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Pandit Jasraj (1930-2020): Synonymous with gayaki

  • A personal tribute to the legendary classical vocalist who died at the age of 90
  • Part of the Mewati gharana, Pandit Jasraj was a master of the khayal, the style of singing freer in form than the grammar orthodoxy that Dhrupad imposes.

Hindustani vocalist Pandit Jasraj. Photograph: Rohit Chawla
Hindustani vocalist Pandit Jasraj. Photograph: Rohit Chawla

I don’t remember if it was at Rang Bhavan or at the quadrangle of St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, but it was on a late winter night sometime in 1978 or 1979, when Pandit Jasraj had finished a hauntingly beautiful concert. As was his habit, he took his time to get up from the baithak, his hair unruly as ever, his eyes looking blissful, as he spoke to fans, friends, and admirers who had come to meet him. He bowed to everyone, folding his hands into a namaste, grasping the hands of those he knew well, patting the backs of the younger men and women, and signing autographs.

One young man took out his exercise book, brusquely tore a sheet and thrust that sheet towards him, asking him to sign. Jasraj politely declined; he said you don’t tear books apart. Books give us vidya, the source of knowledge. How can you tear apart knowledge? Another man gave him a hundred rupee note to sign, a princely sum in those days, assuming Jasraj would comply; Jasraj declined again, saying he could not write his name on the Mahatma’s photograph.

That’s when a young boy hesitantly gave him his bus ticket and asked if he would sign.

Jasraj looked at the boy carefully, at his ticket. He was wearing torn chappals. Jasraj could see that the boy had come to listen and had probably bought the cheapest seat he could afford. Jasraj scribbled on the back of the ticket, gave it to him, and asked him to wait; he then brought out the invitation card for the evening’s performance, asked him his name, and wrote his name on the back of the card and signed his name with a flourish. The boy had tears in his eyes.

It was a small gesture, but it showed Jasraj’s sense of fair-play and discretion. Not everyone needed to have an autograph book, but treat the books you have with respect; don’t equate autographs with monetary value, money doesn’t buy everything; and if you are one who lacks the means or resources, he extended the helping hand and respected your dignity, saying your name.

That encounter, which I remember after all these years, revealed Jasraj’s humanity, which was audible in his songs. He was the master of laya, or the tempo of a piece of music. His soft, melodious, sweet voice captured the seductiveness of a raga, giving it a velvety flow that soothed nerves. Much of his singing was devotional, and it offered solace to the one who believed, and comfort to the one who did not. Being part of the Mewati gharana, Jasraj became synonymous with gayaki, was a master of the khayal, the style of singing freer in form than the grammar orthodoxy that Dhrupad imposes, and yet adhering to the metric cycle set by the accompanying tabla. But he also mastered the lighter thumri, which he sang, his eyes twinkling, the thumri making vivid the image of a dancer with tinkling anklets.

I am listening to his Marwa as I write this; he moves effortlessly across octaves, quickening tempo as it moves from vilambit to drut in the dhun, "sharanpreet karuna". And later, there is his Bhairav, where he sings to allah, in "Mero Allah Meherban", accompanied by Ankita Joshi and Gargi Siddhant. None of the performers are Muslim, and they are singing to another form of the eternal, revealing the beauty of India’s syncretic character. May that India not vanish.

I had heard Pandit Jasraj often at concerts in Mumbai in that halcyon time when it was possible to take that India for granted. He performed a few times at my school, New Era, his dulcet voice offering another facet of India’s rich musical tradition, a pantheon that included Mallikarjun Mansur, Kishori Amonkar, Bhimsen Joshi, and indeed, many more, too many to name. They are gone; their voices remain with us.

When I went for graduate school to America, it was my first real move out of India. A friend had come to receive me at the airport in New York. She gave me an audio cassette tape as a gift. This will remind you of what we’ve left behind, she said.

The next morning in my dorm room, I put the tape in my cassette recorder. It was Jasraj’s Soor Padavali–those gentle bhajans started my day. The devotion was his; the faith, my parents’; the music, ours. You need not be a believer to be swayed by the happiness that flowed.

For the two years that followed, on the darkest mornings–and winters in New England are dark–I would wake up and turn on the music, its melody spreading through my room, enveloping it with the idea of the sun and warmth from home, comforting me with the sense of where I came from, reassuring me that I wasn’t alone.

Jasraj died in New Jersey; across the river from New York, where I now live. His music still fills my apartment, as it will, in millions of homes around the world.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York.

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