sing again since. When Jagjit resumed, his songs carried so much pain and melancholy, both in the music and in the words, that it was impossible after some time to listen to them without feeling torn apart. The lightness of being was replaced by a heaviness of being, unbearable at times. For me certainly this was the case, being too human. But Jagjit was no ordinary human: he was superhuman. Only such a person could transform and transcend his grief into a metamorphosis of new being.

Let us read, almost listen, to his account of how this came about: ‘That is a kind of tragedy I fervently hope no parent has to face. Yes, it was devastating. Chitra retreated into a shell. She stopped singing, stopped interacting with people. Although Monica and her two kids are very close to us, Baboo’s death almost destroyed Chitra’s will. Over time I, however, made it my source of strength, my power. I immersed myself into music and brought that melancholic strain into my compositions. That way I expressed my sorrow; I found an outlet for it. For me, music suddenly became like meditation. I haven’t got over the tragedy; it haunts us all the time. But we have to live with it. Chitra, too, is recovering but I don’t think she will ever sing on stage again, although I might just be able to get her to sing in a studio at some stage.’

He had almost anticipated his predicament:

Jug ne china mujhse, mujhe jo bhi laga pyara

Sab jeeta ki ye mujhse, mein hardam hi haara…

But he is redeemed, for we his fans –

Hum haar ke hamara dil

Unke geet ko amar kar diya

Abhi baanki hai raat

Aur badi lambi hai kahani…

Jagjit Singh lives forever…

dhun ki leher par moksha ki odh safar kar raha hai.

* Published in print edition on 14 October 2011

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