One of the oldest musical genres, the ghazal, originated in the Middle East in the sixth century before finding a permanent home in the Indian subcontinent in the 12th century. Although it has been the foundation for countless other genres across the centuries, this deeply poetic form of music finally reached the masses thanks to the Sikh maestro Jagjit Singh, who has died aged 70, after a brain haemorrhage. Affectionately known as the king of the ghazal, he spread the music around the world and made more than 50 albums over a 46-year long career.
One of seven children, he was born Jagmohan Singh in the Sri Ganganagar district of Rajasthan, into a devout Sikh family. Not long after the birth, his father, Amar, a government employee, rechristened him Jagjit, on the advice of a holy man. He was surrounded by music from an early age, performing Sikh devotional hymns at the local temple and imitating songs he heard on radio. His natural talent did not go unnoticed. Singh’s father sent him to learn classical Indian music from Pandit Chaganlal Sharma for two years and he studied with the respected maestro Ustad Jamaal Khan for a further six years.
Singh attended Khalsa high school and Government college in Sri Ganganagar before graduating in arts from DAV College in Jalandhar and gaining a postgraduate degree in history from Kurukshetra University in Haryana. During his studies Singh sang for All India Radio, composed his first songs and started performing in stage shows. “I knew I had to be a singer,” he said. “Although my father helped me train in my childhood, he wanted me to be an engineer. I soon realised that I would never understand science.”
In March 1965 Singh took a decision that would change his life for ever when he boarded a train to Mumbai without telling his family. He used the little savings he had to check into a dirty, rundown hostel. After doing a number of odd jobs Singh persuaded the record company HMV to cut a four-track EP later that year. He took the drastic decision to shave off his beard, cut his hair and get rid of his turban. Nevertheless, he continued to struggle and made money from singing advertising jingles.
Singh turned a corner when he met the unhappily married singer Chitra Dutta in 1967. They married in 1969, had a son, Vivek, and then teamed up to become a singing duo. At first they had only low-level success because ghazal music was a niche genre dominated by mainly Muslim artists, and Bollywood was ruling the musical roost.
Everything changed with the release of their 1976 album The Unforgettables, a surprise hit that turned the couple into overnight stars. They were invited to tour all over the world and followed it up by delivering successful albums together and as solo artists. Singh said: “I was determined to polish up the genre and make it more acceptable to modern tastes, so chose simple poems and set them to simple tunes. I also introduced western instrumentation to make them livelier.” Singh was also offered high-profile film projects and the couple became enormously wealthy.
In 1990 Vivek was killed in a road accident. Chitra was so heartbroken that she gave up singing and retired from public life. Singh poured his grief into diverse solo projects that included religious songs. Despite receiving public accolades, including the Padma Bhushan award in 2003, and delivering hit songs, he suffered from deep depression and his anguish was often evident in his live performances. Chitra’s daughter Monica took her own life in 2009.
Singh undertook his last tour of the UK earlier this year. He had been due to perform with a fellow ghazal singer, Ghulam Ali, at a concert in Mumbai, when he suffered a brain haemorrhage in September. Chitra survives him.
• Jagjit Singh, singer, songwriter and musician, born 8 February 1941; died 10 October 2011
- Asjad Nazir
- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 25 October 2011