I am Successful Because I am Simple
Jagjit Singh was not just a singer; he was an icon. Generations have turned to him in their moments of sorrow, pain, anguish, dejection, triumph, celebration, even exhilaration. He was much beyond the digital age. In fact, he was a down-to-earth person with few romantic delusions about himself. In his own way, this small town boy, who made it big in India’s most happening metro, was a quietly colourful personality. Editor-in-Chief Chandan Mitra met him at the Mahalaxmi race course in Mumbai a few years ago, a place he visited daily to connect with his horses
February 8, 1941-october 10, 2011
What’s the difference between the new-age ghazal that you pioneered and the earlier stuff, considering that as a genre the ghazal is centuries old?
First, I think old ghazals had no discipline. People sang them without realising they were ghazals. Also they were not sufficiently structured. Now, if you think back, most popular Hindi film songs from the 1950s were based on ghazals. If you hear any old Hemant Kumar number, say Yaad kiya dil ne kahan ho tum, they were mostly ghazals. Composer Madan Mohan set so many ghazals to his inimitable tunes. To give just some examples, Yun hasraton ke daag or Mai re main kaase kahun peer. Even then ghazals were preferred because they reflected sensible poetry, there was no silly tukbandi (rhyming). When I branched out on my own, I was determined to polish up the genre and make it more acceptable to modern tastes. I read ghazals thoroughly and in my early years I would select classics by Ghalib, Mir, Jigar, Firaq and Daagh.
Later, I turned to more contemporary writers like Nida Fazli, Wasim Brelvi and Bashir Badr. My knowledge of Urdu being limited, I chose only simple poems and set them to simple tunes. I also introduced Western instrumentation to make the overall effect livelier. Incidentally, that idea I borrowed from film music, it wasn’t exactly original. As I said, 50s’ compositions were mainly ghazal-based but had Western style instrumentation.
Would you say you are a naturally talented singer whom the world was just waiting to discover?
Well, in a way, I suppose so. I was drawn to music from my early childhood and very keen to pick up classical techniques. Actually, my father was a great music lover. He used to hum classical numbers at home and being part of a devout Namdhari Sikh family, I was exposed to shabads that are always based on ragas. I used to listen to the radio a lot and those days classical music held sway. I would pick up Hindi film music too, but those were early days of the Mumbai’s cinema industry and film songs were not widely broadcast. But I was good at memorising whatever numbers I heard and practised them at home. My family and friends were impressed with my singing and I got a lot of encouragement from my father.
You come from an ordinary middle class family that had little exposure to urban life. How come you grew out of this background?
All I knew was that some day I would be a big singer and I pursued this dream single-mindedly. We originally belong to Ropar district in what was then East Punjab, but I grew up in Sriganganagar in Rajasthan that had a large Sikh population. My father was employed with the PWD and his was a transferable job. We settled in Sriganganagar and I did my schooling at the Khalsa High School. The medium of instruction in the junior classes was Urdu and that gave me an early acquaintance with the language although we did not really go beyond alif, bey, tey! I was born in 1941 and Independence came soon after that. Then Hindi became the medium of instruction. But the little Urdu I learnt as a child helped me develop my skills as a ghazal singer.
My first public appearance on stage was at a Kavi Darbar that used to be held in our town every Gurupurab. Big names like Asa Singh Mastana, Rajkavi Inderjit Singh Tulsi, Surinder Kaur and others had come for that. I was asked to render a shabad in their presence. I had recast the shabad in my own style and set it to tune based on Raga Bhairavi. The audience liked it very much and I was told to sing one more number. That boosted my confidence. There was no looking back after that.
So, you never got any formal training in music as such?
No, I was trained. My father sent me to learn the basics from a local musician Chhaganlal Sharma. Our school hours were from 7 to 11 in the morning. I would come home, have lunch and go over to Masterji’s house. He was a blind man but a wonderful teacher who taught me all the essentials, starting with saregama. After two years, my father engaged Ustad Jamal Khan, from whom I learnt the ragas, khayal and taranas. He was a descendant of Tansen. He taught me some great bandishes, especially one set in Malkauns and another in Bilaskhani Todi.
