Jagjit Singh: A man for all seasons

Published: July 26, 2011
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Jagjit Singh: just the name of this maestro is enough to excite his legions of fans. At a recent concert in Europe, old and young crowded into the auditorium, the scene reminiscent of a desi wedding, with women dressed to kill in sequins, silks and red lipped pouts.

The great singer held the audience in the palm of his hand as he regaled them with ghazals intertwined with jokes, anecdotes and improvisations.

Making my way through his throng of admirers at the end of the concert waiting to get his autograph, I found the veteran singer to be disconcertingly humble. I was tongue tied when he confessed that he was “very nervous” to be performing in Paris for the first time ever. He then asked me what my name meant, because he had not come across it before. I explained that it was Persian, but he insisted on knowing what it meant, saying with a smile, “I know it has something to do with the moon.” By this time, everyone in the room was looking at me expectantly so I fidgeted and muttered, “Oh, it’s nothing, sir.. it just means beauty of the moonlit night.” Jagjit Singh smiled with delight, everyone else smirked, I fidgeted, and then I was pulled into the semi circle for a photograph. Meeting Jagjit Singh is like being with one of your own. He puts you at ease with his relaxed charm and that amazing baritone.

Singh, who has composed some hit music for films like ‘Arth‘ and ‘Saath Saath‘ in the 80s does not have a good opinion about today’s Bollywood music.

“It lacks profound poetry and soulful tunes.”

The singer who started his journey in the film industry as a music composer with ‘Prem Geet‘ in 1981 said,

“It is cheap music just meant for discotheques with nonsensical lyrics.”

The king of ghazals

Ghazal is said to be a form of brevity, so dense that a world of meaning is packed into it’s lines. Jagjit Singh is credited with opening up the ghazal to a whole new audience. Music composer Sanjeev Kohli sums it up:

“He made the common man’s drawing room a darbar. He brought his beloved ghazal out of the confines of the silver screen and aristocratic mehfils into the warmth of the middle class home.”

Jagjit Singh acknowledges Pakistani legend Mehdi Hassan to be his inspiration, but he feels that the ghazal scenario in India is degrading as it lacks good songwriters and passionate singers.

“The thought content of ghazals must be meaningful, related to life, it’s emotions of joy and sorrow. It must have the human touch, it should not be phoney.”

Poet Nida Fazli says:

“After Mehdi Hasan, if anyone knows how to present the misra, it is Jagjit Singh.”

Poet, director and lyricist Gulzar says:

“He is able to communicate the ghazal because his voice is beautiful and so is his rendering. His voice caresses the words. That’s what sets him apart from other singers.”

Jagjit Singh is also a composer par excellence. In the words of Gulzar:

“The way he takes the metre and plays with it to set the taal on it.. no word is lost. The beauty is that he understands poetry, the significance of the verse and the weight of each word and how to present it.”

Sudarshan Faakhir said:

“Once I told him that long ago I had written two verses of a nazm (poem) whose opening lines were “Yeh daulat bhi le lo, yeh shohrat bhi le lo..” (Take away my wealth, take away my fame too) I recited these verses to him and he exclaimed, where have you been hiding this all this time.. I want to sing it! This nazm “Kaghaz ki kashti” has a kind of universality, because it is drawn from the roots of my own childhood.”

Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Jagjit Singh

Director of ‘Mirza Ghalib’, Gulzar says:

“It seems as if Ghalib has bequeathed to him not just the storehouse of his writing but also the temperament of the ghazal.

Jagjit Singh’s brother recounts that after Jagjit sang Ghalib at a concert in Delhi, a connoisseur remarked,

“Either Ghalib was born a hundred years too early or Jagjit Singh was born a hundred years too late. When he was singing the ghazal, it was as if the soul of Ghalib was hovering around, listening, adding his wah-wahs.”

Dealing with grief

At the birth of his son Vivek (Baboo) in 1971, Jagjit Singh said:

“We were not well off then, but I felt as if I was the richest man in the world.”

The loss of his son was a turning point in his life. He felt as if life’s very purpose had disappeared. He stopped singing for one month, but then he took up the tanpura and began his riyaz again.

“I thought I have to live now, this is part of life, you have to go on. I felt I must not let what had happened become a weakness to crush me, instead I should turn it into a strength. The peace I got from the tanpura that helped me to regain composure… tanpura, after all, is a form of meditation. The anguish, the pain of the memories, the grief stayed with me, but in the strokes of the tanpura I felt a kind of peace, and I took to heart the words of Nida Fazli’s poem:

Apna gham le ke kahin aur na jaaye jaye,

Ghar mein bikhri hui cheezon ko sajaaya jaye”

(Let us not take our anguish elsewhere,

Let us make beautiful the scattered objects at home).

Nida Fazli says that Jagjit has kept his element of innocence and wonder alive within him even in his darkest days. After his son’s death, he was at a concert where there were many young people.

“I asked him, how come in this modern age of jeans and pop music, you had so many youngsters at the concert for ghazals? He replied, ‘It seems as if Babloo has reached heaven and told the young people to look after his father.’ “

Horrifyingly enough, Jagjit had to shoulder yet another tragedy when Chitra’s daughter Monica, from an earlier marriage, committed suicide.

A man for all seasons

Jagjit Sigh could have become an embittered loner with the cards life dealt him, but instead he has chosen to soar to new heights of artistry. At concerts, the audience sings and sways with him as he renders soul ">stirring ghazals one moment and Punjabi mast numbers the next.

There is pathos, innocence, and beauty in each skilled word that he delivers. As Nida Fazli puts it:

“This is the magic of Jagjit Singh’s voice: it has the sweetness of the mother, the beauty of a father’s love, the tenderness of a deep relationship and is like a soothing ointment upon one’s wounds. It comes to you, and without taking anything, goes away.”

Maheen Usmani

Maheen Usmani

A freelance writer who has covered subjects ranging from socio-political issues to women's rights to counter terrorism, sports, travel, culture and music. Maheen tweets @MaheenUsmani (twitter.com/MaheenUsmani)

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