Pandit Jasraj

Music of the planet

Print edition : September 11, 2020

Pandit Jasraj at a concert in Chennai on February 25, 2006. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Begum Akhtar was one of the early musical influences on young Jasraj. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Pandit Jasraj with Lata Mangeshkar at the launch of a music album in Mumbai on January 21, 2005. Photo: PTI

With a clear singing style, subtle innovations and a stress on devotion that transcended faith, Pandit Jasraj (1930-2020) redefined the way the world looked at Hindustani classical music.

Everybody has a Pandit Jasraj moment to cherish. While thousands have his renditions of Rag Shuddh Bhairavi or Rag Nat Narayan preserved in their memory banks, and many others identify themselves with his semi-classical haveli sangeet, it is the experience of Ankita Joshi, later regarded by Jasraj himself as a bright star of the next generation of Mewati gharana vocalists, that deserves special mention.

This is the story. When Pandit Jasraj had arrived to perform at the Sawai Gandharva music festival in Pune on the invitation of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, a nine-year-old girl ran into the green room, dodging security guards along the way. Soon she stood in front of Pandit Jasraj and mustered the courage to request him to be her guru. Pandit Jasraj, known for keeping the doors of his house open for taalim [education] and free lessons to pupils, took the girl under his wing.

While Ankita Joshi may have been luckier to establish an instant personal connection with the guru, Pandit Jasraj did make sure that anybody desirous of learning the music of the Mewati gharana had a school and a guru to learn from. Today, there are several schools and music academies under Pandit Jasraj’s name, not just in Rajasthan and Haryana, the cradle of Mewati gharana, but even in Kerala. In an interview with The Hindu, Pandit Jasraj said, “You may think there should be a domination of Carnatic music in Kerala, but it is the gayaki [singing style] of this gharana that had made Hindustani music popular even in the southern part of the country.”

His daughter, Durga Jasraj, who shot to fame by anchoring a long-running music show “Antakshari” on television, revealed that her Bapu [father] was like a Bapu for hundreds of students across the world. “There are hundreds of students the world over who are learning at various music schools named after Pandit Jasraj. There is also an auditorium named after him in New York,” she said. Then there was the matter of a minor planet between Mars and Jupiter being named after him in 2019.

It is these schools, and noted artists such as Sanjeev Abhyankar, Swar Sharma, Kala Ramnath, Shashank Subramanyam and Ankita Joshi, who stand testimony to the abiding genius of Jasraj. Incidentally, Pandit Jasraj once revealed that he never went looking for disciples. In fact, when a young man called Chandrashekhar Swami first approached him with a request to be his guru in 1960, he took a few years before acceding to his request. The step he took with Swami benefited hundreds of students for over six decades until August 17, 2020, when he breathed his last following cardiac arrest at his home in New Jersey.

Pandit Jasraj’s music, though, will live on, through his disciples, through moments of sustained magic that he created while singing “Mero Allah Meherban”, where he merged Om with Allah ever so subtly, and bhajans such as “Om Namo Bhagwate Vasudevaya” and “Govind Damodar Madhaveti”. The popularity of his music went beyond the rarefied environs of classical music to the realm of the common man.

Bending genres

With clear gayaki, stress on bhakti, and subtle innovations in khayal, Pandit Jasraj redefined the way the world looked at Hindustani classical music. Back in the mid 1940s, when he first started his innovations by moving away from the Dhrupad genre and adding elements of thumri to traditional khayals, purists frowned. But Pandit Jasraj continued regardless. Slowly, he became a symbol of spirituality in Hindustani classical music, and his haveli sangeet transcended the boundaries of faith.

He then came up with Jasrangi Jugalbandi, a form of duet where both male and female voices sang different ragas together in two different scales. It so happened that his disciples Shweta Jhaveri and Sanjeev Abhyankar were once singing together and Jasraj heard them. That is when he came up with the concept, based on the principle of murchana. It soon became his hallmark.

The Jasraj magic—his bandish [composition] which could be clearly identified, his elaborate movement from one swara to next to get the beauty through the meend [sliding of notes], his khayal soaked in rasa bhava [emotive essence], the layakari and taans [rhythms] that embellished his compositions—was not a result of genius alone. Behind the magic was sustained hard work.

Born in 1930 in Hisar, his father Pandit Motiram was an exponent of the Mewati gharana. Young Jasraj grew up to the sound of music, and often sat on his father’s chest singing Ustad Abdul Karim’s “Piya Bin Nahin”. One his earliest memories was of travelling on a camel’s back to the railway station.

Begum Akhtar’s influence

Jasraj lost his father early, in 1934, on the day he was appointed as Mir Osman Ali Khan’s court musician. Jasraj’s education continued with his two elder brothers, Pandit Maniram and Pandit Pratap Narayan, who were being groomed as classical artists. From the age of 11, he received tabla lessons, and spent his youth in Hyderabad before moving to Sanand in Gujarat where he was groomed under Maharaj Jaywant Singh Waghela. Under his influence, Jasraj began to be immersed in the joy of bhakti in music.

Begum Akhtar was one of the early musical influences on young Jasraj. A gramophone record of Begum Akhtar’s played regularly at a tea shop on his way to school, and young Jasraj would stand mesmerised, listening to “Deewana banana hai toh deewana bana de”. As he frequently missed classes owing to this fascination with Begum Akhtar, his name was struck off the school rolls. It proved to be a blessing. He devoted his time honing his skills as a singer.

Slowly he carved out his own niche. The little niche was to grow bigger when he followed the advice of his father-in-law, the renowned filmmaker V. Shantaram who told him to focus on greater clarity in voice, and pay more attention to lyrics. Jasraj was married to Shantaram’s daughter Madhura, whom he first met during the making of the film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje. Incidentally, almost 50 years after marriage, Madhura Jasraj came up with the ultimate compliment for her husband with a film titled Sangeet Martand Pandit Jasraj in 2000. In 2004, Pandit Jasraj sang with Lata Mangeshkar for a Marathi film, Aai Tuza Ashirwad.

The film, the school and the laurels—he was a recipient of the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan—owed a deep debt to the hard work of the early years. Pandit Jasraj practised for as many as 12-14 hours every day. He first performed in Kathmandu at the age of 22, where he sang Rag Multani and the bhajan “Gal bhujang bhasm ang”. The sum of Rs. 500 he was promised was a huge climb for Jasraj who, until the late 1940s, was paid Rs. 25 for each programme on radio in Calcutta.

Yet Jasraj had to climb the ladder the hard way. Once, as a young man, he was slated to sing between two great artists. After one of them had performed, the crowd began to disperse for refreshments, when Pandit Omkarnath Thakur asked him to perform, and requested the audience to listen. Once Pandit Jasraj performed, everybody took notice with many asking about his taalim. Similar was the experience of J. Krishnamurti in Rishi Valley. Krishnamurti had told him not to take offence if he left midway. But so powerful was Jasraj’s rendition that the session went on for four hours, and Krishnamurti did not leave his seat.

On such anecdotes, on such moments of genius, on a solid footing of years of riyaz [practice] was built the abiding magic of Pandit Jasraj. His voice and his innovations will not be silenced with his passing away. As he wanted, his students have to carry the torch forward of the Mewati gharana and act as ambassadors of Hindustani classical music the world over. Of course, there is a planet called “Pandit Jasraj”, too. Enough for the galaxy to remember him.

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