Jagjit Singh’s inimitable voice dragged the ghazal out of bars and into drawing rooms.
Imagine if every time you recall a memory from childhood, it brings along with it a distinct voice singing in the background. When I look back, I remember one such voice — bass yet soft and mellow — playing on the stereo every morning until my father left for work.
It is that voice and its melodies that accompany all my memories of home, even the ones where my father wasn’t home and the stereo stayed silent. Jagjit Singh, whose cassettes owned most shelves in our drawing room, was like an invisible but very audible family member; whose presence on a TV show was enough to make us wait till the very end, braving advertisements and anchors, just to hear him; has tiptoed into my adult life, too. Now, just past his second death anniversary, I miss him.
When I heard of Jagjit Singh’s sudden demise on October 10, 2011, I could not control my tears. Only a month earlier, on a sultry afternoon, I stood outside Siri Fort Auditorium, eager to buy tickets to his concert in black at whatever price they were offered. I was unable to get any; nobody sold in black. My friends told me to be prompt the next time he came. There never came a next time. That was the closest I had gotten to the legend. For a day, I did not dare call my father. That awkwardness that one faces when talking to someone who has lost his dearest greeted me then. Two days later, when I called my father, neither of us could say a word. I had lost a father figure and my father, his idol. In college, my friends, whose childhood, like mine, brimmed with Jagjit Singh’s voice, were equally shaken. Will the generations ahead be as fortunate as I was, having grown up listening to him? I wonder, sadly, almost sure of the answer.
Born in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, in 1941, Jagjit Singh had a talent for music even as a child. His parents, recognising it, trained him under Indian classical musicians Pandit Chagganlal and Ustad Jamaal Khan. At the age of 24, he ran away from home to Bombay, hoping to make a career in Bollywood. Initially, as a jingle composer and singer, he struggled to find a footing and then moved on to All India Radio. During this time, in 1967, the charming young Punjabi met the beautiful Bengali-born Chitra Singh and fell in love, marrying her the same year. As a radio artist, he composed the song Baat Nikalegi To. It was supposed to be sung by Bhupender Singh, but for reasons not known (or was it destiny?), he couldn’t record it. Later, Jagjit Singh sang it, and it went on to become the most popular track in the Singhs’ debut album The Unforgettable (1975). The couple shot to fame with this album, described by The Independent as “groundbreaking and transformative,” and performed together many times. Sadly, their act ended in 1990 with the death of their 18-year-old son Vivek in a road accident, after which Chitra never sang again. However, grief only appended more depth to Jagjit Singh’s voice and his ghazals became more soul-stirring than ever. Gulzar aptly said, ‘Listening to Jagjit’s voice is like getting your wounds massaged with a cotton ball.’
When Jagjit Singh entered the arena of ghazals, it was dominated mostly by artists from Pakistan. His seniors in the field, Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali and Begum Akhtar were established stars who occupied centre stage. However, the lure of his voice and the magic in it soon captivated the ghazal lovers in the subcontinent. Unlike several singers who appeared and vanished after a couple of fleeting successes during that time, he remained. He worked with Bollywood on occasion and gave us popular tracks that many identify him with such as Honton Se Chu Lo and Tumko Dekha To, but remained consistent in and committed to his form. His ghazal albums came out every year, one each, from 1975 to 2012; all of them successful. In addition to these, he also recorded and released numerous Bhajan albums and composed and sang for the acclaimed TV series Mirza Ghalib, besides a few Bollywood tracks. It is an impeccable track record for a singer-composer whose career stretched over fifty years.
Jagjit Singh singlehandedly revived the tradition of singing and appreciating ghazals in India. Ghazals before him were mostly fixated on love, loss and alcohol; their lyrics were in chaste Urdu, and usually performed at parties, bars and mehfils. He dragged the ghazals out of the bars and into the drawing room. He never chose a ghazal that would send the audience to look for a dictionary; To him, sensitive and simple lyrics spoke more and better. He rescued the words of shayars like Bashir Badr, Basim Barelwi, Kaif Bhupali, Rajesh Reddy, Nida Fazli, Javed Akhtar and Gulzar that were trapped between the pages of books and put them on people’s lips. Not as mere words, but as songs that were profound in meaning and timeless in melody.
He was adept at surprising his admirers from time to time. Be it his extraordinary sense of humour, or the album Close To My Heart that compiled his favourite songs of the 1950-60s, or his pioneering use of western instruments like the Spanish guitar and the violin in ghazals.
Ab main ration ki qataron mein nazar aata hun/Apne kheton se bichadne ki saza pata hun
(Nowadays I am found in the ration queues, I get punished for having parted with my fields), which subtly plays on societal problems — something which ghazals had never done before.
He didn’t just revolutionise the way a ghazal is selected and composed, but also the way it is sung. In one interview, he contrasts between the ways ghazals used to be sung earlier with his method. To demonstrate, he sang two versions of ‘Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi’, one imitating the earlier singers, and the other in his style. The first has a lot of harkatein or nuances in it, whereas his version is calmer and slower, bringing the lyrics to the fore. In the true spirit of an artist, he chose to stay in the background instead of showing off his talent as a singer.
‘Where there’s no pain, it’s not music, it is noise,’ Jagjit Singh once said in the TV show Sa Re Ga Ma Pa. Today, as I listen to his ‘Kabhi Khamosh Baithoge/Kabhi Kuch Gungunaoge/Main Utna Yaad Aaunga/Mujhe Jitna Bhulaoge’ (Sometimes, you will sit quiet. Sometimes, you will hum something. The more you try to forget me, the more you will remember me), I just know that there is so much pain in losing him. But for his legacy, my greatest fear would have been losing myself in the noise of this world without his music to keep me company.