Jagjit Singh: The Last Ghazal of the Night

Dusk was evolving into a dark night on one Saturday evening of last June. Depressed and dull, I was aimlessly trudging in Malleswaram area of Bangalore. I thought fleetingly of entering one of those omnipresent bars for a drink. But on Saturday nights in the Bangalore bars even standing space will be too much to ask for. Supposing I do find a place, the loud music and the noise and shouts of drunks make for an ear splitting trauma that would only multiply the depression that I was in. So I continued my aimless walk along the avenue under the brooding trees. That was when I saw the flex poster nailed on a tree trunk. ‘Come to Chowdiah Hall at 7.30 p.m. on 18th June to hear Jagjit Singh’s unique music and experience the cool breeze of his voice.’ The concert was only half an hour away but since Chowdiah Hall was not very far, so I hailed an auto.

The program had already started in the huge Auditorium built to resemble the violin of Chowdiah, the legendary musician. There were barely a couple of seats left in the auditorium built to accommodate more than a thousand people. When I bought a ticket and rushed into the hall in search of my seat in a corner of the last row, Jagjit Singh was singing a soulful Ghazal that he himself had penned, composed and sung twenty five years ago: ‘Aye Khuda Ret Ke Zehara Ko Samandar Kar De’

Even at 70 his haunting voice had that undiminished flow and depth. And that rendering style bore the so familiar and much loved Jagjit Singh stamp of the seventies! I was once an intense fan of Jagjit Singh but I had stopped buying and listening to his albums when I became frustrated at the sameness and lack of novelty of his later albums. But that night I was completely lost listening to his fifteen or more all-time classics. When I left the auditorium well past eleven after the concert, I had completely forgotten the reasons for my depression! This was not just an experience that I alone felt with the Ghazals of Jagjit Singh.

His voice, which is quiet like a river flowing through the plains and his rendering style, is capable of being a balm to the pained mind. He never resorts to any type of gimmickry just to attract attention. He just loses himself singing what he likes as he knows it. His music has no place for egoistic manners like, “Now I am going to a sing a very intricate and difficult piece. You all listen to this” The very form of Ghazal music, which is originated in Persia a thousand years ago and arrived to Indian sub continent about six hundred years ago, is a highly evolved art which is not capable of entertaining such egoism. Though often simplistically defined as a simplified form of Hindustani classical music, Ghazal is innately capable of profound outpouring of emotions like no other music form. Yet these emotions are expressed in soft cadences without loud or dramatic plays. That is the greatness and underlying note of Ghazal.

Ghazalformat is not for too much orchestration. The usual scene has artistes playing a sarangi and a tabla with a gentle touch even as the vocalist renders the Ghazal sitting in the centre and all of them are lost in a dream world of soft expressions. Ghazals sing of indefinable pains of human life, its unavoidable sorrows, worship of feminine beauty, love, separations, yearnings, philosophy of life, the little pleasures of life like wine, mind that seeks happiness even in the midst of pain.

It is not easy singing Ghazals well. Total dedication of self to music, a deep understanding of the emotions of the ragas and the meaning of lyrics are an absolute must for a Ghazal singer. The purpose of a Ghazal is not to rock the listeners by singing difficult or intricate pieces. A true Ghazal singer who understands the soul of a raga and renders it emotionally himself becomes the Ghazal. At the moment of singing he is all alone and sings only for himself. Listeners who absorb this emotional rendering experience it as an intensely personal happening. This emotional intensity is the reason why there are so few Ghazal singers of class in this world. Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, Begum Akthar, Iqbal Bano, Abida Parveen, Farida Khanum, Malika Pukhraj, Tahira Sayeed, Munni Begum, Hariharan……this list of four generations of great Ghazal singers is impossible to extend any further.

When India was partitioned in 1947, almost all our important Ghazal singers migrated to Pakistan. It was only in seventies with the rise of Jagjit Singh that India could hoist the proud flag of Ghazal on an equal footing with those who migrated to Pakistan. Jagjit Singh had a rare, made for Ghazal voice like that of Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali and an entirely honest rendering style that was faithful to emotions of the Ghazal. Whatever the form of music he chose to espouse, they too became Ghazals.

