Jagjit Singh’s honey-soaked voice celebrated a simplicity that is hard to imitate. In his death, we have lost our link to a time when music celebrated diverse imaginations
The Sixties and Seventies was an unusual period for the country; many things were happening. New ideas entered into a dialogue with the old order, and with respect to music, the outcome was an intense and passionate fresh idiom, one that defied formulas and redefined tradition.
Jagjit Singh, who came to be hailed as “Ghazal King”, belonged to these times. There were others as well — R.D. Burman, Bhupinder Singh, Ilaiyaraja, and more. In their relentless pursuit for an identity of their own, they altered our notions of song, voice and music, yet again. With dazzling virtuosity and stunning simplicity, they at once captured the imagination of the entire country.
Bollywood closed its doors on Jagjit Singh, who chased it for a good decade hoping to make a break. S.D. Burman had serious differences with his son R.D. Burman’s musical idiom, Bhupinder had to wait for the junior Burman to arrive and keep faith in the emotions his unusual voice could carry, while none could stop Ilaiyaraja’s brilliance as he went on to win an award for his early film, “Padinaru Vydinilai”. Common to all these unusual musicians was a spirit that refused to be cowed down. Their vision was clear, faith implicit, and their musical personas refused to transform even when the market spelt out different truths. That he later forced the market into a rethinking is a different matter.
Jagjit Singh’s ghazal steered clear of the established idioms of Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hasan. It was not even close to what his contemporary, the phenomenal Ghulam Ali sang. Extremely original, Jagjit Singh in his mellow voice of understated expression brought to the ghazal a modern temperament not only through his rendition but also with the kind of orchestration he employed. Violins and guitar unheard off in a ghazal performance made its entry with him; he didn’t give up the good old harmonium either. Purists scoffed at him, but Jagjit Singh stood unfazed by criticism.
In a way, Jagjit Singh was the perfect blend – he had a fine literary sensibility that picked out some of the best poetry, just as he knew the right tune for his song. So much so that he made it impossible to get carried away by the tune and not take note of the lyrics or vice-versa. The strength of Jagjit Singh’s modern outlook was his perfect understanding of tradition. So, in a cheery song like “Mein Nashe Mein Hoon” that opens to a very bright and youthful orchestra, Jagjit Singh surprises you by his infusion of khayal gayaki elements. Over the guitar progressions, Jagjit Singh indulges in an interpretation of the word “bekhudi…”. Listen to “Chaand ke saath kayi dard puraane nikale”. It’s a prose-poem and Jagjit Singh gives it a conversational feel. He sings it in free style, often syncopating with his orchestra.
Even with what seemed a limited repertoire, Jagjit Singh explored a whole lot of possibilities. His experiments convincingly attempted a range of musical styles – so you have a very classical sounding “Daata Ke Gun Gao” to “Garaj Baras Pyaasi Dharti Ko” which exploits the geet form to the prayerful “Dard Se Mera Daman Bharde” that comes close to a Sufi song. Jagjit Singh’s compositions for the films “Arth”, “Saath Saath” and “Prem Geet” went on to become huge hits, but they were far from the way Bollywood defined film music. It almost seemed like he had settled scores with the industry that had refused to recognise his talent. Jagjit Singh’s expression had such restraint that even when he sang rather syrupy lines like “Jeete rahane ki saza do zindagi ye zindagi”, they never sounded maudlin. There was an equanimity about his music that made listening to him a poignant experience.
Curiously, it was never a fulfilling experience listening to Ghulam Ali on a cassette unless it was a live recording. But listening to pre-recorded Jagjit Singh music did give one a complete experience. Ghulam Ali’s brilliance and his highly imaginative takes was more suited for the concert stage, whereas Jagjit Singh knew the perfect package for an album. It was perhaps the limitation of his artistry, but even after hundreds of albums and all these years, his music never bored you. Feel, the most elusive thing in music, had made its home in his voice.
Jagjit Singh, lived at a time when there were other musicians of exemplary talent as well, and all distinct. Market pressures weren’t easy either. Jagjit Singh, lived and sang at a time when versatility was a huge virtue. He, however, shunned this virtue and firmly believed in the power of simplicity. A simplicity that is so stunning and hard to imitate. In the passing away of Jagjit Singh, we have lost yet another musician, who believed in the diversity of imagination and strived all his life to perfect his idiom. His life and music almost seems a personification of the lines he sang, “Aawazon ki baazaaron mein/ Khamooshi pahachane koun?” (In a marketplace of sounds, who will recognise silence).