The voice that brought the ghazal back to Indian hearts

Ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh at a press conference in Srinagar in 2009. File photo  

A key figure in the re-emergence of the ghazal as a popular genre in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties of the last century, Jagjit Singh, who died in Mumbai on Monday, lent companionship and solace to a generation of middle class listeners who were looking beyond Bollywood for a musical remedy to the pressures of modern urban life.

The ghazal had been a staple of Hindi cinemas in the 1950s thanks to Talat Mehmood, Noor Jehan and others, but was edged out by the advent of western instrumentation and rhythms. Nor could it find a secure place in high culture: Hindustani classical music, which considers the khayal the pinnacle of vocal accomplishment, could embrace the thumri and even tappa as ‘light classical’ but not the ghazal. The use of difficult Urdu and sometimes Persian words was another barrier that a new generation of Indians schooled in Sanskritised Hindi found difficult to cross.

Commercial success

It was in this seemingly inhospitable cultural terrain that Jagjit Singh sought to carve out some space for himself. The irony, of course, was that the commercial success he and his wife, Chitra, met with their non-film albums helped revive the ghazal form in Hindi cinema too, with films like Arth, Saath-Saath and Prem Geet meeting a measure of success at the box-office as a result. Sarfarosh was a more recent hit where his voice struck a chord with viewers. Bollywood directors never stopped knocking on his door, often in the hope that his voice might rescue their otherwise forgettable ventures. And they were right. While movie goers remember ghazals like “ Hothon se Chhoo lo tum” and “ Badi nazuk hai ye manzil”, the stars on whom his vocals were picturised are not as easily remembered.

Urdu was not Jagjit’s mother tongue, and for a man whom the poet Gulzar praised for “caressing words”, he showed remarkable humility in seeking the right intonation whenever he was confronted with a fresh challenge. On such occasions, he would call up veteran lyricist-poet Nida Fazli and practice an unfamiliar or difficult Urdu expression over the phone. This mutual respect between Fazli and Jagjit meant that the former reserved some of his best lines for the latter. The popular ghazal “ Hosh waalon ko khabar kya bekhudi kya cheez hai” from Sarfarosh was initially supposed to have been sung by Bhupendra, then Jaswinder. Ultimately, Fazli felt that only Jagjit could do justice to his words.

Lucid and luminous

The writer could not be faulted for his choice. If he felt that only Jagjit could get the feeling of certain words right, Jagjit too, throughout his career, tried to keep the poetry he sang lucid and luminous. Though he sang the verses of almost everybody from Ghalib to Gulzar via Kaifi Azmi, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Qateel Shifai and the rest, Jagjit laid a lot of emphasis on simplicity of vocabulary. He was never in favour of profundity at the cost of clarity. “I ensure that first I understand the meaning of the ghazal and then expect the common man to appreciate it,” he once said.

Born in 1941 in Sriganganagar, Rajasthan, to Punjabi parents, he learnt music at the feet of Pandit Chhaganlal Sharma in the early years of his life, then under Ustad Jamaal Khan of the Sainia gharana. His grooming would eventually ensure that unlike other ghazal singers who attained popularity in the ‘80s only to fade away, Jagjit was not only able to ride a crest but guard against any trough.

Jagjit and Chitra also helped make the ghazal fashionable on stage, both in India and abroad, where the Pakistani diaspora, too, flocked to his concerts along with NRIs. Their personal life, however, was marked by a terrible tragedy when their only son, Vivek, who was 18 at the time, died in a car accident in 1990. Chitra would never give a public performance again, nor record with her husband other than a final album. From then on, Jagjit only sang by himself.

In his later years, he freely ranged away from ghazals to Krishna bhajans, Ram dhun, Shiv dhun, and shabads. Interestingly, many of his ghazal albums had English titles like ‘Ecstasies’, ‘Beyond Time’, ‘Hope’, etc. Never once did he think that the use of English would dilute the purity of his content. It was the same forthrightness in his belief that he displayed when he criticised the government for allowing Pakistani artistes to perform in India without any reciprocal response from Islamabad. Yet Jagjit proved that he could rise above political divisions by openly expressing his deep regard for Ghulam Ali, the legendary ghazal singer from across the border. For him the individual could not be equated with the State. Hours before the brain hemorrhage, which eventually took his life, he had expressed joy at getting a chance to perform with Ali. “Performing on the same stage with a legend like Ghulam Ali is an overwhelming feeling,” he had said. That performance was not to be, but in his little expression of joy at the prospect, Jagjit proved that modesty was not a rehearsed quote waiting for an occasion.

He is survived by his wife, Chitra Singh.

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 9:50:10 PM |

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