The drone of the tanpura has a magnetic effect. While it creates a sombre mood, it also leads to anticipation about the magic in store for a music lover. That’s how it feels as I sit in the plush living room of an apartment in MRC Nagar, waiting to meet Pandit Jasraj. I can hear the voice that which enthralled millions across the world, wafting from a room. It whets my musical appetite.
Listening to Pandit Jasraj at such close quarters is a memorable experience. As I walk in to the room, an unusual sight awaits me. On the bed sits the music icon in a dressing gown, hair all ruffled playing Patience… and humming a raag! “When I am doing riyaz, all I need are my sruti box, a pack of cards and my voice,” is how he begins the conversation.
Panditji, who was in the city to lead the Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan, is in rewind mode as he speaks about his early days, his first brush with fame and his association with Pt. Bhimsen Joshi.
Commenting about the Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan and his long association with the Vyas family, the scion of the Mewati gharana, says, “In the North, there was a period when Hindustani music was hardly heard in concert halls. It was during such a low period musically that Pt. C.R. Vyas (Pt. Satish Vyas’s father) started this festival. He not only gave classical music a new lease of life but also induced fresh blood by bringing youngsters into its fold.” Pt. Jasraj is all praise for Chennai where “classical music has remained alive despite the onslaught of film and pop culture.”
The vocal legend, who embarked on his musical journey playing bols on a tabla and switched to vocal when he was nearly 15, remembers his early days as a singer. “I used to perform on the radio. So, when I was asked to perform at the Gandharv Mahavidyalaya Conference in Jaipur in 1964, I was thrilled. I had a late night slot on the last day. Dancer Sitara Devi, who was to perform after me, wanted to finish first and requested me to allow her to take the stage first. So, I waited for my turn, which came after five the following morning. I began with Natbhairav. After about 15 minutes, the already exhausted audience got restless and began clapping. Hurt, I requested them to listen to me for just 15 minutes. If they felt I was not up to the mark, I was willing to leave immediately. I remember I said a lot of things… it seemed to have an impact, for all of them sat down.”
The vocal legend sang a Mata Kali adana (an ode) for 45 minutes. “When I had finished, there was pin-drop silence for a whole minute. Then the audience broke into rapturous applause.” A luminous star was born on the Hindustani music horizon that moment.
Pt. Jasraj, who sang a landmark duet for six hours withbrother and guru Pt. Maniram in the late 1950s, found many admirers along the way. One such was Pandit Omkarnath Thakur. Pt. Jasraj says: “On one occasion, as a junior, I was scheduled to perform before Omkarnathji. The organisers told me that I could sing till the vocal giant arrived, and had to wrap up once I spotted him. Omkarnathji had a habit of making a grand entrance, literally walking in the middle of an auditorium. So, when he thundered in, the audience started getting twitchy. He sat in the first row and announced, “Mujhe is balak ka gaana sunna hai” (I want to listen to the voice of this boy). Later, he asked me whose son I was. When I told him I was Pt. Motiramji’s offspring, he exclaimed, “Sher ke bete ho” (You are a lion cub!). “My popularity soared higher after this.”
Pt. Bhimsen Joshi was another musician with whom Pt. Jasraj shared a wonderful bond. “We sang together only once -- for the 1973-film ‘Birbal, My Brother’. It was a Malkauns bandish, ‘Rang raliyaan karat sautan ke sang’. I remember walking into the recording room and asking him, “Why me?’ and he replied, “Who else but you?’” Recently, during a recent visit, the ailing Joshiji told Pt. Jasraj, “Jab main pichae mudke dekhtha hoon, tujhe pataa hoon.’ (When I turn back and look, I see you.) “What more can I ask for!”
Pt. Jasraj may be past 80 now, but his voice is as deep and rich as ever. “It’s a gift of god. Music is the breath of my life,” he says, and then answers a phone call with his trademark ‘Jai ho’. He talks cricket, another passion, and hails the superb knocks by Virendra Sehwag and Virat Kohli in the India-Bangladesh cricket match. Then he swiftly gets back to his riyaz. As you leave, he is back to doing what he is does best… break into a raag…
His musical expression
Holding a classical music festival on an annual basis is no mean task. But the dogged determination of santoor maestro Pt. Satish Vyas to conduct the Gunidas Sangeet Sammelan overcoming odds, deserves to be lauded.
The event took root in 1977 when Pandit C. R. Vyas founded it under the aegis of the Maharashtra Lalit Kala Nidhi in memory of his guru Pandit Jagganathbua Purohit aka Gunidas. Ever since, the event has spread wing and found audiences in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai. In fact, the festival returned to Bangalore after a gap of over ten years.
Pt. Satish Vyas brought the festival to Chennai five years ago. This disciple of Pt. Shivkumar Sharma says, “I feel audiences in Chennai are more open to different genres of music today than they were about 10 years ago. Similarly, Carnatic musicians are making a mark in Maharashtra and other northern States. That’s the power of music.”
Talking about Pt. Jasraj, Vyasji has fond memories. “I have known Panditji from my childhood days. He is a great admirer and friend of my father. In fact, I remember him dropping off his children Durga and Shaarang Dev to school, and always stopping to talk to me. It’s a 50-year long association between our families!”