Jagjit Singh: 8 February 1941 – 10 October 2011

“Travel with me on the long road into loneliness,
where the hours offer pardons to those still afraid.
Bursts of white and blue flowers will surprise you in summer,
with denials of what is called death.” 
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Jagjit Singh in concert in Bhubaneswar a week before falling victim of the stroke that eventually proved fatal.

HE WAS a rebel with a cause. At a time when past masters like Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali were at the peak of their careers, Jagjit Singh had turned around the vocal interpretation of the ghazal and gained acceptance. As a matter of fact, Singh was solely responsible for replanting the deeply poetic form of ghazal singing out of the courts of royalty to the heartlands of the third estate. During an unparalleled career spanning 46 years he cut more than 80 albums and toured all over the world wherever Urdu/Hindi-speaking people lived from the Americas to Hong Kong. The commercial recognition he had attained even earned him the nickname the ‘one-man-non-film-music-industry’.

Born in Sri Gangadhar district of Rajasthan in 1941, Jagjit Singh was the third among eleven siblings. His father Amar Singh had originally named him Jagmohan Singh. However soon after his birth following the advice of a holy man, Amar Singh rechristened him ‘Jagjit’. In the years that followed Jagjit’s habit of singing along with the songs being broadcasted by the All India Radio drew Amar Singh’s attention. Initially he sent his son for classical music training to the blind Pandit Chaganla Sharma from whom Singh learned the basic notes, scales and rhythm. Two years later he became the disciple of one of the most respected musical maestros in Rajasthan Ustad Jamal Khan. It took him another six years to learn the raagas and pick up the finer nuances of classical music like Bandish, Thumri, Khayal, Dhrupad and others.

Amar Singh had wanted his son to become an Engineer in real life. Reminiscing about the old days Singh later said in an interview, “I would never understand science.”

He obtained a post-graduate degree in History from Kurukshetra University in Haryana, perhaps as a consolation for his father. During his student years he had started singing for the All India Radio. “I knew I had to be a singer,” Singh had confessed.

It was the radical decision he took in 1965 that changed his life forever and the history of the Indian non-film music industry in later years. He boarded the train to Bombay (Mumbai) without telling anyone which at that time he had thought was a gamble. His savings were very little and had to struggle for several months until he could make it to singing advertising jingles.

The works of poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Qateel Shifai and Ali Sardar Jafri bore a great deal of influence in Singh especially that of ‘Jafri saab’ that had an underlying Nehruvian socialism in them. Setting himself apart from his own family traditions, Singh transformed his physical appearance by shaving off his beard and getting rid of the turban before cutting a four-track disc for the gramophone company His Master’s Voice (HMV). After a two-year courtship in 1968 he married a divorcee Chitra Dutta an aspiring singer herself.

At the departure from the ghazal scene of Mallika-e-Ghazal Begum Akhtar in 1974 the career of the other acclaimed singer Talat Mahmoud was in decline. As a consequence ghazal singing of the mid-70s was virtually under the monopoly of purists of the form like Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali.

However, Singh’s gamble paid off. He formulated a new style of singing where the accent was more on words and their manifestation rather than notes and niceties. He also diluted pure ghazal with a mix of geet and introduced the use of western musical instruments like guitar and saxophone at the same time retaining the sanctity of the tabla, harmonium and other traditional eastern-stringed instruments.

The Singhs on the cover of their most celebrated album ‘The Unforgettables’

With the ground breaking release of the ‘The Unforgettables’ in 1976 the Singh singing duo had become a sensation in the subcontinent. This was underlined by the fact that when the Indian mission in Islamabad had invited the Singhs to perform during the republic day celebrations they received an overwhelming response from the people in a country, where cricket is only next to religion, that even Indian cricketers could not ever match.

Singh’s entry into Hindi films was through ‘Saath Saath’ in 1981. However, film music for him appeared to be like having an affair with the courtesan that did not quite suit his style. During his brief interlude with films, he found himself composing music mostly for the home productions of Shatrughan Sinha and the Mahesh Bhatt camp.

However tragedy struck the Singhs in 1990. Their 19-year-old son Vivek was killed in a road accident. Chitra was devastated to such an extent that she never sang again in public. Though Singh managed to return to the recording studio six months later, his music had lost the romantic flow of reminiscence (“..magar mujhko lauta do bachpan ka sawan, vo kagaz ki kashti, vo barish ka pani.. ”) that was taken over by an air of entrenched sadness (“..aur kuch bhi mujhey darkaar nahin hai lekin, meri chaadar mere pairon ke barabar kar de..”).

In 2003 Government of India conferred the Padma Bhushan on him. Yet life continued to be harsh on the Singhs. In 2009 Chitra’s daughter from her first marriage Monica killed herself after a failed relationship.

In later years he had again sang in films occasionally. His songs from ‘Tum Bin”, “Jogger’s Park” and “Sarfarosh” still haunt radio frequencies.

Many people consider Singh’s voice and diction as his most valuable attributes. During one of his rare disclosures, Singh admitted to contemporary singer Shan that the timbre and tone in his voice was not entirely God gifted, he had trained hard for acquiring them. That is exactly the reason why the ‘lehza’ in his singing remains unparalleled.

On 23 September 2011 Singh suffered a brain haemorrhage and was admitted in Mumbai Lilavati hospital where a life-saving surgery was performed. After being in the hospital for 17 days he succumbed to his death on 10 October.

Maybe death is not an accidental singularity but is life invariably a continuous journey towards destination death? The late bard Dom Moreas after a customary heady night once sang in the hour before dawn:

“Travel with me on the long road into loneliness,
where the hours offer pardons to those still afraid.
Bursts of white and blue flowers will surprise you in summer,
with denials of what is called death.”

 Baat niklegi to phir duur talak jayegi
 Dard se mera daaman bhar de
 Sarakti jaye hain rukh se naqab
 Shaam se ankh mein nami si hain
 Yeh daulat bhi le lo

 Badi nazuk hain yeh manzil
 Chitti na koi sandesh
 Hoton se choo lo tum
 Hoshwalon ko khabar kya
 Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho

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