The Redoubtable Indian Mallika e Ghazal Beghum Akhtar passed away in the early 1970s. Talat Mehmood, though acclaimed for his art but having never made it independently in the commercial world, was at the ebb of his career. And the art form of singing ghazals was now believed to be the forte of Pakistani artistes – with the likes of Noor Jehan, Mallika Pukhraj, Farida Khanum, not to mention the legendary Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali, widely acknowledged as masters of the form.
In 1976, however, in Jagjit Singh, India finally saw its own new star of ghazal gayiki. “ Ye to theek thaak gata hai,” said Jagjit Singh once, recalling the surprise with which people in the Bombay film industry reacted to his success with singing ghazals. “And they finally started offering me work in their films.” Jagjit Singh had spent some years in the wilderness that was then the Bombay film industry. No one took him seriously until HMV, the music label His Master’s Voice of the legendary Gramophone Company of India, gave him a break. The Unforgettables, Jagjit Singh’s first music album, which featured also his wife, the singer Chitra, was launched. Thus sang Jagjit: “ Baat niklegi to phir duur talak jayegi …” (‘Spelt out, the word shall go far.’) And the word did, indeed, go far. His Master’s Voice had helped discover what would enthral millions for nearly four decades in India and around the world, a sound that flowed like honey, and carried with it the warmth of love and romance, the sting of longing and pathos, lilting in a soulful voice.
Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho and Jhuki jhuki si nazar were just two of Jagjit’s numbers that hit the chartbusters of the time, never to recede from public memory
By the time Bollywood – where the show was run by greats like Naushad, Khayyam, the Burman father-and-son, and Laxmikant-Pyarelal to name just a few – woke to embrace him fully, Jagjit Singh had, along with his wife Chitra, come to embody an entire genre that took the might of the Hindi film music of the time head on. It came to be known as the non-film music industry. And Jagjit Singh would go on – tragically alone – to be the most successful artiste in the genre that he was credited with creating.
Born in Rajasthan in 1941, Jagjit was the third among 11 siblings. He ventured to Bombay early on, and there he met Chitra and eventually married her in 1969.
No one took Jagjit seriously until HMV gave him a break
In the early 80s, finally, Jagjit had arrived in Hindi films as well. Honton se chhuu lo tum from the film Prem Geet (1981) brought him his first major success. Soon afterwards, it was Mahesh Bhatt – himself struggling to make a mark with his directorial debut film Arth – who in 1982 brought in Jagjit for the score. The result was phenomenal. The beauty of the lyrics of Kaifi Azmi was matched with the ease of Jagjit’s brilliant rendition. Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho and Jhuki jhuki si nazar were just two of his numbers that hit the chartbusters of the time, never to recede from public memory.
In the 90s music was going through a process of intense commercialisation where ghazals were seen as increasingly passes
The all time-great Tum ko dekha to ye khayal aaya from the film Saath Saath bolstered Jagjit’s position even more. Jagjit, however, was looking way ahead of his time and preferred his independence in selecting his lyricists and composing his own music and creating his own ghazals. Jagjit experimented and eventually regularised the more modern sounds of music and percussion in his ghazals. People fell instantly in love. Purists, however, sounded the death knell of the traditionally sung form of ghazal.
The decade of the 80s saw the Jagjit-Chitra duo performing from Wembley to London and New York to Honk Kong, apart from the Indian subcontinent of course, and recording albums like Ecstacies, Passions, A Milestone, The Latest and A Sound Affair with such commercial success that had no precedent in their art. By the end of that decade the couple had reached a near-cult status among audiences in the Indian subcontinent and diaspora. And then came two television serials, and Jagjit ensured for himself a space in the history of the culture of an entire subcontinent.
Writer and lyricist Gulzar made Mirza Ghalib (1988), a long TV serial on the life and times of one of the greatest poets of all time, Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. And the redoubtable Ali Sardar Jafri came up with Kahkashan (1991), a TV series based on the lives of the greatest Urdu poets of centuries past. Jagjit gave music to both. For a moment, even the purists were puzzled at whether the sonorous voice of Jagjit was better than the pieces of the greatest Urdu poetry that he was singing.
