The outpouring of anguish following Jagjit Singh’s death drives home, yet again, the special space the ghazal occupies in millions of hearts in the subcontinent.
A “very self-indulgent article… disappointing”, was the response from a reader to my tribute to Ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh published in these columns. Well, I beg his pardon before embarking on another such piece. But to be fair to the reader, he was mad at me for refusing to crown Jagjit as the ‘king of ghazal’ while Mehdi Hassan still ruled that space. This was politically incorrect, he admonished, at a time “when millions of fans with aching hearts are looking for some readings to comfort them”.
Well, if it’s any comfort, this heart is aching too, at the very thought that the melodious Jagjit ghazals captured on my iPod and BlackBerry will be all that I’ll get of his music. The live concerts at which that smooth-as-silk soothing voice had cast a magic web on millions of hearts will no longer be available.
Is it possible to write about your favourite ghazal singer, or for that matter the ghazal itself, without getting intensely involved in the story? I don’t know how men listen to ghazals. Belonging neither to the species nor to the tribe that puts people on a couch to analyse their minds and hearts, a guess is difficult, if not impossible. But passionately fond of the ghazal, I feel extremely lucky to be a woman — for two reasons. Most of the Urdu poetry that is the heart and soul of the ghazal, is written by men. And though there are some good female ghazal singers — who can forget Mallika-e-Ghazal Begum Akhtar — the creamiest layer is taken up by male singers… Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh.
So when listening to an intensely passionate song of love, which the ghazal essentially is, thousands of women should feel, as I invariably do, that the ghazal was both written, and is being sung, for them!
Small wonder then that when a Mehdi Hassan lends his magic voice to Qateel Shifai’s Zindagi mei toh sabhi pyar kiya kartei hei, Mei toh marker bhi meri jaan tujhe chahunga (Being loved in one’s lifetime is passé; I’ll continue to love you even after death), or a Jagjit Singh beseeches his beloved, again in another Qateel ghazal Apney haathon ki lakeero mei basa le mujhko (Engrave me on the lines of your palm), time stands still and you are lost to the world. And when Jagjit continues: Bada phir bada hei mei zehar bhi pee jaoon Qateel, Shart yeh hei koi bahon mei sambhale mujhko (I promise to down poison too, provided I can breathe my last in her arms), is it possible to remain detached?
The outpouring of anguish across the country and beyond its borders, particularly in Pakistan, where Jagjit is as popular as Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali are in India, when the Indian ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh passed away at 70 in Mumbai on Monday, drives home yet again the special space the ghazal occupies in millions of hearts in the subcontinent.
Paying tribute to the memory of Jagjit, whom he has known from 1976, and with whom he had done a concert in Delhi in September and couldn’t do another one scheduled in Mumbai as Jagjit had a brain haemorrhage, Ghulam Ali made a telling point. Rendering the ghazal is a difficult task, he said, adding, “from every 10,000 singers, only one ghazal singer evolves”. And from those ghazal singers, to stand out, right at the top, is the rarest of rare achievements.
What makes a ghazal?
I often wonder why I love the ghazal so much as a genre of music. Is it because of its heart-searing poetry… of romance, love and passion, yearning, longing and belonging, judai (separation), pain and pathos, jilting and rejection and all the heartbreak that goes with it… or the classical ragas in which the ghazal is composed, married to, of course, the magical voice of the singer?
Each accomplished ghazal maestro can elevate the ghazal to a dizzy height, but, as Mehdi Hassan often explained in live concerts, it is important to find the correct raga to match the emotion and metre of the poetry. He was very, very particular about the music and each instrument player getting his bit right. In the early 1990s, when he visited India quite often to give live concerts, I have seen him transform to a state of sheer ecstasy when the accompanying musicians got their act right. And the irritation showed when they didn’t or couldn’t! And then he would tell the audience: “Yeh ek bahut halka, nazuk raag hei, inkey bas key bahar hei… maafi mangta hu, majboor hoon! (This is a very delicate raga, and beyond the capability of these artists… I’m helpless. I can’t give you the best… I apologise!)
