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Interview of the Week – Pandit Jasraj

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Monday is definitely not the favourite day of the week for many and I am one of them. But the last one was a day I was looking forward to. I was invited to meet the legend Padma Bhushan Pandit Jasraj for an interaction. I reached Panditji’s residence well before time and sat waiting for the maestro to honour me with his presence. The room was adorned with numerous laurels that have been bestowed upon Pandit Jasraj and several statues of his favourite deity, Lord Krishna. Just the way Lord Krishna mesmerised his audience through his ‘bansuri’, Panditji has been doing the same with his voice.

Pandit Jasraj recently turned 90 but his zeal for life is comparable to a 19 year old. To commemorate his birthday, International Astronomical Union (IAU) named a minor planet as ‘Panditjasraj’, the only Indian musician to be conferred this honour. Despite this fact, winning the Padma Shri remains his most cherished achievement. The other would be when the Raja of Nepal awarded him 5000 ‘mohars’ for his performance. He was so awestruck that he had to be carried off stage. Only on learning the Indian equivalent of the amount did Panditji regain consciousness.

Although his first stage performance was at the age of 7, he was already performing on a different platform before that, his father’s belly. Pandit Motiram would perch a young Jasraj on his belly and ask him to sing. If Panditji erred, he would mockingly clap so as to make him feel he has sung well. After his father’s untimely death, he tutored under his elder brother Pandit Pratap Narayan.

For our Interview of the Week, I spoke to Pandit Jasraj about some diverse topics and got to know a fact which even he was unaware of.

Panditji learnt ‘gayaki’ at a time when students were not allowed to listen to music from other ‘gharanas’, forget learning it.
Is it possible for a musician not to be influenced by other forms of music?

Music is a contagious disease. It is very easy to incorporate other styles of singing if you have heard and liked them. It creates a place in your head automatically and makes its presence felt in your voice sub consciously, when you are singing. This is how one’s music repertoire grows. One does not need to adapt other techniques or styles, it can happen naturally.

Yes, students were not allowed to listen to musicians from other ‘gharanas’ or even perform in public. But there was a reason behind that. When the guru was certain that his student is ready as a musician, the student was left to explore other genres and perform. Once they listen to other genres they will naturally be inspired by some of them. If one is criticised for it, no problem. If you are being compared to legends of the music world, you should be proud.

I have always believed in Sant Tulsidas’ words ‘Nindak neyari rakhiye’ which means keep your critics closer. They will unknowingly give you free advice.

Panditji is known for his near perfect pronunciations and expressions. He is credited as the best ever by numerous musicians for the way he emotes every word. This made ‘raags’ or even ‘thumris’ easier to understand for the audience.
But why did he stick to singing ‘khayal’ and not sing ‘thumris’ till he became an acclaimed singer?

Once at a concert, a renowned Ustad taunted me as a light classical singer. I was hurt by this and decided to never sing ‘thumris’ again. ‘Khayals’ will be my claim to fame, was the challenge I took up. Until I was critically acclaimed as a singer I never sang ‘thumris’.

“Taana toh dete hi rehte hai, hume yaad bhi nahi rehta.”

Apart from his brothers, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khansaab, Ramu Mishra and Begum Akhtar had a huge influence on Panditji. Just like these greats, Panditji also learnt his music in the old fashioned way. Teaching and learning have undergone immense change since then.
Is it better now or does the maestro believe otherwise?

From the ‘Ashram Pranali’ (traditional hostel style of teaching) to music schools today there has been a lot of change. When we were learning, our Guru would ask us what we learnt the day before. We could remember hardly 5 minutes of what was taught in about 2 hours.

You are recording my voice right now so you can transcribe it later while writing the article. In the same manner a student now can record the Guru’s teaching and rehearse while listening to it ‘n’ number of times. The ‘Guru-Shishya Pranali’ is still prevalent, it cannot be done away with and should not be done away with.

I always felt that a student doesn’t learn just music from his Guru but also how to be a complete musician, the stage presentation, the way to dress, talk and carry oneself.
Did you model yourself on your Guru?

One doesn’t need to model themselves. They automatically become a copy of their Guru. When the Guru sees his reflection in his student, he sets him free for his musical journey. Now the only difference is the students feel their education is complete before their Gurus do. Even I committed the same mistake. I had argued with my Guru that I am ready as a singer. He didn’t think so and asked me what I can sing? I sang ‘Raag Yaman’ which he had not taught me yet. I started off well but got trapped midway like Abhimanyu in the ‘Chakravyuh’ and realised my mistake. This happened in 1946. The next time I approached him was in 1951, this time he finally approved me as a singer.

At this time the narrative shifted towards the issue of mental health. Panditji has been a strong supporter of the fact that Indian classical music has scientific roots and can be used medically. The music labels have also taken up this fact seriously and are releasing classical music albums on this topic. The Pandit Jasraj discography has many albums dedicated towards this and he also has a new album coming soon on Tips Music.
Intrigued, I asked Panditji if there is any truth behind the scientific nature of Indian classical music.

No doubt in it. Every ‘raag’ that was made has a science behind it. If one can sing it in detail over 40-45 minutes only then it becomes a ‘raag’. The ‘raags’ which are made now, the 4-5 minutes long ones, are temporary. ‘Raags’ are a cultural tradition passed down over the years through the ‘Guru Shishya Pranali’. No other classical music has time bound ‘raags’ like Indian classical music. Every ‘raag’ was developed for a particular time of the day. They have a cosmic connection. Also they have a huge influence on our mental health.

A lot of doctors have not only experimented with Pandit Jasraj’s music but they have also found solutions. Numerous hospitals play his music for their patients.
‘Raags’ are also being used for music therapy. I asked ‘Panditji’ to elaborate on a few ‘raags’ that help cure ailments.

One of them is the famous, ‘Raag Darbari’. It can help cure insomnia. But there is a method to it. Listen to its original form, the peaceful one. My father had helped cure a patient by singing ‘Raag Darbari’ for 3 hours daily over a period of 3 days.

The other one is ‘Raag Nat Narayan’ which is mostly sung in our ‘gharana’ nowadays. It helps people suffering from mental imbalance and depression by working like a sedative. My elder brother helped an acquaintance of ours by singing this ‘raag’. The ‘raag’ helps in outpouring of grief or angst in a subdued manner that one cannot express normally.

pandit jasraj

At this point, Panditji’s daughter Durga Jasraj intervened to narrate an incident which Panditji himself wasn’t aware of.

One of her friend’s son who was undergoing mental trauma and would often turn violent. Whenever they played ‘Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya’ sung by Pandit Jasraj, he would be calm. The song would be played on a loop in their house.

Doctors in the western world have invested millions of dollars into ‘music therapy’ research, I quipped.
To which Panditji said,

Music cannot be made by investing money. It is made by years of ‘tapasya’. ‘Music therapy’ is mentioned in our religious texts. Lord Krishna would play the ‘bansuri’ and cows were said to produce more milk.

Indian classical music ‘adbhut hai’.

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