But after that my formal training ended. Also, I had to move out of Sriganganagar and stay by myself because there was no college in my hometown. My brother, who was then studying in Mahindra College, Patiala, wanted me to join him there. But I decided to go to the DAV College in Jalandhar instead. That was because Jalandhar had a station of All India Radio. I wanted to be in a place where I would have access to the radio for that was the only medium in those days to express one’s musical abilities. I gave an audition and got approved as a Category B artiste, which meant I could get two programmes every month. In college, I started composing ghazals, very simple ones. These I would sing for AIR. Those days, the radio gave you great exposure and feedback.
But even at that stage, did you seriously want to make a career out of singing? Did you think it would give you enough money or fame?
I knew I had to be a singer. My father didn’t agree although he had helped me train in my childhood. He thought I should be an engineer. So, I enrolled for a BSc degree. After two years, I realised I would never understand science, let alone be an engineer. So I switched to BA and studied history. But all along I knew I was passing time. I was not interested in studying seriously. After I graduated, my father insisted I try for the lAS. I didn’t want to. So, I persuaded him that I needed to do my post-graduation before appearing for the civil services exam. I went over to Kurukshetra University and enrolled for an MA because the former Principal of DAV College, Jalandhar, had just moved there as Vice-Chancellor. He had always encouraged me to sing because I used to participate actively in college functions.
At Kurukshetra, I blossomed as a stage performer. That was the time I came into contact with many people who became good friends later in life. One such person is Subhash Ghai who used to come there quite frequently as a stage actor representing his university at competitions. I remember he used to be quite popular among students. Actually so was I. Soon a time came for me to decide whether to struggle with my studies or turn to music full time. On March 19, 1965 (I remember the date very clearly), I boarded the Pathankot Express to Mumbai. I had to do this quietly because my family would have been quite upset.
Did you come to Mumbai penniless like many others of your generation who went on to become big stars?
Honestly, no. I had saved some money from my radio and stage appearances in Jalandhar. Not a princely sum but I knew I could last out a few months provided I lived frugally. I had some friends and acquaintances in Mumbai and once I managed to locate them, some arrangements were made. I moved into the Sher-e-Punjab Hostel in Agadipada, where we had four cots to each room. I paid Rs 35 per month for sleeping there. It was a dirty and dingy place. I remember once I found a rat nibbling at the dead skin that always forms at the edge of one’s feet. But the company was great. The other guys from Punjab were very spirited. Although we had no money to spare, they were gamblers by instinct. They went to the races, played cards and placed bets on the matka. Other friends helped me find odd jobs. I used to perform regularly at private functions like weddings and mundans, I also got a break with radio very soon. You know, Mumbai absorbs you. I found it to be a city with a heart. For example, restaurant and dhaba owners got to know me and I was always allowed to eat on credit.
But you must have barely managed to keep body and soul together doing such small jobs. Weren’t your big dreams shattered by this experience?
No, I never lost heart. I moved from studio to studio, producer to producer, offering my services. Nobody heard me. But I persisted with HMV, which was the only record company those days. In 1965 itself, they agreed to cut a disc. They said they would take out an EP (For the edification of Generation Next, Extended Play polyester records consisted of four tracks over two sides and played at 45 rpm as against the two track, shellac-based 78 rpm records that were being phased out by the early 60s). But it wasn’t a solo EP; I shared it with Suresh Rajvanshi.
That record became quite a hit and the next year, HMV offered me my first solo EP. I sang Mir and Jigar ghazals including the all-time classic Ab to ghabrake kehte hain. Those days, there was really no measure of how much a record sold or what kind of popularity a singer of non-filmi music had. So even after cutting my own records, I wasn’t very much richer or better known. I think my first real break came after 1968 when Vividh Bharati went commercial. That’s when advertising was first allowed on the broadcast medium and jingles became very popular. I started writing, composing and singing those ad jingles on radio. I particularly remember doing jingles for Orkay and Omo soap. That allowed me to make some money and for the first time, I had a steady source of income.
I believe you met Chitra while doing these jingles…
That’s right. It was actually through her first husband, Debo Prasad Dutta, who used to make ad films and had set up a studio in his house for recording jingles. Chitra did not like my voice initially. But on account of an exigency, one day she had to sing a jingle with me. She comes from a musically talented family herself and has a keen ear. That’s how we first met and drew close. Her marriage was going through some problems at that time and her husband wanted a divorce. It had nothing to do with me although I was there to comfort her and lend a helping hand. Soon, we had come together and I did my first international show with her when we travelled to East Africa in 1969. Those days, I wasn’t a big name and people didn’t come to hear my ghazals. So I would sing popular film songs. In East Africa, we sang Roop tera mastana and O mere sona re sona re, which were the rage those days. Our shows were a big hit.
