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On a Personal Note with Pandit Jasraj


Memories of Jasraj, the person

Over the past year, whenever I have listened to Pandit Jasraj, I have thought of a hockey match. That feeling was inspired by what he mentioned during our last interview.

“When I am on stage, I imagine I am the centre forward, who passes the ball to another player, who dribbles it and sends it back to me to hit the goal. I do the same thing while singing,” he had said.

‘Bapuji’, as close ones call him, was an avid sports fan. After that interview at his Andheri residence, we had lunch together, watching the ongoing India-Australia cricket match. When an Australian wicket fell, Jasraj joked to his daughter Durga,

“They were waiting for me to switch on the TV. If I had known there was a game today, I would have postponed the media interviews. They would be all out by now.”

Childhood Memories

This incident took place some 48 years after I had first met the Mewati Gharana legend as a seven-year-old, and over two decades since I first interviewed him. My mother, greeted by her maiden name of Kalavati, learnt from his seniormost disciple Chandrashekhar Swami. Thrice a week, ‘Chandu Mama’ would come home and teach. I would pick up the names of raags easily, but was the least interested in the difference between Jaunpuri, Bhoop and Bihag. They just sounded sweet, like the new term ‘riyaz’ (practice).

This was 1971. We would visit Jasraj’s residence at Rajkamal building in Shivaji Park, or attend his concerts, where the line-up would also include vocalist Prabha Atre and a very young Parveen Sultana. Then, there were the Gurupoornima recitals at his place, where disciples would sing and my mother would wait nervously.

“Kalavati ki awaaz bahut achchi hai, (Kalavati’s voice is very good),” he would tell the gathering.

He encouraged all disciples with some compliment.

His wife Madhura Jasraj always played the perfect host. His son Sharang, slightly older than me, and Durga, a year younger, would try and escape to play hide and seek, but would happily pose for the group photographs. I remember one time, Jasraj was in a teaching session. The tabla player wasn’t getting it right, and the maestro told him sternly,

“Theka hi bajao lekin theek se bajao (play the basic rhythm but play it properly),” before explaining with bols.

One can’t forget the look in Jasraj’s eyes when the percussionist got it right. “Haaaaan,” he beamed, like a child who had received his favourite sweets.

Attending a Jasraj concert was another experience. At one show at a school hall in Thane, my father clicked the photographs. Jasraj looked elegant, as always, with his curly hair, spotless white kurta and black half jacket. I wanted to tell him he looked better than my favourite hero Rajesh Khanna, but was too shy.

After tuning his swarmandal, he announced he would sing ‘raag’ Malkauns. People said ‘Waah’ or ‘Kya baat hai’, and sensing the excitement, I started dancing. It was a small hall, and people glared at me till dad took me out for a while. After the show, Jasraj told me, “Aapko bahut mazaa aa gaya, lagta hai.”

The visits to Rajkamal stopped after my father got transferred by The Economic Times to New Delhi. My mother needed another guru and Jasraj recommended Som Tiwari, but the timings and distance didn’t suit either. Renowned musicologist Acharya Brihaspati was ready to accept her as a disciple, and she called Jasraj and told him of her dilemma of changing the gharana.

He responded, Achchi baat hai. Seekhna zaroori hai, usey kaayam rakho (Very good. It’s important to keep learning. Don’t stop).”

We didn’t miss a single show in Delhi. Besides the classical concerts, there was Jaidev’s dance drama Geet Govind, where Jasraj composed the music. At home, his tunes would play regularly on our Sony cassette player or Philips turntable. ‘Allah jaane’ in Miyan Ki Todi, ‘Lath uljhi’ in Bihag, ‘Ja ja re apni mandirwa’ in Bhimpalasi and ‘Le ja re bhadra’ in Hansadhwani were favourites.

On one visit, as he was staying In a guest house nearby, we invited Jasraj home at 4 pm. Mum asked if he would have tea or sharbat after the snacks.

He said he’d prefer simple cow’s milk. When informed that we only had the Mother Dairy milk taken from the vending booth, he said,

“Aapne bataaya isliye mujhe fark pata chala. Chalo, wohi de do (I found out the difference because you told me. Give me that only).”

Years later, when I went to interview him, he recalled the incident with a laugh.

Journalistic Encounters

I was extremely nervous before that interview. It happens when you’re in awe of a musician, probably apprehensive you’ll ask the wrong and immature questions, or say something that you’ll regret. I unsuccessfully tried avoiding that first interview with Lata Mangeshkar, Pandit Ravi Shankar and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and ran away when given the chance to interact with Mehdi Hassan.

With Jasraj, childhood experiences were one thing, and professional interaction quite another. It had been 20 years since I had last met him, and now I was assigned by a Mumbai tabloid to talk to him on the role of the guru in classical music.

The family had shifted to Andheri, and it took just three minutes for my fear to disappear. He initially didn’t know who I was, but when I told him, he asked, “Kalavati ka riyaaz kaise chal raha hai? (How is your mother’s practice getting on?)” He remembered his visit to our place, and the ice was broken.

Besides the role of the guru, we discussed many other things, from the contribution of the Mewati Gharana to the Haveli Sangeet he specialised into the concept of Jasrangi ‘jugalbandi’ which he created. He also talked about his admiration for Begum Akhtar.

“I used to be a young boy in Hyderabad. The restaurant nearby played her song ‘Deewana banana hai toh’. I just loved that song and her voice. Though music was in the family, it was after listening to Begum Akhtar that I decided to become a singer,” he said, before singing a few lines.

“Begum Akhtar and Lata Mangeshkar. Nobody can match them. Even today, I can listen to Lata for hours, even days.”

Though I didn’t publish everything then, I kept the notes for future articles. I was surprised to learn that before singing, he played classical music on the guitar.

“Thankfully I didn’t become a rock musician,” he said.

This was when I got to experience his quick humour. Pointing towards a huge suitcase lying in the drawing room, he said,

“Yeh yahin padaa rehta hai. Room mein le jaane se pehle agla tour ka waqt aa jaata hai (This keeps lying here. Before I take it to the other room, I get called for the next tour).”

After this interview, I didn’t hesitate to meet him backstage after his shows. Though there was always a huge rush of people wanting to greet him, he would give me my few moments of satisfaction, and ask about my parents.

After an interview in 2004, he requested me to stay back for dinner. Madhura Ji was there with their granddaughter Avni and his disciple, violinist Kala Ramnath. After eating, he began humming. From a few soft notes, he went on to intricate taans and sargams, before talking of the finer nuances of Darbari Kaanada. He used his fingers to play an imaginary tabla, closed his eyes, sang again and became totally lost to the outside world.

I hadn’t interviewed him for many years after that, though I would meet him after shows. At Avni’s wedding in 2012, a large number of well-wishers waited to greet him, while the photographer clicked. I stood a bit aloof, looking for a moment where I could meet him individually. He probably noticed that and summoned me.

“Sharma kyon rahe ho? (Why are you feeling shy?)”

When I met him last year and we watched the cricket match together, I was definitely not feeling shy, and I requested him to join me for a ‘selfie’. He grasped my hand while disciple Tripti Mukherjee prepared for the photo, and whispered into my ear,

“Panja ladaoge kya? (Will you play the arm strength game with me?)”

Pandit Jasraj belonged to another league, another planet. When he wasn’t enrapturing his fans on stage, he would charm everyone with his warmth and humour. His memory and eye for detail were amazing, and he made you feel at home. Thank you, Bapuji, for the music and the memories.


Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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