His voice has been called velvety; it has been likened to silk.
During 1970s, the art of ghazal singing was dominated by well-established names like Noor Jehan, Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan. Ghazals fall in the category of semi-classical music and bear the stamp of classical structure, elements and style. The common man couldn’t connect with the poetry, because its essence and pathos were lost in the process of rendition. It was a rare mind that could piece together the lyrics of the ghazal from the maze of classical music elements.
In 1976, a young couple released their first ghazal album. There were many ‘firsts’ associated with this album. Not only was this their first album, this was also the first time a husband- wife singing duo had appeared in Indian musical scene… that too in the ghazal category. Their style was completely different from the prevalent style of ghazal singing. They were pioneers and path breakers on many counts.
The world did make room for these non-conformists, but not before the customary, grinding years of struggle. These years saw many rejections, including one by India’s state owned (at that time the only) television channel. With the release of their debut album, the years of struggle were laid to rest. Jagjit and Chitra Singh had come to stay, and to rule. In the intervening years since the debut until now, the flighty, transitory taste of the country traversed a tapestry of musical styles with predominantly western influence. Yet, Jagjit and Chitra Singh continued not only to hold their place, but to climb ever upward. They have enjoyed enduring and constant success for over three decades.
Speaking of his departure from the norms of ghazal singing, Jagjit Singh once said that for him the most important component in a ghazal was the lyrics. The music and the singer’s prowess in classical (traditional) singing were of secondary importance. He did not think it right, he said, that the essence of the poetry should be diluted because the singer wishes to demonstrate his own craft. The music and the singer’s rendition must serve as a frame for the ghazal. While the frame could be beautiful by itself, it was still merely a prop. A beautiful prop enhances and multiplies the value and experience of viewing a painting. Similarly, his music was also a prop for showing a ghazal to its best advantage. He too tried to add depth and color to the poetry when he sang.
My first experience of the duo’s magical voice was through an ancient mono-cassette player. The inadequate and technologically pedestrian amplifiers detracted severely from the beauty of their voices. With repeated playing, the tape ribbon developed minor aberrations while the play head collected soot because the cover of the unit had broken off. This accumulated dust added a tinny screech to the soul-filling music that emanated from that belabored player. And yet.
The sheer depth of their melodies and their rich, velvety voices spoke of my inner-most aches. Their voices trembled in the awed silence of my teenaged heart. I was too old for my years- so I was told. All the confusions teens naturally go through, I went through in high relief- so to speak. Through their ghazals, they spoke to me, laying my confusions bare. It was as if the doors in the dark chambers of my soul were flung open with a firm hand. These open doors allowed the sunshine of acknowledgement to light the dismal corners of my consciousness. Their voices were the solace, their solace was the validation; their validation was the very breath of life to me.
With that first album, the duo and I forged a bond to last a lifetime. A bond that is as strong as it is resilient and durable. Even today when things are not going well I am driven to play one of their compositions. I listen and I am soothed. I am given the courage to stand up and walk my path again. I know that this relationship between us is frozen. It is as constant and predictable as the rising of the sun.
Chitra Singh stopped singing after the couple lost their only son to a road accident. That incomparable voice, which even today moves me to tears when I hear her solo numbers like Jab naam tera pyaar se, Kabhi to khul ke baras, Safar mein dhoop to hogi or even eka na ek shamma silenced itself in protest against the senselessness of the universe. Her voice is so pure and melodious, her renditions so seemingly effortless that listening to her is like riding on the silken threads of her voice in the cool breeze of a balmy summer evening. For her to stop singing was certainly a bad blow.
Jagjit Singh carried valiantly on. His album with Lata Mangeshkar, called Sajda, has some beautiful and haunting ghazals. His Kabhi youn bhi to ho speaks of a poignancy and longing so deep, that words cannot contain them. The yearning washes over you with the prodigious immensity of an ocean in a storm and leaves you speechless and still. Of his bhajans, Hey Ram is surely the best known. The nazms I like best are Baat nikelegi to fir, Tere Khat and Shayad.
Jagjit and Chitra Singh did not pen the ghazals they sang. They sang ghazals, nazms and bhajans written by stalwarts of the poetic world. Jagjit Singh’s album with Gulzar, called Marasim, is certainly a masterpiece. Every ghazal in that album is alive with passion. They gave voice to the verses of renowned poets including Mirza Ghalib, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Ameer Meenai, Kafeel Aazer, Sudarshan Faakir and Nida Fazli.
While Jagjit and Chitra cannot be given credit for the beauty of the lyrics to which they gave their voice, they must certainly be given credit for making those words come alive. Their music and voice added many layers of emotions than could not have been conveyed by words alone. I wonder how many of us would have loved the poetry if it hadn’t been brought to vibrant life through them.
Jagjit Singh is no more now. His last concerts were held on 16th September 2011 at Nehru Science Centre in Mumbai, on 17th at Siri Fort Auditorium in New Delhi and on 20th September at The Indian Public School in Dehradun. On 10th October 2011, this giant ceased to be.
For over three decades, his music has delighted people across all borders of demography. He has given voice to the hopes, yearnings and disappointments of billions. That incomparable voice, soothing and empowering together, has lost itself in eternal silence. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl has quoted a German poet who said What you have experienced, no power on earth can take away from you.
Jagjit Singh will sing no more, it is true, but the vast legacy he has left behind can never be taken away from us.
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