In conversation Jagjit Singh turns 70. The maestro, who is in the city for a performance, speaks to Chitra Swaminathan about his everlasting romance with ghazals
There's reason 'Jag-jit' has won over the world. There's reason Singh is king of ghazals. It's all in the name. He completes 50 years of singing, has performed over 5,000 concerts, visited 44 countries on music tours, released about 80 albums, composed more than 500 ghazals and 300 bhajans, rendered many memorable film songs and he's just turned 70. Mirza Ghalib's timeless sher amazingly sums up Jagjit Singh's song and soul journey…: “Hazaaron khwaishein aisi ki har khwaish pe dum nikle. Bahut nikle mere armaan lekin phir bhi kam nikle (thousands of desires, each worth dying for... many of them I have realised, yet I yearn for more...)
With a postgraduation in History and a strong training in classical music, Jagjit came to Bombay in 1965 looking for opportunities. After spending the initial years singing jingles and at social functions, Jagjit found his calling in ghazals. It was not going to be easy what with aces such as Mehdi Hassan, Begum Akhtar and Talat Mehmood around. But Jagjit's deep baritone and deeper commitment to the form garnered critical acclaim and a large fan following, turning him into an icon.
His inventive orchestration that includes a range of Indian and western instruments, honey-soaked vocals, his fearless flirting with notes and squeezing every line of poetry for nuance and meaning make for an unmistakably personal approach.
Prior to his performance in the city on July 17 as part of his 70th birthday celebrations with 70 concerts around the world, Jagjit Singh speaks about his everlasting romance with one of the most emotional genres of music and the excitement of conveying its inner essence to listeners.
Is 70 the time to sigh and say ‘Oh, such a long journey'?
I enjoy racing against time, not age. Thankfully, there's never been an idle moment. I have not achieved what I have overnight. The struggles, the challenges and the joy of reaching out have kept me occupied. I will always revel in the high notes.
During your 50-year engagement with ghazals, have you rued the dwindling popularity of the form, particularly among the youth?
Despite the disheartening shift in the world of music — melody, meter and matter losing out to irreverent lyrics, loud techno music and sleazy visuals — I have never felt disillusioned. Over the years, wherever I have performed, in modest halls or swanky auditoria, I have sung to enthusiastic and appreciative audiences. But, yes, I want people to look beyond the musicality in ghazals and understand the multiple layers in its poetry, and the social and political milieu it signifies. I have always tried to make my ghazals easy on the ear and mind. I cannot expect the listeners to figure out what I myself find difficult to comprehend and enjoy.
Does it not mean diluting the form for easy understanding and acceptance?
There's a deluge of tunes in today's globalised world and artistes need to know how to package and present their skill. It does not mean trivialising; it's just tweaking tradition to suit changing sensibilities and situations. I have been criticised for my experiments with the form, but I am convinced it will help people stay rooted to our arts. For the sake of variety, I even include bhajans and Hindustani classical pieces in my concerts. After all, it's about good music.
Even the poetic content of your ghazals has assumed modern expressions.
How else can we encourage new-age poets? Many of them beautifully capture current problems and issues, and the people's mindset in their verses. It's exciting to compose these lines. Words are the soul of this musical form. I want young musicians to discover the beauty of ghazals and pursue the genre. There are a few promising singers awaiting opportunities. I am always eager to guide and support them.
Chitra and you were the first successful singing couple in the Indian music field. What was it like being alone on the stage when she stopped singing after you lost your son in 1990?
Singing as a team is not easy because you have to be conscious of each other's strengths and limitations. But, I think, we managed it beautifully as the audiences' response was overwhelming. Chitra has been the balancing factor both on and off stage. Once she stopped sharing the stage with me, it took me some time to find my rhythm. (And the duo's famous ghazal Kyun zindagi ki raah mein mazboor ho gaye… rings in your ears).