While the likes of Hariharan made Ghazal one among their many interests and forayed into film music, pop music, acting on screens big and small, reality music shows and tumultuous stage shows, Jagjit Singh alone lived exclusively for Ghazal. Jagjit Singh’s role in raising the count of the Ghazal listeners in India is an inalienable part of post-Independence history of Indian music. Countless music lovers sought his Ghazals to serve as balms on the pain they experienced in their lives. But Jagjit Singh erased the sorrows in other people’s lives with a music he created out of the countless sorrows of own his life.

Though Jagjit Singh was born and brought up in Sriganga Nagar of North East Rajasthan on the border with Pakistan, he was basically a Punjabi Sikh. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the maestro of Hindustani classical music and Mohammad Rafi, by far the greatest playback singer of Hindi film industry, were both Punjabis as well. The great composers of Hindi film music like Madan Mohan, Roshan, Jaidev, Khayyam and O.P.Nayyar, legendary singers like K.L.Saigal, Suraiya, Shamshad Begum and Ghazal singers like Ghulam Ali, Noor Jahan and Anup Jalotta, the historic figure of Qawwali Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Tabla maestros like Alla Rakha and his son Zakir Hussain were all Punjabis. We can say that Jagjit Singh is an important part of this long list of Punjab’s contribution to Indian music.

Jagmohan Singh Dheeman aka Jagjit Singh was born in 1941 as the third son among the 11 children of lower level Government employee Amar Singh Dheeman, a deeply religious Sikh. He was brought up as a Sikh who is always supposed to wear a turban. It was this turbaned Sikh who metamorphosed on the music stage as a superstar Ghazal singer with a free flowing and handsome hair. Jagjit Singh spent his childhood days in poverty in a free two-room government hutment with neither electricity nor running water in it. For him even flying kites on the street like other children was an extravagant desire. Instead He roamed the streets feeding grass to the cows on the streets and singing loudly the songs that caught his fancy. When he was seven his family moved to his father’s native town Jullundur in Punjab.

Amar Singh, seeing how well his son sang when there was not even a radio in the house to listen to songs, arranged for him to learn from Chaganlal Sharma, a blind music teacher. But he wanted that his son should become a high-ranking government official. Later, Ustad Jamal Khan became Jagjit’s music Guru. By going to the nearby homes with a radio and listening to the likes of Abdul Karim Khan, Amir Khan, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Talat Mehmood, he had become a madly enchanted music lover. He sang on a stage for the first time when he was barely nine. The crowd of fans loved his singing. Many in the crowd came forward to thrust into his hands anything from half Anna coins to two rupee notes. His father, who took those offerings with trembling hands, embraced his son and wept.

Jagjit learned Classical music in proper Guru-shishya tradition for fifteen years, but he had no desire to become a classical singer. He was consumed with a passion to become a film singer, where the emphasis was on light music, like his film music favourites like Talat Mehmood, Hemant Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. Even though he did not do particularly well in his studies, he was looked upon with favour both in school and college because of his singing talent. He failed the tests of All India Radio many times, but soon his songs were heard on the air waves from Jullundur Radio station.

None too soon, he became a Radio star. Once when he was singing in a college function, power failed and the stage was plunged in darkness. Only the loud speaker system was functioning on battery power. He did not stop singing, even for a moment. And not a soul stirred in the crowd! For more than one hour they sat in darkness listening and wildly applauding to Jagjit’s songs! Banking only on the confidence that such appreciation gave him, at the age of twenty, Jagjit Singh arrived in Bombay, seeking opportunities in film singing.

He searched for and knocked on the doors of many popular Hindi film composers of the day. He even sang before many of them. But not a cheep anywhere! Jaikishen of Shankar Jaikishen duo of the lot praised his cultured voice but offered no opportunities to sing. The little money that he had was soon all spent. Then came a pass where he did not have the money to pay and get back his laundered cloth. A mentally tired Jagjit then boarded a train without ticket and returned to Jullundur hiding in train toilets for two days.

