Jagjit Singh’s Voice Echoed in My Head When I First Fell in Love
Jagjit Singh and failure drifted into my life hand in hand, thankfully! I was proud of having never failed a subject, till that wretched German language test got the better of me. It was a huge deal at the time and I was trying my best to hide it. On that horrid eighth-standard Monday afternoon, my best friend came running along, looked at me, and teasingly sang the words, Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho, kya gham hai jisko chupa rahe ho? And just like that, the doom of failure dissolved into a sweet melody. Life wasn’t so bad anymore.
I’d heard this Jagjit Singh number from Arth (1982) playing on the radio before. But that day I borrowed dad’s cassette, popped it into my walkman and soaked up one profound verse after another. Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics and Jagjit Singh’s soulful voice together rocked my world for the first time. My behaviour was unusual enough for mom to know that something wasn’t right. Just like me she also thought ghazals were more suited to an older, single malt generation. Somehow, the ghazal maestro had made it much easier for me to tell my parents about flunking the test. And quite contrary to my worst nightmare, it didn’t turn out to be such a big deal after all.
As I sunk deeper into ghazals and shayari, I began to see life and its circumstances a bit differently. Love, ego, separation, beauty, sarcasm, started making sense. Jagjit Singh also made me fall in love with Javed Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi, Mirza Ghalib and Gulzar. I remember being invited to surreal mushairas, sitting alongside these stalwarts, in my head. But I also realised that this melancholic music wasn’t ‘cool’ enough to be shared with friends at school, with the exception of my best friend, who was an unabashed sufi at heart, even back then. So she and I, together with my dad, got hooked on to Gulzar’s biographical television drama series, Mirza Ghalib. Ah, the good old days of Doordarshan.
That did it. Within a week, I knew every single couplet like the back of my hand. What felt more beautiful was that I actually began to understand what it all meant. Naseeruddin Shah, of course, was epic as Ghalib; but what I couldn’t get over was the depth and texture of Jagjit Singh’s voice.
Soon enough I was the proud owner of the Ghalib TV series’ audio tapes, volumes 1 & 2. Unke Dekhe Se and Har Ek Baat Pe played on loop endlessly, till my deck chewed them up.
As a teenager obsessed with Jagjit Singh, I wanted to find a way to describe what a ghazal really meant. And then I heard him saying in an interview, that the word itself means hiran (deer). He went on to explain that a ghazal is mellow, deep and sad, quite like the tears of a hiran, when it’s been on the run and is exhausted, and knows it’s going to be shot dead. I remember being amazed by how effortlessly he said this. Like he knew that pain, that loss. And yes, he did.
For me, there was nothing ‘cooler’ than a bittersweet ghazal. But when I heard this one by Jagjit saab, I was pleasantly surprised by its upbeat peppiness. Kal Chaudavi Ki Raat Thi always brings a smile to my face. The playful teasing of a lover in this ghazal had me convinced that this indeed, is what love should feel like. Needless to say, it played silently in my head, when I fell in love for the very first time.
Aahista aahista was another exception to the melancholic baggage that a ghazal usually lugs around. In fact, the Lata-Kishore version of this nazm from Deedar-E-Yaar (1982) doesn’t even come close to Jagjit Singh’s graceful rendition.
While Ghulam Ali popularised ghazals across the border, Jagjit Singh’s gayaki revived the art form in India. His genre defining music was never elitist, despite being quite classical. He chose poetry relevant to the masses and also gave Hindi cinema numerous unforgettable songs.
HMV’s compilation of songs from Arth and Saath Saath became the largest selling combination album of all time. He was truly versatile not just in his style of singing but also in terms of his evolution as an artist. His relatively new-age stand alone songs in films like Sarfarosh (1999) starring Aamir Khan, Tanuja Chandra’s Dushman (1998) starring Kajol as well as Joggers’ Park (2003) were huge hits, even though the films didn’t make it big.
And in the ‘music video era’ of the 90s, Jagjit Singh’s albums like Saher and Marasim gave us some more of the good old stuff, in a new bottle of course. Remember this video featuring the young Jimmy Shergil and Simone Singh?
Despite being a big fan, I never somehow managed to see him perform live. I’ll always regret that. What I don’t regret however is growing up as a bit of a misfit, thanks to him. So what if the hip 15-year-olds thought I was depressed because I had Mirza Ghalib playing on loop? Jagjit Singh’s voice had me convinced that music is beyond judgement. I didn’t have to be going through a mid-life crisis to justify my love for ghazals. His music gave me that conviction.
I believe that some of us are touched by divinity. Jagjit Singh will remain timeless, ageless and classic for people around the world. And for me, he is simply unforgettable.
(This tribute to Jagjit Singh was first published on 8 February, 2016. It is being republished on the occasion of the ghazal maestro’s birth anniversary.)