Jagjit Singh (1941-2011), With His Mellifluous Voice, Helped Ghazal Find its Rightful Place in the Hearts of the Common People.
JAGJIT SINGH was born to sing, and he firmly believed that he could have done nothing else. And when the great ghazal singer breathed his last in a Mumbai hospital on October 10, he had reached the end of a journey that lasted 70 years, the better part of it spent bringing ghazal out of the closet. “You have to understand the language. If you don’t, the essence of ghazal would be lost,” he once remarked. The maestro would convince himself first and then take his offering to the masses. He did not believe in “imposing” a ghazal on his followers.
Jagjit Singh was born into a Sikh family in Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan on February 8, 1941. He spent his modest childhood in Bikaner where his father worked.
“We were a lower-middle-class family. My mother had 11 children. Seven survived,” Jagjit is quoted as saying in his biography, Beyond Time. His middle-class rooting helped him embrace life, its joys and sorrows, with a realistic philosophy.
Jagjit’s love for singing took wing under the guidance of Pandit Chhaganlal Sharma, a blind music teacher.
Jagjit did not mind missing school to catch up on films that had good music. At a college function, he held the attention of the audience, despite a power failure, with a song from the film Pyaasa. That day he was convinced that his future lay in singing. He pursued education in Jalandhar, Punjab, primarily because the town had a radio station.
Gulzar, the versatile poet and film-maker, described Jagjit thus: “His voice is beautiful and so is his rendering.” The two came together in Jagjit’s later years and produced some unforgettable gems. Little wonder that Gulzar affectionately referred to him as “Ghazaljit”.
Jagjit, who had a mellifluous voice, struggled initially as a singer. His brother Kartar revealed in Beyond Time how Jagjit sang at film parties in the hope of getting a break: “When he was new to Bombay (in the mid-1960s), all the big film people would call him to their homes to sing, making false promises of giving him a chance in films so that he would perform for them free.”
But Jagjit was determined to make it big on his own. A Sikh, Jagjit sacrificed his hair and beard to gain a new look, the look of a ghazal singer. This act did not go down well with his family at first.
His first playback song was in a Gujarati film, but Jagjit confessed that the album “The Unforgettables”, released in 1976, was a “defining moment” in his musical career. His “Baat niklegi to phir duur talak jayegi” in the album was a big hit. The album changed the way the masses listened to ghazals.
While purists and traditionalists may have preferred the Pakistani ghazal singers Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, Jagjit’s voice won the hearts of the youth. Ghazal became easy to understand and easier to hum thanks to him. Jagjit’s numbers became an essential part of social gatherings and private parties.
He formed a winning partnership with his wife and fellow ghazal singer Chitra. “Bohot pehle se un kadmon ki aahat pehchaan lete hain” had a generation swooning. As did “Sarakti jaye hai rukh se naqaab ahistaa ahistaa”. Jagjit and Chitra’s fan following grew with each album of theirs. Ghazal had found its rightful place among the common people, but what thrilled Jagjit the most was the overwhelming response his concerts received overseas.
Many singers found live concerts an uncomfortable experience. But Jagjit loved them. In fact, he was at his best during live performances. He would innovate, and regale the audience with his humour. “It became part of his concerts in later years,” remembered Kuldeep Desai, who conceptualised the shows. “He had an amazing skill to read the audience. The jokes were his way of making them comfortable, and his constant interaction with them lit up the atmosphere.”
“He looked forward to performing at concerts. Surprisingly, he never prepared himself for the shows. His initial interaction with the audience and its response would decide the course of the evening,” Desai recalled.
He particularly liked fans who grew up listening to his film and non-film genre of music. “The middle-aged group at his concerts struck an instant bond,” Desai pointed out. This was the segment that formed the largest chunk of his ghazal-loving audience. Jagjit would joke: “They must have been teenagers or in the early days of their courtship when I was just about beginning to make ghazal popular with the youth. Most of their requests would often be for my songs of 1975-85.”
Two films, Arth and Saath Saath, propelled him into national reckoning. The songs from the films captured the imagination of the young, and their success gave a fillip to his non-film renderings too. Jagjit and Chitra became household names in the 1980s, and it was considered fashionable to hum ghazals and embellish one’s collection with Jagjit-Chitra albums. His evergreen solo from Prem Geet, “Hoton se chhu lo tum, Mera geet amar kar do”, became an anthem for the youth and continues to be one in times when music, as he lamented sometimes, has been reduced to “cacophony”.
Tragedy struck in July 1990 when Jagjit and Chitra lost Vivek, their only son, in a car accident on Marine Drive, Mumbai. Vivek was a month short of 19. Chitra never performed in public again, but Jagjit returned to win the hearts of his fans after six months.
“I was a broken man,” wrote Jagjit, recalling how the tanpura infused life into his singing again. He sought solace in Nida Fazli’s poems such as “Apna gham le ke kahin aur jaaya jaye, Ghar mein bhikre hui cheezon ko sajaaya jaye”.
The pain was evident in Jagjit’s voice when he came out with “Sajda”, one of his finest albums, in tandem with Lata Mangeshkar. It was a landmark effort because it brought two legends from different backgrounds together.
A private person, Jagjit was polite to a fault with his friends and fans. His only anguish was with reality shows and the general decline in singing standards.
“They [the new singers] are in a hurry. They want to rush from being bathroom singers to studios,” he told this correspondent once. The reality shows, he said, were nothing but “dramas” with judges as “showpieces”.
Jagjit boosted secularism through his work. He took immense pride when Takhat Sachkhand Sri Hazur Sahib of Nanded (Maharashtra) commissioned him to bring out an album of four CDs containing 32 shabads (hymns) to commemorate 300 years of Gurta Gaddi of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji Maharaj. Jagjit, in association with Dr Gurnam Singh of Punjabi University, Patiala, produced a priceless collection. The album had singers from different religions and cultures, such as Ustad Rashid Khan, Shafaqat Amanat Ali, Hariharan, Begum Parveen Sultana, Jayshri Shivram, Ashwini Deshpande, Suresh Wadkar, Sonu Nigam, Anup Jalota, Dilraj Kaur, and Shankar Mahadevan apart from Jagjit.
At the launch, Jagjit said: “The 32 shabads are a symbol of national integration and we have many non-Sikh singers contributing. The shabads are simple and easy to understand.” His music, too, was always simple and easy to understand. The album became part of his religious renderings which also included Ram Dhun, Shiv Dhun and Krishna bhajans.
Another album that Jagjit loved was Samvedna, based on the poetry of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The one that appealed to him the most was “Duur kahin koi rota hai”, which Vajpayee wrote when he was lying in a hospital bed during the Emergency.
His following was worldwide and his music appealed to the people of Pakistan greatly. Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali shared a special rapport with this icon from India. Jagjit and Ghulam Ali held a concert in New Delhi in September 2011. Their second performance, in Mumbai, stood cancelled as Jagjit took ill and suffered a brain haemorrhage, which led to his death.
Jagjit loved the company of cricketers and was close to many. He visited Sharjah to watch the India-Pakistan matches. He was fond of racing too and owned a few horses, but music remained his priority, and as he often said, his “commitment” to society.
Jagjit Singh, of ageless music, will sing no more. But his voice will live forever.
By. Vijay Locapally