When we came back, Chitra said what’s the point of your living in separate accommodation? So I joined her at the flat she had rented on Warden Road. That’s where she was staying with her daughter Monica after breaking up with Mr Dutta. I started living there. I composed the music for her first EP; we did a few duets also. By then, I was on the road to becoming well-known. In 1976, HMV finally said they thought we were ready to do our own long-play. That’s how Unforgettables came about in 1976.
You always say Unforgettables was the turning point of your career. What exactly happened after that?
I came into my own and was recognised as a ghazal singer worldwide. As I told you, before that I performed mainly at private parties where I sang ghazals, bhajans and shabads. On stage shows, people came to hear more of my version of popular film songs than ghazals. But after Unforgettables, everybody wanted to hear me sing my own compositions. Immediately after the album became a big success, Chitra and I went on another foreign tour. This time we went to Kuwait, Dubai, London and East Africa once more. In London, I sang on BBC too. That was a big recognition. We were out of India for nearly six months. It was really the first time we made some real money. So, we decided to buy up Chitra’s rented flat. Meanwhile royalties from records also started flowing in. I was gradually moving up into a different league. With money and recognition, our social circle widened. Life underwent many changes but let me tell you I never hankered after these things. It was good to be recognised and have enough money but I was happy with the slow pace of the changes. We went on a series of foreign tours after that. You name the most prestigious auditoria in the world and I have sung there — Royal Albert Hall, the Palladium, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Esplanade in Singapore. I was also the first Indian to sing at Sun City in South Africa to a capacity audience of 6,000 people. The show was sold out for two consecutive days.
The tragic death of your only son in an accident is said to have devastated both Chitra and you. How did you cope?
That is a kind of tragedy I fervently hope no parent has to face. Yes, it was devastating. Chitra retreated into a shell. She stopped singing, stopped interacting with people. Although Monica and her two kids are very close to us, Baboo’s death almost destroyed Chitra’s will. Over time I, however, made it my source of strength, my power. I immersed myself into music and brought that melancholic strain into my compositions. That way I expressed my sorrow; I found an outlet for it. For me, music suddenly became like meditation. I haven’t got over the tragedy; it haunts us all the time. But we have to live with it. Chitra, too, is recovering but I don’t think she will ever sing on stage again, although I might just be able to get her to sing in a studio at some stage.
There have been reports that Chitra and you haven’t pulled along too well since the tragedy. Is it true that you even contemplated divorce?
Stories of our breaking up have done the rounds over and over, even before the tragedy. But once Chitra became reclusive and stopped meeting people, these rumours gained more currency. I hardly need to tell you, this is complete rubbish. If anything, the tragedy brought us even closer, we feel a stronger sense of bonding than before.
Now that you have achieved so much, what more do you want to achieve?
I don’t have these ambitions. All I hope and pray is that my next show and the next album should be better than the last. I also want to keep on composing; in fact, I composed numbers for almost all my albums except Forget Me Not. I am also a great devotee of old Hindi film music and may be, I will pay a tribute to some of my favourite singers like Talat Mehmood one day.
You were born to a Sikh family. What made you turn a sahajdhari and cut off your hair and beard?
Nothing in particular. I was and still am a Sikh. But when my first EP was to be marketed, HMV asked me to give a photo. I had been thinking of cutting off my hair for some time. So, I thought if I gave a turbaned photo to them for the jacket and cut my hair later, I’d face more criticism than if I did it right now. So I shaved off. That’s all there is to it.
You seem very attached to horses and racing. Did this craze happen after you became a moneyed man?
Not at all. I was always fascinated with horse racing. As I told you, my friends at the Agadipada hostel were all racers. It was probably their influence. I have been coming to the races for decades. But yes, I could afford to buy my own horses only after I made some real money. Now I own four — Razamand, Bhairavi, High Spirit and Different Strokes. Yes, I am very fond of them and come to the stables to see them every morning if I am in Mumbai. They give me a great thrill.