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Pandit Jasraj (1930-2020): From up among the pantheon, he brought classical music to everyone

When the history of classical music is written, Pandit Jasraj will be remembered as the gold standard of male voices in a generation of vocalists that included Kishori Amonkar and Girija Devi.

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi | Updated: August 18, 2020 3:01:31 pm
Pandit Jasraj passes away at 90. (File photo)

In 1965, with tensions between India and Pakistan at their peak, a 35-year-old was at work trying to merge the abstractions between Allah and Lord Shiva. The result was Mero Allah meherbaan (My Allah is kind), a piece in Bhairav, the morning raga known to have been created by Shiva. Pandit Jasraj was motivated by a colleague challenging that one of the raga’s notes — dha (dhaivat) — could not be juxtaposed on the opening beat of any piece created in it. Pt Jasraj said he looked at the sky and found Allah and this bandish.

The result held both sides of the border spell-bound. A few years later, Pandit Jasraj would sing Mero Allah meherbaan at a concert in Pakistan, going into a trance with the word Om while delineating the word Allah. The packed hall was on its feet in reverence.

When the history of classical music is written, Pt Jasraj will be remembered as the gold standard of male voices in a generation of Hindustani classical vocalists that included Kishori Amonkar and Girija Devi. The last from this pantheon, he passed away at his home in New Jersey on Monday following a cardiac arrest. He had celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year in January. He is survived by wife Madhura, daughter Durga and son Shaarang Dev.

READ | Pandit Jasraj dies at 90: AR Rahman, Vishal Dadlani, Javed Akhtar and others pay tribute

Pandit Jasraj during a music concert. (Express Photo: Renuka Puri)

A musician whose voice defied age and travelled all the five octaves effortlessly, Pt Jasraj was born in Hisar, Haryana, in a family of classical musicians. He was only four when his father Pt Motiram passed away. The family — his mother and two brothers — moved to Hyderabad, where his brother Pt Pratap Narayan (composer duo Jatin-Lalit’s father) began teaching him the basics of the tabla. By the age of 11, Jasraj was accompanying his elder brother, famous vocalist Maniram, to concerts, helping make ends meet.

It was a comment by Pt Amaranth Chawla, questioning a 15-year-old Jasraj’s knowledge of music because he “only pounded dead leather”, that drove him to become a vocalist. He didn’t touch the tabla again and mastered the raagdaari that Chawla had questioned him about. He learned singing from Maniram, followed by training under Swami Vallabhdas of the Agra gharana, putting in 14-hour riyaaz sessions, where he kept pushing himself.

Two years later, he was accepted as a radio artiste, moved to Calcutta and slowly acquired a small circle of admirers. At a time when the gharana system was quite rigid, Pt Jasraj, while greatly influenced by Ustad Amir Khan of the Bhendi Bazaar gharana, incorporated elements from other gharanas into his music. For almost two decades, he faced criticism from all quarters on this account, until people began noticing the revolutionary sound.

pandit jasraj Pandit Jasraj was given a Padma Shri in 1975, Padma Bhushan in 1990 and Padma Vibhushan in 2000 (Source: Express Archive)

Pushing boundaries in the complex and exacting world of classical music resulted in 300 bandish apart from compositions of ancient Sanskrit verses. The latter created a revolution, with bhajans too finding a space in the world of classical music instead of being seen as only soft devotional numbers. Some of Pt Jasraj’s most popular bhajans included Om namo bhagvate vasudevaya and Hanuman lalla. He also brought in elements of thumri to khayal, making the latter more audience-friendly, something that would have been considered heretical earlier as khayal was serious business.

He was given a Padma Shri in 1975, Padma Bhushan in 1990 and Padma Vibhushan in 2000. He was popularly called Sangeet Martand, a title that originated from a film made by his wife Madhura, filmmaker V Shantaram’s daughter, while Harvard University bestowed on him the title ‘Kalavati’. Some of his students include violinist Kala Ramnath and vocalist Sanjeev Abhyankar.

He also started Jasrangi, a form of duet classical music, in which a male and a female vocalist intertwine two different ragas; and brought haveli sangeet, an ancient devotional form of music, to the stage. One of Jasraj’s more significant contributions was that he rejected the elitism associated with classical music. “It’s for everyone,” Pt Jasraj would say.

Explained: How did minor planet ‘Jasraj’ get its name?

Pandit Jasraj One of Jasraj’s more significant contributions was that he rejected the elitism associated with classical music. Express Photo/Renuka Puri

That also explained his popularity; his friendliness towards the audience. He was neither temperamental like Amonkar, nor blissfully unaware like the master musician and Jasraj’s senior, Pt Bhimsen Joshi. After a performance at the Delhi Classical Music Festival last year, a man yelled from the audience, “Pandit ji, aaj tussi Punjabi shabad nahin sunaya (You didn’t sing the Punjabi shabad today)”. Pt Jasraj smiled and said, “O mere yaara, kal hi Punjab mein suna ke aaya hoon. Agli baar sun lena (I just sang it yesterday in Punjab. Next time).” Everyone laughed. “He was not just Jasraj. He was Rasraj. Besides just the technique, his music had a lot of pleasure in it,” says classical vocalist Uday Bhawalkar.

One of Jasraj’s concerts, held in the wee hours of an April morning in 1996, at almost a century-old Sankat Mochan Sangeet Samaroh in Varanasi, is etched in the memory of many music connoisseurs. The stage had been put up in the foyer of the temple that overlooks the river Assi. As Pt Jasraj began his performance in Raag Todi, sung in the morning, a deer shot down the central aisle out of nowhere and stood near the stage. The audience was awestruck, but Pt Jasraj seemed not to notice, intent on his throaty taans, eyes shut. It was only after completing the raga that he opened his eyes. Smiling at the deer who seemed to have stayed back to also listen to the music, he said the two words he would often open and close all conversations with, ‘Jai ho’.

Pandit Jasraj during a performance. (Express photo: Renuka Puri)

In September last year, the International Astronomical Union named a celestial object after the vocalist. Somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, circling the Earth along with a Mozart, Beethoven and Pavarotti, there is a minor planet called Panditjasraj.

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