Four years later he again returned to Bombay. He lodged in a room in an old ramshackle chawl with four others. He slept on a rusted iron cot allowing its denizens of bugs to suck his blood. Even rats joined in to chewing up his feet. He used to eke out a living with the help of a rented harmonium by singing at small parties and functions at homes of Bombay’s rich and famous. He even sang free at homes of many film industry persons in the fond hope that someone will notice him and open the doors of opportunities in the film industry. But nobody noticed him. If they had indeed noticed, it was obvious that the deep musicality and the pain of his voice would hardly have suited the sturdy heroes of the film industry gleefully chasing the heroines around the proverbial tree. In a way it was a blessing that he did not become a playback singer. His composing skills, his felicity with words, his deep understanding and love of classical ragas would have been totally lost in films.

Finally what ended this nightmarish phase of his life was the agreement with HMV to sing and record two Ghazals. It was for the cover jacket of that record Jagjit gave up his Sikh turban and the long hair and beard. He made this new look his permanent one. He did not want to make a Sardarji’s look, the identity of his music. But his father was never able to get around to accepting his son giving up his religious identity.

Jagjit Singh decided to dedicate his life entirely to Ghazal. It was a time when Ghazal as a genre of music was disappearing in India. He created a very unique style of Ghazal that differed from the occasional Ghazal that struggled to emerge out of film music. He brought in Santoor, Guitar, Violin and electronic instruments as accompaniments in place of the traditional instruments like Sarangi used in Ghazals. He abandoned difficult to understand Urdu poems and chose simple lines for his lyrics. But nothing brought him success instantly.
At this point of time, he had to sustain himself by composing and singing for advertisements.

It was during one such song recording that he met a Bengali singer, Chitra Dutta. Jagjit Singh, at that very first meeting was attracted to Chitra who had an ever ready to cry expression on her beautiful face, blue eyes that spoke of deep pain and a voice that reminded of a child’s purity. Chitra was married and living a very sad life with her eight years old daughter. Love blossomed in the life of Chitra and Jagjit Singh. With only thirty rupees in hand, Jagjit Singh married Chitra who had obtained divorce from a life that had all the material comforts. Chitra’s daughter Monica with her innocent smile and purity of love became Jagjit’s dotting daughter.

Jagjit also became the music Guru to Chitra who had no formal training in music. The duo of Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh began recording discs and performing stage shows. But success was yet far away.  Next year they were blessed with a son. Once Jagjit spoke of those days: “When Vivek, whom we fondly called Babu was born we did not have any money. Chitra and Monica who had left a comfortable life behind to live with me had to live with me in a one-room tenement. But these did not weigh on our minds at all. Carrying Babu around, those were the days when I felt like one of the richest men in the world. Babu smiled and filled our minds and home with happiness. Chitra went to studios to record her advertisement jingles carrying barely twenty days old Babu in her hands. She sang cradling the sleeping baby in her hands. I roamed around looking for the opportunity of a concert or mehfil”.

But soon the travails of poverty became things of past. ‘The Unforgettables’ the record he had cut in 1975 and its cassette were released in the same year to unprecedented welcome. Its massive success established Jagjit Singh & Chitra Singh couple all over India as the most popular singers outside the film world. In the songs of this album which came out with totally different sound from that of traditional Ghazals, Jagjit had creatively used many western music instruments. Some music critics faulted this as a move to destroy Ghazal.  In truth, it was a historical event that breathed new life into Ghazals in India. Songs like ‘Baat Niklegi’, ‘Ek Na Ek Shama’, ‘Ghum Bade Aathey Hain’ and ‘Dost Ban Ke Mujh Ko’ remain a live testimony to this day.

After this turning point only successes happened in Jagjit Singh’s music life. Money and fame poured in. He flew to all parts of the world conducting up to 400 shows a year. There were no days without a show. He has to his credit over 300 shows in Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium alone! The same film world that rejected him now even made films based entirely centred on his music. Jagjit composed and sang totally Ghazal styled songs in them!

Songs like ‘Koyi Gesu Koyi Aanchal ‘(Ek Baar Kaho), ‘Hoton Se Chhoolo Tum’(Prem Geet), ‘Tum Ko Dekha To Yeh Khayal Aaya’, ‘Yeh Bata De Mujhe Zindagi’, ‘Yeh Tera Ghar Yeh Mera Ghar’ and ‘Yoon Zindagi Ki Raah Mein’(Saath Saath), ‘Tum Itna Jo Muskara Rahe Ho’ and ‘Jhuki Jhuki Si Nazar’(Arth), ‘Nasheeli Raath Ko’(Zulf Ke Saaye) and ‘Hoshwalon Ko Kya Pata’(Sarfarosh) are some his film Ghazals that became wildly popular. The cassette album combining his songs from Saath Saath and Arth released by HMV became its largest selling combination music album ever for them. Doordarshan brought out and telecast the life history of Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869), undoubtedly the greatest poet of Ghazals. Jagjit Singh’s composition of Ghazals in the serial was another milestone of his achievements. ‘Beyond Time’, a short disc cut by Jagjit Singh was the first such effort in India to have been recorded on the multi-track digital recording system.

