Jagjit Singh was born in Sriganganagar in Rajasthan Feb. 8, 1941. Jagjit’s first school was an Urdu-medium primary where the children sat on the floor — an index of the fact that his father was from the middle-class and they were far from well off.
By 1948, the family was a little better off and radio, till then unaffordable, came into their house. When Jagjit’s father heard him sing along one day, he recognized some promise in his son and sent him to learn music from a blind maestro, Pandit Chhaganlal Misra. The year was 1953.
The Pandit made him learn and practice the basic notes and scales. Later, Jagjit went to learn music from Ustad Jamal Khan Saheb, who introduced him to raags as well as traditional bandish, thumri and khayal. It is this training that made Jagjit rise above the competition when he entered his profession and took the ghazal out of the courts of royalty to the common man, without undue compromise.
The young man also began to attend concerts by Pt. Maniram and Pt. Jasraj. He would also sing Sikh shabads to the tunes of film songs on processions in trucks during holy days.
It was when he was in Standard Nine that he came to give his first public performance — he was invite to sing during the Sikh religious period of Guruparab at the Kavi Darbar and sang “Ki Tera Aitbaar O Rahiya.” Soon he became a popular participant, and would either sing shabads composed by himself or in the raags indicated by the Guru Granth Sahib. All this acclaim affirmed young Jagjit’s decision to concentrate only on music as his future career, despite being distinguished in academics, hockey and football.
He became a great fan of Talat Mahmood, Madan Mohan and C. Ramachandra, and the ghazals by them all shaped his subconscious education in poetry, meter and compositions. He also became a die-hard fan of Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. However, another turning-point was his exposure to Ustad Amir Khan and his style of classical music, wherein the emphasis was more on words and expressions rather than notes and nuances. This is the style Jagjit took on and shaped in his inimitable way.
While studying at the DAV College in Jalandhar (Punjab), Jagjit was selected as a B-grade artist with All India Radio there, and got six programs of 15 minutes a year because of his classical training. He was later approved for light music as well. Besides earning good money, he also became widely known.
Jagjit’s first trip to Mumbai was in 1961 on the way back from a performance in Ooty. Veteran actor Om Prakash had invited him there after being impressed by his singing at a show in Shimla. Then actor introduced him to Shankar-Jaikishan, Madan Mohan and Jaidev as well as character artist Manmohan Krishna, who had a radio program of ghazals. Jaikishan even took his voice-test but stated that Jagjit would have to be patient and remain in Mumbai, which was then not feasible for him.
It was in 1965, when a friend promised a roof over his head as well as a monthly maintenance, that Jagjit finally landed in Mumbai. When he finally got a chance to cut his first EP record (two songs on each side) with another artist under the music direction of C.K. Chauhaan, he shrewdly sang one song, “Saaqiya Hosh Kahaan Tha,” in his own style and another in Mukesh’s tenor. After a lot of thought, he decided that the picture the music company (HMV, as Saregama was then called) wanted on the cover would decidedhis identity, so he cut his hair short and removed his turban. Without real promotion, this EP sold 5,000 copies, leading to Saregama’s offer to cut an independent EP of four songs, for which Jagjit chose his own compositions.
Jagjit once again struggled to get a break as a playback singer but he could only sing in the Gujarati film “Bahuroopi” (1968). Though he was a hit at film parties, his voice was never considered right for actors, and he wisely decided to make positive use of this and restrict his singing to ghazals, which suited his deep and mellifluous voice.
At this time, Jagjit found love in Chitra Dutta, a married singer with whom he was invited to sing a duet. Chitra’s neighbour was a fan of his voice, and after some initial doubts and even dislike of his voice (though she liked the soft-spoken young man), Chitra was drawn both to him and his music. Chitra’s marriage had already soured and Jagjit and Chitra got married in 1968 — she already had a daughter from her first marriage.
Contrary to popular perception, Chitra’s husband Debu liked Jagjit, and he had sung several jingles for that studio owner and ad filmmaker. For the cover of “The Unforgettables,” the peacock leaf with the faces of the couple superimposed was clicked by Debu even after they had married.
