It is not just his overwhelmingly heart-tugging voice and serene rendition of ghazals that will stay with his admirers. For there are far too many accomplishments that grace the legend of Jagjit Singh.
Like, how he single-handedly revived and popularised Ghazals by garnishing them with Geet, creating the ‘non-film music’ space in India’s pop culture; or how, 24 years ago, he and wife Chitra, were the first recording artists in India to use digital multi-track recording for their album, Beyond Time.
His five-decade-long career gave us 80 memorable albums, in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Sindhi and Nepali.
But it is only through the reminiscences of musicians, who worked closely with him from his first studio recording, his first live show, to his very last, that we get a glimpse of a master musician and an incredible human being. Guitarist Clarence Peterson, 74, and percussionist Narayan Sheware, 69, are two such loyalists.
Peterson recounts of a “young, smart and good-looking man” approaching him soon after he had finished a live show in the 60s. “Jagjit came up to me and appreciated my guitar playing. He was young, smart and good-looking but wasn’t famous then. ‘Let’s make some music together’, he told me. I agreed.”
The journey was far from smooth. In 1972, the group went to East Africa for an orchestra show, where it was hard for them to get Jagjit, a Ghazal lover, to sing a film song: Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu. “We had trained him to groove to the music, dance a little on stage, and he pulled it off well. But when the show was over, he protested. ‘Tum log mujhse yeh kya gaane gawa rahe ho yaar… Ab se main sirf ghazlein hi gaunga!’ That was his first and last tryst with film music on stage,” says Peterson.
Even at the height of his success, Singh remained well-grounded. “Jagjit never let success get to his head and treated his old friends just as well after he became famous. He always attributed his success to his friends and co-musicians,” says Peterson.
Though people believed he was, by nature, a serious man, those close to him will tell you about his sparkling sense of humour. “I broke a guitar string once during a live show, and for several shows he would caution me: Yaar, sambhal kar bajaana…phir tod mat dena!”
Teary eyed, he speaks of how the singer went out of his way to ensure Peterson had a roof over his head. “When I got married in 1979, I was living in a rented house. Jagjit insisted that it was time I have my own house. Without telling me, he looked around, found a house in Chembur and paid the booking amount. That’s the house I live in today.”
It did not end at that. About five years ago, when Peterson was bed-ridden, Singh regularly called to check on him. One day, he quietly left Rs 20,000 in his wife’s bag.
Petrson has lost count of the number of shows they played together. The last was on on September 16 at Worli’s Nehru Centre. “I was back on stage with Jagjit after recovering from illness. Jagjit would fondly call me Pritam Singh instead of Peterson. That evening, Chitraji too had come, and he gleefully told her, ‘Dekho chitra, Pritam Singh aaya hai…ab show mein jaan aa jaayega’.”
Tabla and dholak player Sheware, too, has been performing live with Singh for 40 years and credits him for turning his life around. “Who knew that a third-standard dropout, from a small Maharashtra village in Konkan, would see the entire world with a genius like him? From playing for his first album – The Unforgettables in 1976 – I have recorded around 500 ghazals with him and have worked with him on films such as Arth, Saath Saath, Raavan, and even Punjabi films,” he says.
It was in the late 60s that Singh, staying in an Agripada guest house, was hunting for a tabla player, and happened to meet Sheware, a Lavani percussionist from Agripada.
“Jagjit is one of a kind. When I underwent a heart surgery, I was financially weak. So he paid for it. Thanks to him, I could educate my children and see the world,” he says between sobs.
Even at the height of his success, Jagjit attributed his rise to friends and co-musicians -Peterson, Singh’s guitarist for 40 years