In the last seventy years or so, if there has been one singer after Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hasan to have placed the ghazal gayeki on a firm footing, he is none other than Jagjit Singh.
In India – the land of its birth – Urdu has, over the last few decades, been sidelined as the language of Muslims (no one community can be held be responsible for this), but full marks to film music and no less to ghazalsingers from both sides of the Wagah border, for its admirers are growing despite the overwhelming majority’s unfamiliarity with its traditional script.
Like Mehdi Hasan, whom he called his mentor, Jagjit was totally immersed in the poems he sang and internalised his rendition. Another point which merits mention is that despite the disadvantage of singing in what was not their first language, the two singers’ pronunciation of Urdu words was just as flawless as their command over the ragas that they chose to base their compositions on.
Coincidentally, both of them started their careers by singing film songs of established singers – Mehdi Hasan chose velvety-voiced Talat Mehmood, while Jagjit opted for a highly versatile Mohammed Rafi on stage. But they did not bask in reflected glory for a long time. They started singing ghazals, most of which were composed by themselves.
Jagjit-Chitra, the most popular singing couple — Photograph courtesy HarperCollins Publishers India
For his part, Jagjit Singh chose simpler poems and rendered them with intense feelings. If it would not have been for his rendition of ‘Baat niklegi tou phir door talak jayegi’ — written by a not-so-well-known poet from Jalandhar at the time, Sudharshan Faakir — many poetry-enthusiasts, more in Pakistan than India, would not have even heard his name. One can’t think of many poems which have such never ending appeal.
The nazm simply grows on the listener, which explains why the well known author and journalist Sathya Saran borrowed the opening line of the poem to christen her meticulously researched and brilliantly narrated biography of the inimitable vocalist.
The book is not entirely flawless. In the caption of the singer’s photograph with Jalal Agha and Shaukat Kaifi, the fourth person is named Kaifi Azmi, instead of Ali Sardar Jafri.
Saran had to rely on the failing memory of Chitra Singh when she mentioned only one performance of Jagjit in Karachi. That was in 1979, where he won thunderous applause from the guests and the gatecrashers at the Karachi Press Club. This reviewer happened to be there as a witness, who didn’t have to scale the wall.
Chitra sang with him on that occasion. But in 2005 when the Pakistan International Airlines was celebrating its golden jubilee, Satish Anand, a seasoned producer of movies and TV shows, was assigned the job of organising a musical programme featuring four well known Pakistani singers and one foreign vocalist. To be honest, Jagjit was not foreign to the music-enthusiasts among the audience.
A younger Jagjit waiting for a break — Photograph courtesy HarperCollins Publishers India
It was on this visit that Jagjit took time off his hectic schedule to visit a stroke-stricken Mehdi Hasan.
Five years later when I was writing my book on the senior singer, I phoned Jagjit to get his views on the ‘shehanshah-e-ghazal’ (his words, not mine) and he enthused ‘Agar kisi ko ghazal gana seekhna hai tou Mehdi Hasan sahib say seekhye’ (‘If someone wants to learn to sing ghazals, then Mehdi Hasan sahib is just the right person’). Before he hung up Jagjit said he was yearning to see ‘Mehdi sahib’ back in harness.
But, as bad luck would have it, Jagjit passed away before his guru died. Mehdi Hasan wasn’t told about his friend’s death because, as his eldest son, said ‘Abba is in no position to bear this loss’.
Back to Saran’s book, she gives interesting details of how his albums were planned and how he selected the poems, worked on the compositions, recorded them and involved himself in post-recording sessions. His wife Chitra’s knowledge of Urdu was fairly limited so Jagjit had to work on her as well. He was a perfectionist, he also edited the numbers.
Saran rightly points out that until he appeared on the musical scene, ghazalsingers were accompanied by tabla and harmonium only. The tanpuraserved only as a tonic. Jagjit introduced such sweet sounding instruments as guitar, flute and santoor. However, when he was recording ghazals for Gulzar’s unforgettable serial on Ghalib, the director saw to it that Jagjit only used instruments which were in vogue during the great poet’s lifetime.
Back to his live performances, Jagjit punctuated his renditions with jokes, which made the mood of the evening livelier.
Jagjit never got over the death of his son — Photograph courtesy HarperCollins Publishers India
Saran paints a complete picture of the singer, including his unfailing generosity and recalls several moments where he helped people in financial distress. At one time, she claims, he supported as many as ten impoverished families.
She also narrates the terrible tragedy that struck Jagjit and Chitra – the death of their son Vivek in a traffic accident. Chitra gave up singing completely, while Jagjit took time to pick up his tanpura. His renditions became plaintive but just as unforgettable as they were when he was recording his earlier ghazals.
Baat niklegi toh phir door talak jayegi: The Life and Music of Jagjit Singh by Sathya Saran. Published by HarperCollins India. Pages: 221. Available in Pakistan with Liberty Books, Karachi and Lahore.