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Enchanted with poetry

His velvet voice has mesmerised music lovers across the country for more than two decades. A profile of ghazal singer, Jagjit Singh, who performed in the city recently.

TO ATTEND "ghazal king" Jagjit Singh's press meet on the day of his fundraising concert in the city, organised by the Madras Midtown Round Table 42, was to learn that cliches could be delivered with the force of epigrams; with bantering between to entertain the group of scribes and organisers around him.

"First of all, there are only two kinds of music — good, and bad. Classical, light, these labels don't mean anything," begins Singh, and demonstrates the two styles amidst laughter. "What does the classical musician do? He stresses the music...like this... Hanh, thoda bigaadta hai (spoils it a bit). Light musicwala stresses the words. There is more emotion."

A delayed flight has Singh anxious about getting his rest before the show. The scheduled individual interviews are replaced by a press meet. The man is relaxed. Why not? He has decided to take it easy.

Ask about his pioneering introduction of western instruments to accompany the ghazal and he almost gets defensive. "The ghazal is a form of poetry. You have to turn it into a song. All film ghazals had western instruments and western arrangements of the score. A. R. Rehman does it too. But," he ends after a triumphant pause, "the `feel' is always Indian." You want to know how he developed an individual style for ghazal singing, distinct from predecessors and peers on stage and cinema. "Adapt good qualities from other artistes and do your own experiment,'' is the benign, smiling response.

Someone wants to know about "Samvedana", the album with the poems by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

"The only difference is that the poems were written by the Prime Minister of this country.''

"What guided your choice of the poems?"

"They had to be `singable'. Also, the thought had to be related to human beings, not to street life, politics or economics."

"Must the ghazal have an undercurrent of pathos?"

"No, it can deal with any subject."

His gurus?

"I am still learning. The learning process should continue through life."

You try a different tack. What does he enjoy more, singing or composing?

"Compose and then sing," he laughs.

You switch your mind off the desultory ping pong to recall the story of struggles and setbacks in the life of the man before you. Born in 1941 in Rajasthan, with musical training from Senia gharana's Ustad Jamal Khan, Jagjit was one of those who came to Mumbai with dreams of hitting big time. The first step was to make his presence felt through the jingle market. We know how he was befriended by other talented youngsters in Mumbai, Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar among them. Meeting sweet-voiced Chitra was a turning point. Despite her constant stage fright, as his wife she was to accompany him in concerts, though now she "sings with me in home duets." The foresight of the wise elder who insisted that the child's name be changed from Jagmohan to Jagjit became obvious when the velvet-voiced man did indeed conquer his world both as singer and composer. In the process, he drew an unprecedented following for the Urdu literary genre. Forerunners had already shifted the ghazal from its intimate courtly space to lay listeners. But Jagjit Singh was a major contributor to its popularity with heterogeneous audiences, and young people everywhere. Suddenly, the ghazal became the `in' thing, and Singh's songs (carefully chosen from poets old and new) were on everyone's lips.

His music for films like "Arth'' has had its own success. Poets enjoy working with him, including Gulzar who describes himself as a Singh fan. Critics may decry the commercialisation of Singh's music, and the repetitiveness of some later efforts but the charts show sales of over a million for "Hey Ram''. There have been failures for self-analysis, and tragedies. Yet, what could offer solace for losing a grown-up son but music itself? And the poetry of eternal grief?

Singh has championed charitable causes through live shows and albums like "Cry'' and "Love is Blind''. "Audience communication is vital,'' he says. "In Gujarat I get 12 to 13 thousand people." There is disenchantment with Chennai. "The language is a problem. Besides, it is all Carnatic music here.''

The final fusillade is reserved for modern musicians who rely on machines. "They are technicians, not musicians. That music will not last. Ultimately, only melody and poetry will survive."

Singh strikes his unexpected note at the end, when he discloses the most interesting reaction to his work. "My wife has always said that I am a better composer than singer. But now she says I am singing better than ever before."

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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