From this point to the early ‘70s, Jagjit’s career included cutting EPs (solo and with Chitra), singing at film parties and — surprisingly — composing and singing jingles. Invited to Hong Kong to sing at a wedding, he was taken to the racecourse and bet 100 dollars on a horse and won 3,300 dollars. This was the beginning of the second biggest passion of his life — horses. He was known to be so fond of the horses that he owned that he once bottle-fed a baby horse whose mother had died.
In 1975, Jagjit arrived in the real sense — Saregama offered him the album “The Unforgettables,” which became a roaring success. Soon after came “Birha Da Sultan” and India’s first double album in this genre, “Come Alive” (1979), wherein effects of a live concert with recorded applause were used — Jagjit’s flair for technical aspects first came to the fore with this album.
Subsequently, among the almost 80 albums that Jagjit recorded in his lifetime in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Sindhi and Nepali for music labels that also included EMI, Venus, Tips, T-Series, Universal (then called Music India) and Sony-BMG, Jagjit was to record many concerts live, like the “Live at Wembley” album later the same year.
It was in 1981 that Jagjit got his major break in films as a singer with Raman Kumar’s “Saath Saath.” In the same year, Jagjit composed his first film score in Shatrughan Sinha’s home production “Prem Geet.” Jagjit composed more for Sinha’s films than for any other film producer, with his production “Kalka” (with Chitra Singh), home productions “Raahee” and “Billoo Badshah,” and his starring vehicle “Jwala.”
The other filmmaker who shaped his career was Mahesh Bhatt (“Arth” with Chitra, “Aaj” and “Ashiana”). Jagjit-Chitra also composed for Arunavikas’ “Situm,” and Jagjit alone for U.S.-based Somnath Sen’s “Leela” and Johny Bakshi’s “Khudai,” starring Rajesh Khanna and the unreleased “Ravan” among other films.
Even as his ghazal career bloomed with multiple albums, he again showed his technical expertise by coming up with India’s first digital album, “Beyond Time” (1987), which was recorded and mixed in London. A firm believer in the truth that recorded music is permanent, Jagjit always made sure of perfectly balancing his songs, especially bass, treble and reverb, and minimizing hiss. His stage experience globally also made him aware of such points as well as the frequencies. His marketing genius also saw that without compromising poetry, composition or vocals, he would always use the guitar and other Western instruments. His earliest albums as well as a few later ones like “Mirage” had largely English titles.
In 1974, he had made his debut in films with Kanu Roy’s “Aavishkar,” and over the years he came to sing for not only small composers like Tabun (“Jogger’s Park”), Basu Chakravorty (“Nargis”), Uttam Singh (“Dushman”) and Nikhil-Vinay (“Tum Bin”), but also bigger names like Bappi Lahiri (“Bhavna”), Aadesh Shrivastava (“Tarkieb,” “Baabul”), Jatin-Lalit (“Sarfarosh”), Vishal-Shekhar (“Vadh” and “Stop!”) and last but not least, Laxmikant-Pyarelal (“Khal-Nayak’s” Anand Bakshi classic “O Maa Tujhe Salaam” and “Tejaswini”).
Among Jagjit’s most popular albums are “Mirage,” “Marasim” (with Gulzar), “Silsilay” (with Javed Akhtar) and “Sajda” (with Lata Mangeshkar). After his son’s death in a car accident, and his wife Chitra stopping her singing, Jagjit seemed to balance religious and spiritual albums like “Maa,” “Nivedan” and several others. But this may well have been a coincidence because while devotional music can never go out of fashion, ghazals have faced an ebbing of fortunes that has also affected the names that have followed the trail that Jagjit blazed — Talat Aziz (his protégé whom he introduced in “Jagjit Singh Presents Talat Aziz” (1981), Bhupinder and Mitalee Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Anup Jalota, Penaz Masani and many more.
Trends, however, may come and go. Jagjit Singh, however, will live on forever as the priest who wed the common man to the ghazal for all time to come.
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