After K. L. Saigal, Begum Akhtar and Talat Mahmood, Jagjit Singh gave a true vocal identity to the genre of ghazal singing. His true contribution lies not just in what he sang, but also in institutionalising his genre of music in the subcontinent.
Jagjit Singh arrived in Mumbai in 1965 in search of better opportunities for being a musician and singer. To find a foothold in the film industry ruled by giants like Mohammad Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Mukesh and Manna Dey and others was not an easy task, but Jagjit did not lose heart. His fresh voice was a departure from the prevalent style of ghazal rendition. Sceptics had their reservations, but his voice was a hit.
His earliest assignments were singing advertisement jingles or performing at weddings and parties. Jagjit Singh was first offered a song for a Gujarati film Dharti Na Chhoru.
During the 1970s, the art of ghazal singing was dominated by established names like Talat Mahmood, Ghulam Ali and Begum Akhtar. Jagjit Singh was the quintessential a romantic, singing chartbusters like “Dhayee din na jawani nal chaldi kurti mal mal di,”’ but somewhere deep within him there was a turmoil and pain that made him bring out the longing and hurt of a lover in songs like “Tum itna jo muskra rahe ho/kya ghum hai jisko chhupa rahe ho..”(Arth) . Who can forget the look on Shabana Azmi’s face in the scene where Jagjit Singh sings the playback,“Aankhon mein nami hansi labon par/kya haal hai kya dikha rahe ho”?
Such was the vocal virtuosity of Jagjit Singh that he could build a fan following for his ghazals, especially in an age when Talat Mahmood held the nation in a thrall. The velvety feel of songs sung by Jagjit Singh in films like Arth, Saath Saath, Sarfrosh, Prem Geet, Tum Bin and Tarkeeb etc gave a new dimension to ghazals in films. In film Dushman his number, Chithhi na koiee sandesh/jane woh kaunsa desh/jahan tum chaley gaye had all the elements of a pain-ridden prayer to the Almighty.
To recall Jagjit Singh’s film songs alone would be to overlook his oeuvre as a super performer in the richer realm outside cinema — that of the private ghazal. Every ghazal that he sang has its musical colouring, is dainty in tone, pleasing in timbre and has a magical expression which moves the listeners to delight. Jagjit Singh had brought to ghazals his individualistic style, called crooning. He conquered hearts with his soothing voice and established a rapport with his audience and overwhelmed them with his lilting vocals in ghazals like “Baat niklegi to phir door talak jayegi”, “Sarakti jaye hai rukh se naqab ahista, ahista,” “Pathar ke khuda pathar ke sanam” and others. The true quality of his ghazals is that these needed no visuals to stay embedded in the mindset of the music lovers. HMV— the gramophone company of India — thrived on his popularity and released a large number of albums of his ghazals.
The heart-rending ghazals in the album Someone Somewhere by Jagjit and wife Chitra Singh embody the deep personal loss at the death of their only son. Sajda, an album which has ghazals sung by Jagjit Singh and Lata Mangeshkar, establishes him as the uncrowned ‘king of ghazals.’
With each album unprecedented popularity came naturally to Jagjit Singh and the fervour with which each album was received ensured sure-fire success and took him to the pinnacle of glory.
Jagjit Singh prefered to draw on the traditional heritage of ragas to form the basis of his tunes and proceeded to embellish his ghazals with modern orchestration.
As a result, his musical compositions are marked by a distinctive and delightful blending of the traditional and the modern. Jagjit Singh has been acclaimed far and wide for clarity of words and subtlety of expression. His ghazals used the choicest poetry of renowned poets, including Mirza Ghalib, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Qateel Shifai, Sudershan Fakir and Nida Fazli, Javed Akhtar and Gulzar. Though Jagjit Singh was popularly known as the ghazal king, he charmed the audience with equal ease in the Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Sindhi and Nepali languages and made a tremendous contribution to the music industry, for which he was awarded the coveted Padma Bhushan in 2003.
Ghazal singing is bound to receive a setback, because after the death of giants like Begum Akhtar, K. L. Saigal, Talat Mahmood, Mohd. Rafi etc, Jagjit Singh kept this genre alive with his unique enunciation, that was the preserve of an exponent only of his standing.