Notes to remember

Issue 05, 2020

Notes to remember

Suman Doonga |author

Issue 05, 2020

Pandit Jasraj was not just a virtuoso vocalist but also composed numerous bandishes and created a new form of jugalbandi that is named after him - Jasrangi Jugalbandi. As the country mourns the loss of this musical legend, we take a look at his life, work and achievements.

Pandit Jasraj needs no introduction. One of the most accomplished vocalists of Hindustani classical music of the north Indian style, he was known for his soul-stirring voice and multi-octave range. With his demise on August 17, at the age of 90, the Indian music fraternity not only lost a jewel but also the last member of a glorious generation of artistes that included the likes of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Vidushi Kishori Amonkar, to name a few. Pandit Jasraj, fondly called Bapuji, has left behind an unmatched legacy for the Mewati gharana, a 19th-century musical style, which is safe with his disciples and daughter, Durga Jasraj. The doyen will also be remembered for popularising Haveli sangeet, a form of devotional music that is traditionally performed in temples and dedicated to Lord Krishna.

Melodious years

Born into a musically-inclined family in Haryana, he learnt to play the tabla at an early age under the tutelage of his elder brother Pandit Pratap Narayan and went on to hone his vocal skills under his other older brother, Pandit Maniram. Blessed with a sonorous voice, perfect diction, and clarity in sur (notes) and gayaki (singing), Pandit Jasraj’s music was characterised by an interplay between musical notes and words to evoke the desired mood and emotion. Pandit Jasraj’s family eventually shifted Calcutta (present day Kolkata) in 1946 where he and his brother, Pandit Maniram, worked at All India Radio as artistes. He spent 13 years in the city, where he did his daily riyaaz (practice) for over 10 hours. The city also introduced him to Som Tiwari (a disciple of Pandit Maniram), Pandit Vijay Kichlu and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (who lived a few houses away from Panditji’s residence), all of whom inspired and encouraged him. During his stay in Calcutta, he also attended concerts where musical greats like Pandit Ravi Shankar performed. In the words of noted vocalist Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, “I was introduced to him in 1981…I was not particularly familiar with his Mewati gharana; his style of singing followed that of Dr Pandit Askaran Sharmaji. It deviates a little from hardcore classical music. After Bhimsen Joshi’s demise, he was one of the senior-most vocalists in Indian classical music. Today, I feel the pain of losing a senior.”

Pandit Jasraj (left) with renowned flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia at a Mumbai-based event in 2005

Life, work and honours

The history of Indian classical music is rich with stories that narrate how the weather changed when an artiste sang a particular raga. Pandit Jasraj was one of them. In an interview, his daughter had recounted how in Varanasi, in the summer of 1996, a dust storm formed when the vocalist started singing the Dhulia Malhar raga, which is usually sung before the onset of monsoon. Pandit Jasraj is credited for composing over 300 bandishes (musical compositions) and his melodic rendition of verses penned by great saints and poets.  His research in Haveli sangeet had yielded beautiful compositions in the devotional genre too. He created a novel form of jugalbandi (a duet between artistes) called Jasrangi Jugalbandi, which is styled on the ancient principle of murchana (a form of jugalbandi between a male and female vocalist singing different ragas in their respective scales at the same time).

An archival photograph of Pandit Jasraj during a concert in New Delhi in 1992

According to the virtuoso, the purpose of his music and voice was not to self-express or garner praise but godliness. They were mere means to be one with the Almighty because for him, music was worship. He considered his journey in music as a divine one and often spoke about how God had chosen him. Time and again, he had recounted how Lord Krishna had appeared in his dreams and asked him to sing for Him. This is, perhaps, the reason why, his voice and compositions transcend to a divine plane. For his vast body of work and love towards his art, he was honoured with innumerable awards, including the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Academy Award, Dinanath Mangeshkar Award and the title of Sangeet Martand from the Government of Haryana. His international honours include that of Excellent Musician conferred by the Harvard University Art Museum. The country will remain forever be indebted for his contributions to Hindustani shashtriya sangeet (Indian classical music). His his soulful voice and his values will be remembered by generations to come.

Suman Doonga

Suman Doonga is an educationist and social worker with a passion to preserve and promote Indian art and culture. Her vision is to enrich the Indian classical arts and to encourage the current and future younger generations to make it an integral part of their lives.
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