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Memories of the Ghazal Maestro

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It’s been seven years today. On a cold morning of October 10, 2011, I had just begun a bus journey from Chandigarh to Delhi, en route to Jaipur. An hour into the journey, I got a call from a publication informing me of the death of ghazal legend Jagjit Singh, and requesting me to write an obituary. Unfortunately, my travel plan ensured that I would reach Jaipur only by 9 pm that day, much after the newspaper deadline. No smartphone to dash off anything. With much regret, I declined the offer.

Once the round of SMSing friends about the news was over, the truth began sinking in. Yes, we all knew Jagjit-ji was critical since September 23, when he was hospitalised after suffering a brain haemorrhage. My 48th birthday was the following day, but I was in no mood to celebrate. The last thing I wanted was a strange quirk of dates. He survived in health that day, I nervously kept a tab.

But during that bus ride, the news that he was no longer with us was difficult to digest. Without the right technology, I was helpless. Facebook posts weren’t enough.

Suddenly, songs like ‘Pareshaan raat saari hai’, ‘Yeh mojeeza bhi mohabbat’, ‘Baat niklegi to phir’, ‘Woh kaagaz ki kashti’, ‘Sadma to hai mujhe bhi’, ‘Honto se choolon tum’, ‘Sarakhti jaaye rukh se naqaab’, ‘Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho’ – and many others – came to mind. It was an audio-visual flashback with loads of personal memories thrown in.

Having covered the music beat in Mumbai from 1995 to 2005, I had the privilege of meeting Jagjit-ji on numerous occasions. Of course, I had been a ghazal fan since the early 1980s, when Jagjit-Chitra Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Ghulam Ali, Mehdi Hassan and Talat Aziz were at their creative and commercial peak. Among Jagjit-ji’s albums, ‘The Unforgettables’, ‘A Milestone’, ‘The Latest’ and‘Mirza Ghalib’ had been my personal favourites, though I also loved his film songs from ‘Prem Geet, ‘Arth’ and ‘Saath Saath.’  ‘Sajda’ with Lata Mangeshkar coming later.

Strangely, I was a bundle of nerves when I headed for my first scheduled meeting with Jagjit-ji some time in 1998, just before the release of his album ‘Love Is Blind’. I had heard he normally didn’t welcome the press openly, especially if the reporter knew little about ghazals or asked shallow questions. And though I had followed the genre, I was not familiar with the technical nuances. After entering his place near Mumbai’s Sophia Bhabha College, my nervousness multiplied as there was hardly any eye contact from him during the first five minutes. I got a coffee and some biscuits. No sign of Chitra.

Jagjit Singh & Chitra

 

Jagjit-ji opened up when I asked him how he chose the poetry, and there had been times he had used the work of lesser-known poets just because he had liked their work. That was when he smiled, and asked: “What poets do you know of, besides Gulzar-saab, Javed-saab, or maybe Ghalib?” I named Qateel Shifai, Sudarshan Faakir, Nida Fazli, Kaifi Azmi and Kafeel Aazar.”

“You are the third person in the world who knows Kafeel bhai,” besides me and he himself. Everybody sings ‘Baat Niglegi’. Nobody wrote who knows it.” A half-smile followed. Something I noticed over the years.

Anyway, the ice was broken, and while he did understand that I was not an expert in the field and probably just a name-dropper, he realised I was deeply interested. After the official interview was over, he spent another half an hour explaining the nuances of ghazal-singing and poetry. That meeting converted me from being an avid listener to someone who tried to understand more about the deeper elements of the genre. Later on, ghazal singer Rajendra Mehta helped me a lot in appreciating ghazals even better.

As all fans would agree, Jagjit-ji had played a major role in spreading the reach of the ghazal among the masses. Besides using simpler poetry that could be understood by a wider cross-section of listeners, he introduced musical instruments like the guitar, saxophone and keyboard to a genre which earlier relied mainly on tabla, harmonium and sarangi.

To add to that, thanks to his efforts, ghazals were used in a major way in films in the 1980s. Though that wasn’t a new phenomenon – ghazals had been in the film music repertoire for years  – artistes like Jagjit-ji, Pankaj Udhas and Talat Aziz took the ghazal wave of the ‘80s successfully to reach the more lyrically-inclined film music buff.

There have often been arguments that Jagjit-ji’s earlier work, especially with his work with Chitra, were far superior in content and class. Probably true. But that’s not to discount the work he recorded as a solo artiste, once Chitra stopped singing following the death of their son Vivek. Though he tended to sound repetitive at times and was also inclined towards rehashing his own older tunes, albums like ‘Sajda’ with Mangeshkar, ‘Silsilay’ with Javed Akhtar and ‘Marasim’ with Gulzar were all prime examples of his class. The film gems kept coming too  – ‘Hoshwalon ko khabar kya’ (‘Sarfarosh’), ‘Badi Naazuk Hai’ (‘Joggers’ Park’) and ‘Jaag Ke Kaati Saari Raina’ (‘Leela’) being among all-time favourites. Most important, only he and Udhas continued to continuously do live shows to packed capacity.

Jagjit Singh & Lata Mangeshkar

Strangely enough, Jagjit-ji’s devotional recordings never became as popular as they deserved to be. Over the years, he has recorded some outstanding songs like ‘Varde Varde Varde’, ‘Tum Karuna Ke Saagar Ho’, ‘Hey Ram Hey Ram’, ‘Baanke Bihari’, ‘Jai Ganesh Deva’ and ‘Tum Dhoondo Mujhe Gopal’  – in fact, during the past seven or eight years, he concentrated more on bhajans. Probably the albums weren’t marketed too well, or maybe because he was still identified only as a ghazal singer, exposure was relatively low, and so were sales. Still, his ability to render these songs so soulfully –  often with a strong emphasis on accompanying choruses – proved his versatility. Maybe, those who haven’t really followed that side of him, should pick up a few recordings or go to YouTube.

After Jagjit-Ji passed away, various efforts have been made to carry forward his legacy. There have been controversies too but today isn’t the day to talk of them. His music was, is and will be there.

And why only music? His light coloured Lacoste tees, Rayban Aviator sunglasses, Levi’s jeans, Nike sport or brown leather shoes, Brut after shave or Givenchy petfume. “Thankfully when I wear all these, nobody recognises me on the road.”

Our last meeting was at the first GIMA awards somewhere in Goregaon. He looked fit. Was waiting for his car. I am 23 years younger than him but just took the liberty of patting him on his shoulder. That three-minute conversation is an eternal memory. ‘Jaag ke kaati saari raina.’ I was awake all night. Often still am.

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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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