The passing of maestro Jagjit Singh brought back, to me, memories of his appearances with his wife Chitra Singh in the 1970s. He was later to become one of the giants of ghazal singing in the Indian subcontinent and was often referred to as its greatest living practitioner. After Mehdi Hassan retired, Jagjit sahib along with Ghulam Ali carried on the tradition (sometimes together) of singing some of the finest Urdu-Hindi-Punjabi ghazals and geets for South Asians and their diaspora worldwide. Even during times of tensions between India and Pakistan, one could still find connoisseurs of the ghazal gathering in halls here in America at events where geographic, religious, and ethnic boundaries became meaningless, especially when Jagjit Singh was singing. One would have to conclude that a good ghazal enhances and promotes harmony amongst its listeners.
Singh’s simple upbringing, his early struggles to break into the music industry are well known. In the 1960s, the art of ghazal singing was dominated by classicists like Noor Jehan, Malika Pukhraj, Begum Akhtar, Talat Mahmood, and Mehdi Hassan. When Singh’s album The Unforgettables was released in 1976, purists scorned it, but Singh’s emphasis on melody and his baritone voice immediately found success among listeners. Nevertheless, you had to be as good as Pakistan’s Mehdi Hasan to get recognized as a master in India, and as good as Jagjit Singh to get the same level of appreciation in Pakistan.
And backgrounds did not matter, as one Ganganagar, Rajasthan-born Sikh, Jagjit Singh not only succeeded in creating a name for himself in the craft of ghazal singing that had been dominated by Pakistanis for many years but in the process ended up with a huge and very dedicated following in that country too. The romance of “Kal Chaudhvin Ki Raat Thi” ruled the streets of India and Pakistan for months. His songs like “Tum Ko Dekha To Yeh Khayal Aaya” and hits like “Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho” during the early 1980s were heard quite often from international students’ dorm rooms and apartments here in America. From the former ghazal the lines “Tum Chale Jao Ge To Sochain Ge, Hum Ne Kya Khoya Hum Ne Kya Paya..” did come to mind upon hearing about Jagjit Sahib’s death. And what can one say “Wok Kagaz Ki Kashti’s” entreaty to take his wealth away and give him back his childhood paper sailboat and rainwater to float it in? Only the movie Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud” comes close here.
On a more personal note this scribe owes a great deal to Jagjit Singh for enriching my life in a way that is difficult for me to admit. Where my childhood teachers of Urdu in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) gave up, Jagjit Singh succeeded. He re-introduced me and many others from what is affectionately known as the “Burger Generation” or “Gulabi Urdu” speakers and readers to the poetic genius of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. The Indian television play Mirza Ghalib of the late 1980s was an eye opener for many overseas Pakistanis and Indians. Ghalib, considered by many to be the greatest Urdu poet ever, was rediscovered through the soulful voice of Jagjit Singh in that superb series. Gulzar’s direction and Naseeruddin Shah’s acting were the icing on the cake.
After all these years my DVD of Mirza Ghalib occasionally comes out for viewing when the kids are not home. What some of us have lost from our culture or tehzeeb, perhaps due to laziness or difficulty in understanding an “ancient” Urdu poet can be found in it. Even to my ears attuned to heavy metal and rock, Jagjit Singh’s superb voice overcame barriers to incite curiosity, passion, and an interest in the genius of Ghalib’s poetry. Better late than never to rediscover a part of my cultural soul which happens to be tied to the Urdu language, and for that ironically I have Jagjit Singh, a Rajasthani-Punjabi to thank!
Comparisons between Jagjit Singh and Mehdi Hassan are inevitable. For the purpose of this article we will not succumb to this temptation because it is just not warranted. For the record I remain a big fan of both and will not compare the two here out of respect. What I can thankfully write at this time is that both countries are in equal mourning at the passing away of Jagjit Singh, one of the finest ghazal singers of our generation.
I would recommend readers to listen to Josh Malihabadi’s “Kisko Aati Hai Masihaee Kise Awaz Doon?” in Jagjit Sahib’s beautiful voice on You Tube. Loosely translated it means “Who still knows how to be a Messiah, whom should I call?” The fans of Jagjit Singh certainly feel his great loss today.