Ghazal singer Jagjit Singh Touched a Billion Hearts and Brought Together India, Pakistan

Voice of a Lost Generation…

By AIJAZ ZAKA SYED

Published: Oct 14, 2011 00:54 Updated: Oct 14, 2011 00:54

This is one of those times when words fail us pen pushers. Men like Jagjit Singh defy and transcend platitudes and unoriginal sobriquets such as ‘end of an era’ and ‘Ghazal King.’ The gifted singer, who passed away this week in Mumbai, straddled the world of South Asian music and ghazal singing like a colossus, earning himself popularity that at times seemed to surpass that of Mehdi Hassan, the original emperor of the genre who has inspired generations of artists, including Jagjit Singh.

The greatest contribution of the maestro, together with his gifted wife Chitra, was the revival and democratization of ghazal singing, if you will, at a time when the art was all but forgotten in India, the land of its birth, just as Urdu has been.  By going easy on classical ragas and giving the genre a contemporary treatment with modern orchestra, he managed to snatch it from the purists and brought it down to the masses.

Until then ghazal singers such as Begum Akhtar, Malika Pukhraj and to some extent, Mehdi Hassan, largely played to an elite audience of music aficionados and genteel aristocracy.  Using modern instruments and singing in a fresh voice that was more in the tradition of greats like Mohammed Rafi and Talat Mahmoud, rather than classical masters, he revived the dying art of ghazal singing and appreciation of the enduring magic of Urdu poetry. He managed to contemporize and massify the ghazal at a time when disco music was the rage.

Jagjit and Chitra Singh gave birth to a cultural revolution, capturing the imagination of growing urban middle classes. Coming out with album after album and using some slick marketing, they not just ruled the music scene in the 1980s and 1990s, they spawned numerous second acts and imitations. The appreciation of ghazal – or guzzle, as many would call it! — and Urdu poetry became the in thing in the new, emerging India–and wherever South Asians existed long before the Indian cinema discovered the Diaspora.

So every South Asian today with an ear for music boasts a Jagjit Singh CD, or cassette in good old days. Most people of my generation — and those that came after us — grew up under his spell and with immortals like yeh daulat bhi lelo, tere khushbu mein basay khat, baat niklegi toe phir door talak jayegi, hum toe hain pardes mein and film numbers like honton se chhoo lo tum, tum itna jo muskura raheho, tumko dekha toe, hosh walon ko khabar and many, many others.

The magic of Jagjit’s velvety baritone that mellowed with age acquiring a rich timber isn’t easy to explain. It lasted and stayed with you a lifetime and you have to experience it to believe it. Jagjit did not sing; he lived what he sang. His voice had acquired an indescribable touch of melancholy over the years as he and Chitra suffered tragedy after tragedy. The couple lost their young son in his prime in a car accident, followed years later by the death of their daughter. This maybe why there was so much pain and pathos in his voice. It touched, moved and soothed a billion hearts.

The crowning glory was without doubt his rendition of Ghalib’s timeless poetry for Gulzar’s unforgettable television serial based on the life of the great poet, brilliantly essayed by Naseeruddin Shah. While the bard has always been a favorite of most ghazal singers, perhaps no one has presented Ghalib as Jagjit has. Each one of those ghazals, every line indeed, is a rare gem, forcing you to listen again and again. He poured his heart into Ghalib forever tugging at the heartstrings of his audience. This from someone who didn’t study Urdu at school nor did inherit it from his parents.

What is most fascinating though is his universal appeal and how he touched millions of lives around the world and helped them connect. I have been amazed by the spontaneous outpouring of grief across the border in Pakistan. Hours after his death, Pakistani television networks paid fulsome tributes to the singer, vying with those across the border. The two leading English dailies of the country, Dawn and the News International, even carried editorials recounting his stupendous contribution.  It’s not often that you see Pakistani media shower such unqualified and unreserved praise on an artist from the other side. Which incidentally holds true for Indian media as well.

I remember years ago when I expressed my hopeless admiration for Mehdi Hassan, a Pakistani friend had surprised me by declaring, “but I love Jagjit Singh! He’s incredible.” She found solace in Jagjit’s comforting voice amid all the confusion and pressures and demands of an expat existence.

As India and Pakistan mourn the singer, I am once again struck by all that the separated at birth twins have in common despite the unpleasantness of the past few decades and wars they have fought on and off the field.

Despite the best efforts of our perpetually scheming politicians, duplicitous diplomats and ever zealous media to divide us and poison our relations, what unites and bonds us, Indians and Pakistanis, is still greater than what divides us. From music to culture to literature and from food to sports to arts, the things that ordinary people of India and Pakistan share is truly mind-boggling.

Much of what Jagjit Singh sang was not just about love, longing and the heart-wrenching pain of losing a loved one, usual themes of a traditional ghazal. The songs of innocence and experience that he sang were also about finding peace amid conflict, keeping your sanity when everyone around you is losing theirs. The collection of Gulzar’s poetry, Marasim, to which Jagjit lent his voice is a dream about reuniting with long lost friends from across the divide (“Sarhad ke uss paar se kuch mehman aye they”).

The day he suffered that wretched brain hemorrhage, from which he never recovered, the singer was to join his old friend and fellow traveler from Lahore, Ghulam Ali, for a rare concert in New Delhi. Indeed, it was to be a series of concerts bringing together the best of voices from both sides of the Indo-Pak border.

It may sound like a silly call from a sentimental scribe but this is what we all need to do — bring together the voices of reason and sanity from India and Pakistan. There has never been a greater need to speak out for love, peace and reason — and not just in South Asia. There cannot be a better tribute to Jagjit’s enduring legacy.

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