In July of 1990, when he was at the height of his fame, his 19 years old son Babu, around whom Jagjit’s life revolved, died in a tragic road accident. Chitra Singh never again recovered from the trauma of that immense loss. After that event she never again sang even a note. There was a magical quality about the music shows staged by Jagjit Singh Chitra Singh duo. Fans lost forever the opportunity of listening to that enchanting music live. After Chitra Singh no full-fledged female Ghazal singer of mention emerged in India.

Jagjit Singh returned slowly to the music scene after many months spent in tears over the unbearable sorrow of his son’s death. At first he just spent hours listening to his tanpura. Then he began singing with tanpura as accompaniment. Later he started occasionally singing on the stage with eyes brimming with tears rendering a Punjabi folk song called ‘Mitti da Bawa’, a dirge usually sung by a mother crying over her son’s death in an accident. He had later said that, “Tears I had shed over my son’s death became the album ‘Man Jeete Jagjit’”.

Jagjit plunged into the world of Ghazals with rare fortitude. In the decade of 1991-2000 he released about 55 albums. I remember this phase well. I had toured entire South India for the publicity of his album ‘Face to Face’ released by our music company. He in the company of Lata Mangeshkar, brought a Ghazal album ‘Sajda’. In 2003 he composed music for the album ‘Samvedna’ comprising Ghazals written by the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Albums kept coming with a vengeance. He was also conducting countless stage shows. In 2001 he sang for an event in Kolkata even on the day his mother passed away!

This was a time when custom had staled his music with none of the novelty either in tune or his arrangements. All his new songs sounded the same as his old songs. After a stage, if he had left composing and background arrangements to other musicians and instead concentrated on singing alone he could have avoided the staleness that crept into his music. Unfortunately, he never thought on those lines. I completely stopped seeking his new songs and kept listening to his old numbers now and then. Then in 2007, he recreated and sang ten Hindi film songs that affected him most and released the album ‘Close to My Heart’. It was a good move but the way he changed the arrangements of the lead song ‘Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaaye’ did not go down well with many listeners who knew the music of Salil Chowdhury.

But beyond all that, what stands out is his historic contribution to Ghazal as a music form in India. Jagjit Singh is the genius who breathed life into Indian Ghazal and popularized it at a time when it had almost disappeared from the music scene. As far as Ghazals were concerned, he was at once a one man movement and one person industry. It is unfortunate that no new Ghazal singer emerged in his footsteps following his inimitable Ghazal style. In his lifetime not one important singer made Ghazal his important forte. There are some singers who sing Ghazal well. But none of them felt inclined to make it their most important form of expression in music.

Jagjit Singh as an individual lived a very transparent life. He never hesitated in ventilating his opinions explicitly. He lived the life of a very humane and kind person. He helped others without any let or hindrance. He did his best to encourage new singers and musicians. To the end he continued to help individuals and organizations like Child Relief and You (CRY), National Association of the Blind, Library at St.Mary’s and Bombay Hospital. His take on this was: “Nobody helped me in my early days when I was facing utmost tribulations. Helping the needy will not diminish anything. Help confers relief to those who receive it and peace of mind to those who give it.”

One summer’s day in 2009, Jagjit’s daughter Monica committed suicide by hanging from a ceiling fan at her home. Two years later Jagjit was admitted in hospital on 23rd September after cerebral hemorrhage and after a 17 days’ struggle he passed away in the early hours of 10th October. Chitra Singh alone left abandoned to loneliness. Jagjit Singh has sung ‘Your tears are deeper than the ocean’. Will Chitra be comforted by Jagjit’s Ghazals that have comforted millions?

Feel me with your lips
And make my songs immortal…
Hoton Se Chhoo Lo Tum..