Life after Jagjit Singh
I remember the day Jagjit Singh walked into my life. It was one sunny afternoon more than 20 years ago, and he didn't even bother knocking the door.
I was at a friend's place, talking Kapil Dev and cricket, when it happened. It was a swift, single act of seduction; one line of the absurdly melodious "Honthon Se Choo Lo Tum", and he had me.
I hadn't heard the song before, and I didn't know the singer, but I had to hear it again. I don't know what my friend felt about it, but I had the music cassette with me as I walked back home. My life was about to change, and I didn't know it.
Jagjit and Chitra Singh Live at Royal Albert Hall, as I later discovered, was so much more than just the song I had fallen in love with. "Hum to Hain Pardes Mein", "Hanske Bola Haro Bulaya Karo", "Chalo Baant Lete Hain", "Ahista Ahista" and "Sunte hain ki mil jaati" hai meant the cassette stayed with me much longer than my friend would have liked it.
Soon, I was hunting ghazal albums down. The Unforgettables, A Milestone, Echoes, Ecstasies, Beyond Time; I was officially on my way to obsession. Film music didn't mean much to me anymore. The duo was even gaining ground on cricket, an all consuming passion until then.
I started scouring magazines for pictures and articles about my favorite singers; in an article in The Illustrated Weekly of India, Khushwant Singh declared that Jagjit was "more handsome than Dilip Kumar and had a better voice than Mehdi Hassan". That article, I recall, had a photo of them performing live at a concert, their young son Vivek - Baboo to his parents - sleeping blissfully on Chitra's lap.
Somewhere along the way, I became a newspaper reporter in Calicut, a town in Kerala known for its keen musical ear. Less than two years into my career, I realized life has this habit of doling out gifts every once in a while.
It was about that time that Amitabh Kant, then District Collector who was to later on create the "Incredible India" tourism brand, decided that it was time the city had a signature cultural festival for itself. Malabar Mahotsav managed to draw an enviable array of artistes, including Pandit Shivkumar Sharma, but the festival, for me, was all about listening live to the singer I ended virtually every day with.
I remember going with other reporters for the pre-event press conference. He was to perform later in the day, but Jagjit was bent on tasting just about every item on the menu. Yesudas, for one, is known to avoid anything that is bad for his vocal chords, but here was a singer, with a voice every bit as golden, merrily giving into to the temptation of tasty food.
My fellow reporters left after the press conference, but I stayed back and grabbed my chance to talk to Jagjit as he walked away to his room. The conversation centered on his music, and even if he did not say so, Jagjit seemed genuinely surprised that his music had such a besotted fan in a State where Hindi wasn't the first, or even the second, language.
I gave him my wish list. He smiled, promising nothing and yet, much. "Why don't you sit by my side on the stage," he asked, eyes lighting up. I don't recall what I said, but vividly remember panicking at the thought.
It was an invitation I ended up not taking, but that was irrelevant. I had a memory to carry for the rest of my life, and a tale to tell family and friends. Before I left, I also had him autograph an audio cassette of the "Unforgettables", the album that announced to the world that ghazals wouldn't be just about Begum Akhtar, Talat Mahmood, Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali anymore.
I have cassettes - still do - of the couple's enormously popular live performances at the Royal Albert Hall and Wembley, but Jagjit on stage alone was an entirely different experience. Chitra had stopped singing by then - Vivek had died in an accident in 1991 and mothers are known to crumble when their children go before they do - and Jagjit was free to soar or fall alone.
I don't know if it was the open stage under the star-lit sky or the huge and immensely knowledgeable crowd, but Jagjit clearly liked something about the night. I'd like to think he was singing for me.
I remember the heavenly deep voice doing perfect justice to the philosophical "Aadmi Aadmi ko Kya Dega", the lively "Jhoom Ke Jab Rindon Ne Piladi", the tragic "Thumri - Babul Mora", and the eternal favorites - "Yeh Daulat Bhi Le Lo", "Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho", "Hothon Se Choo Lo Tum", and "Tum ko Dekha to Yeh Khayal Aaya".
He was never one for vocal acrobatics, but here was my favorite singer showing off - improvising effortlessly and showing off classical flourishes that would have done a Ghulam Ali proud. Jagjit was simply having fun and enjoying the night, but to this fan, every musical detour he took was the perfect riposte to critics who accused him of being musically limited.
Another memory, more recent, takes me to Thiruvananthapuram where Jagjit sang at an event organized by Swaralaya at the AKG Center concert hall. I expected not to be recognized as I waited with a reporter friend at the airport for the singer, and I wasn't.
Was I sad?? A wee bit, but I had seen enough to realize that life can disappoint once in a while. I still had the man and his evening of music to wait for, and as always, that proved to be enough.
The years rolled on, I got used to his refreshing candour while speaking on public issues, and my hair started going grey along with his. The tone and texture of Jagjit's voice, if anything, became even better, but Chitra's absence started reflecting on his composing skills. The trademark Jagjit style was by then firmly in place and album sales continued to soar, but too many of his tunes started to sound similar. My cousins and friends had fun seeing me try to defend the indefensible.
There remained, however, so much to gloat about.
I have listened to Talat Mahmood, Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali rendering Ghalib, but no one has sung the master philosopher with more feeling, or made him more accessible, than Jagjit. I remember spending countless nights on the wings of the haunting "Woh Firaaq Aur Who Visaal Kahaan" and letting my mind roam free with his soulful rendition of "Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi". All through the album, the thought and the voice are soul mates.
It wasn't just Ghalib who got decked up thanks to Jagjit.
"Shola Hoon Bhadakne Ki", "Maana ke Musht-e-khaak Se", "Koi Paas Aaya Savere Savere" and "Shayad", all from live concerts, the prayer-like "Garaj Baras Pyasi Dharti Par", "Uski Hasrat Hai Jise Dil Se", "Samne Hai Jo Use", "Koi Dost Hai Na Raqeeb Hai", "Sar Jhukaoge to Pathar" and "Kabhi Yoon Bhi Aaa" are not as well-known as some of his eternal favorites, but I don't believe any other singer could have brought these ghazals to life as well as Jagjit has done. It isn't just the "soz" in his voice or the singing style; it is almost as if someone up above had decided to sing through him.
He did not have the greatest vocal range, but sophisticated subtleties of his vocal art and the ability to "perform" a song and paint a visual tapestry of emotions more than made up for it. Too many ghazal singers, even some hugely popular ones, trample upon the words as they try to dazzle you with their vocal skills. When Jagjit sang, it was all about the song, his voice a magic carpet for the poet's thoughts to reach the soul.
He is gone, and in time, I will learn not to go online and look for new albums of his. I've stashed away all those albums as it will hurt a bit too much to hear him now, but I know I will return to the purity of his voice, to the peace that it provides even as it sings of life and sorrow.
Memories often have songs as signposts. Jagjit won't sing anymore, but my memories and I intend to grow old with his music. How do you say goodbye to something that is inside you?
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