Diehard fans of Mehdi Hassan would know that he has sung the same ghazal, over years, in styles wide and varied, from filmi to the absolutely classical variety. In my collection, there are three different versions of the famous Mehdi Hassan ghazal Yoon zindagi ki rah mei takra gaya koi, Ek roshni andherey mei bikhra gaya koi (In the journey of life I met a stranger who filled the darkness of my life with light), first sung for the Pakistani film Aag. The first rendering, for the movie, is a typical film song of the past, the second one is a little more classical, and the third one, absolutely perfect. Needless to say, the last version has been sung by a much older, and more proficient, singer.
Similarly, two less-known ghazals of Mehdi Hassan… Jab us zulf ki baat chali and Shola tha bujh chukka hoon, Hawaein mujhe na do, Mei kab ka ja chukka hoon, Sadaye mujhe na do (Once a raging flame, I am now a dying ember so do not enflame me; I left long ago, so do not call me), are available in the classical mould that would take any music rasika to another plane.
But to Jagjit Singh goes the credit for taking the ghazal out of the sheer classical mould, and widening its appeal to a much larger group of music lovers who love and understand music but are neither knowledgeable nor fussy about the finer nuances of each raga. For over 40 years, Jagjit sang ghazals at various forums and for Bollywood too, without any fuss or flourish. Unlike a Mehdi Hassan, or even a Ghulam Ali, who can take ages, during a live concert, to render a single ghazal couplet, as they go on a private trip of their own with their accompanying artists on the tabla and other instruments, Jagjit was a mass entertainer. He always had his finger on the pulse of his audience. His rendering of the ghazal was not sans its thumkas and inflections, masti (exhuberance) and nazakat (intricacies). The odd purist might scoff at his constant endeavour to make the ghazal more popular, but Jagjit had the last laugh in the sheer magnitude and sweep of his fan base.
And then, he had that magic voice… which could pack into the ghazal so much of longing and pathos. Unlike Mehdi Hassan’s earlier ghazals sung for Pakistani films in a sing-song style, Jagjit’s offerings in films like Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth and the later film Saath Saath, were absolutely classy. Arth had Koi yeh kaise bataye ke woh tanha kyo hei, Tum itna jo muskura rahey ho and Jhuki jhuki si nazar, while Saath Saath had that memorable classic Tum ko dekha toh yeh khayal aaya. Written by Javed Akhtar, it has this haunting couplet which is catapulted straight into your heart by Jagjit’s haunting voice: Aaj phir dil ne ek tamanna ki; Aaj phir dil ko humney samjhaya (Once again the heart had its yearning, once again I pacified the heart).
Javed Akhtar, who, along with Ghulam Ali, shared a good rapport and relationship with Jagjit, captured the Jagjit magic and aura when he complimented the late singer for his unwavering devotion to the ghazal genre for 40 years, when he said: “Charisma can be defined in so many different ways; I would say Jagjit’s voice is charismatic; unki awaz mei woh chein hei, sukoon hei (his voice has comfort and peace), that can put a balm on wounded sensibilities.”
And pain and pathos as well… a voice that will remain unmatched in conveying the subtleties and ironies of love and passion, such as in this famous ghazal Sadma toh hei mujhe bhi: Na janey kis ada se liya tu ne mera naam, Duniya samajh rahi hei, Sub kuch tera hu mei. (The way you addressed me makes everybody believe I mean the world to you).
Or take this one: Humney seekha andheyron mei jeena, Aap ghabra gaye roshni se (I’ve learnt to live with darkness and you are scared of light); Kya khushi hei kabhi unse poocho, Gham mila ho jinhe har khushi se (Seek the definition of happiness from one who has got sorrow from every happiness).
A last bit of self-indulgence…. Every ghazal lover has an intense relationship with her favourite ghazal singer. So bidding goodbye to Jagjit’s golden voice, I’d like to hum from that immortal Arth ghazal Koi yeh kaise bataye, written by Kaifi Azmi and filmed on his daughter Shabana:
Tum masarrat ka kaho ya isey gham ka rishta; Kehtey hei pyar ka rishta hei janam ka rishta; Hei janam ka jo yeh rishta toh badalta kyo hei. (Call it a relationship of happiness or sorrow; if, as they say, the relationship of love endures through different births, why does it change thus?)