Tragedy, however, struck the couple not too long after Ghalib. In 1990, their only son Vivek died in an accident at the age of 19. Chitra soon afterwards stopped singing forever and Jagjit went solo for most of the rest of his career.
For Jagjit, who was now struggling with depression, success would still know no bounds. And newer generations would continue to be introduced to the ghazal courtesy Jagjit Singh. However, the pain and pathos in his voice would become increasingly haunting in character. The content of his ghazals saw a major change. In reality, it marked a much bigger shift in his career.
“ Bachchon ke chhote haathon ko chaand sitaare chhuune do… Chaar kitaaben padh kar wo bhi hum jaise ho jayenge.” The 90s increasingly saw the maestro singing lyrics that turned the conventional content of the sung ghazal over its head. The fact that he was at the pinnacle of his career and commercial success didn’t deter the man from doing this. He sang Nida Fazli’s lyrics thus: “ Saaton din bhagwaan ke… Kya mangal kya peer.” (‘All days belong to the One… What’s auspicious, what inauspicious?’)
In 1990, the couple’s only son Vivek died in an accident at the age of 19. Chitra soon afterwards stopped singing forever and Jagjit went solo for most of the rest of his career
In Face to Face (1994), Jagjit had decisively ditched ishq, the overriding theme of the singers of the ghazal. Jagjit was now singing “ Sachchi baat kahi thi maine… Logon ne sooli pe chadhaya.” For the rest of his productive career, Jagjit stuck to his newfound unorthodoxy. Another gem saw him singing “ Ab main raashan ki qataaron mein nazar aata hun… Apne kheten se bichhadne ki sazaa pata hun.” For his album Cry for Cry (1995), he featured a young Siza Roy who sang “ Maa sunao mujhe wo kahani… Jis me raja na ho, na ho rani.” Jagjit lamented: “ Bhookay bachchon ki tassali ke liye… Maa ne phir paani pakaya der tak.” In Mirage (1995), he parodied politicians for making false promises to innocent people, even as he tweaked Ghalib all over: “ Naye vaadon ka jo dala hai wo jaal acha hai… Ik barhaaman ne kaha hai ki ye saal acha hai!” And “ Main na Hindu na Musalmaan… Mujhe jeene do!” And as he departed from the conventional form of the content of the ghazal, Jagjit incredibly came out with the phenomenal commercial success he was used to.
On the other hand, music was going through a process of intense commercialisation where ghazals were seen as increasingly passe. It was also a time when Pakistan was back in India with an extraordinary performer whose talent knew no boundaries of genres – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Khan had devastated the lines that divided genres as far apart from each other as classical sufi and western rock. A delight for a whole new breed of remix musicians like Bally Sagoo, the ustaad had long been annoyed by Bollywood copycats who stole his tunes with impunity. In 1996, Khan finally created Sangam with lyricist Javed Akhtar. Sangam was meant to reclaim his oeuvre. While Main aur meri aawaargee was a lament in the wilderness of an unjust life that the poet retold with sounds of western pulp music backing the vocals, Sheher ke dukaandaron was a more sober lament of the poet in an unjust world. It was, however, Aafreen Aafreen,a racy number Khan sang and offered also for a techno remix, packed with a sey video featuring a desert-steamed supermodel Lisa Ray. The album had not just upset the purist, but rattled a whole genre leaving the ghazal in a fix. Jagjit succumbed in his album Unique, 1996.
But three years later, in 1999, he joined hands with Gulzar yet again and Sony Music came out with Marasim. The ghazal was back – Haath chhute bhi to rishtey nahi chhoda karte – but Jagjit was not singing love songs to the beloved. At the end of the song, a dream sequence recited by Gulzar provided the context: “ Sarhad par kal raat suna hai chali thi goli… Sarhad par kal raat suna hai kuchh khwaabon ka khoon hua hai.” (‘There’s been fire exchanged across the border… There’s been murder of some dreams over the line.’) Jagjit Singh left a message we cannot afford to ignore.
Tribute By Nawaz Gul Qanungo