Legend has it that in the middle of 16th century, Tansen and Baiju Bawra matched their voices at a recital in Agra. Tansen opened with Todi. Minutes into the raga, a herd of deer came running in the musician’s direction and stood transfixed by his voice. Since then the raga has been represented in visual art, especially in Rajasthani miniature paintings, as a woman in a forest, holding a veena, surrounded by deer.
In 1996, at a concert held in Varanasi’s Hanuman temple, the strains of the Todi were heard too. As the performance began, Pandit Jasraj subtly oscillated the rishabh (re) during the ascent and cajoled the pancham (pa) in the descent. Suddenly, a deer darted across the central aisle and stood near the stage. A murmur rippled through the audience. But Jasraj kept up with his taans, oblivious to this unexpected visitor. At the end of the khayal, he opened his eyes and smiled as he saw the deer. “Jai ho,” he mumbled. The two anecdotes, centuries apart, seem to signal a belief in the continuity of Hindustani classical music. “It was God’s intimation. I was on the right track,” says Jasraj, in the course of a long conversation in his apartment in Versova, Mumbai.
On January 28, Pandit Jasraj turns 85. He represents the last of a generation of classical vocalists, which includes 83-year-old Kishori Amonkar, the doyenne of the Jaipur Atrauli gharana. His riyaz once lasted 14 hours a day, now he sings for four hours. But his voice has defied age, as capable of reaching the heights of swara as he could two decades ago. He sings regularly at concerts, even though now his repertoire consists of more bhajans and shorter performances than hours of delineating a khayal. “How he reaches the notes is as important as the notes themselves. And with his gharana’s Sufi and kirtankaar influence (the lyrics are inspired by a variety of Sufi and Hindu poets), when he enunciates a swara, the feeling is that of being in a temple. His music has a heightened level of devotion,” says Pandit Rajan Mishra of the Banaras gharana.
“Musicians like Jasraj are one of a kind. His performances take you into a different world, one where God exists. Uss Allah ko kya pukar lagata hai ye… mantramugdha kar dene wali (His call to Allah casts a spell on you),” says thumri exponent Girija Devi.
For music lovers today, Jasraj is a reminder of the the gold standard of musical performance, attained through years of rigorous riyaz. “There was and is no other way. It’s relatively easier for instrumentalists. Woh toh hathauda maar kar ya side se taar theek kar apna saaz tune kar lenge (They can hammer away or pluck a string to tune their instrument). But for a vocalist, the throat is the instrument. How do you tune that? I have to keep singing, keep polishing it, keep learning new things. I am in my 80s, it takes double the energy to make the raag speak to the audience,” says Jasraj, whose packed concerts across the world are proof of the legendary status he has acquired in 50 years.
When the history of Hindustani classical music is written, Jasraj will be remembered as the pioneer who added elements of the thumri to the khayal, giving it more flexibility and making it more audience-friendly. This would have been considered blasphemous half a century ago, when the khayal was serious business and sung without any ornamentation. Even the bandish would be sung with a certain indifference. “Jasrajji introduced elements to make the khayal sound like a thumri sometimes, while still retaining its classical elements,” says musicologist and sitar player Arvind Parikh. However, purists do note: he never sang a thumri. He also created a unique jugalbandi style called Jasrangi, in which a male and a female vocalist sing a different raga at the same time.
Born in Hisar, Haryana, in 1930 to a family of classical musicians of the Mewat gharana, Jasraj was only four when his father, Pandit Motiram, passed away. He still has faint memories of learning a song from his father and singing it all day. The family — his mother and two brothers — moved to Hyderabad soon after, where his brother Pratap Narayan (composer duo Jatin-Lalit’s father) began teaching him the basics of the tabla. Almost six years later, when he was 11, Jasraj began accompanying his elder brother Maniram, a vocalist, on the tabla so that “the chulha kept burning in the house”. “I don’t even remember when I fell in love with music,” he says.
It was a fellow musician’s derisive remark that set him on a different path. Tabla’s loss was gayaki’s gain. It was 1945, and 15-year-old Jasraj was accompanying Kumar Gandharva on the tabla at a concert in Lahore. Gandharva decided to begin the first beat of the time cycle from dhaivat (dha). The rules say that the note can’t be predominant in Bhimpalasi, the raga he was playing. But Jasraj went along. The next day, Pandit Amarnath Chawla would criticise Gandharva for the rookie mistake. “But I argued that one cannot ignore the brilliance with which Gandharva sang. He snapped at me and said, ‘Jasraj, tum mara huya chamda peette ho, tumko raagdaari ke baare mein kuch nahi maloom. (Jasraj, you pound dead leather. What do you know about raagdaari?)’ I was hurt. I didn’t touch the tabla again. I had to master the raagdaari he was talking about,” he says. Jasraj began to learn singing from his elder brother, Maniram. He also trained under Swami Vallabhdas of the Agra gharana.
Two years later, he was accepted as a radio artiste in Calcutta and moved to the city. For a classical musician, there could have been no better place than Calcutta of the 1950s and 1960s. At its all-night music festivals, in Dover Lane and Sutanuti, the leading musicians of the time, from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Ravi Shankar to Ustad Allah Rakha and Pandit Bismillah Khan, would perform. Concerts were held not just at Rabindra Sadan and the Academy of Fine Arts but also on the lawns of Victoria Memorial. Slowly and steadily, the portals to this select circle were opening for Jasraj.
At the time, the gharana system in Indian classical music was quite distinct. But Jasraj, who had been greatly influenced by Ustad Amir Khan of the Agra gharana, began incorporating elements from other gharanas into his music. “Everyone was taking what was great in every gharana and mixing it up. Jasraj was at the helm of this,” says music critic S Kalidas. That was the biggest criticism Jasraj faced for 10-15 years. “But a few years later, people began enjoying this music. The criticism was forgotten,” says Kalidas.
That was also the time he met his future wife Madhura, filmmaker V Shantaram’s daughter, at a recording studio. “I was 17 then, but no bells rang,” says Madhura. But at a concert some years later, she was touched by a beautiful bandish in raga Lalit, the lyrics of which went Ratnare naino mein mohan ki moorat, and went to meet him backstage. “He told me, ‘Aapki aankhon ko dekhkar gaaya. (I looked into your eyes, and I sang.)’ I laughed and told him I was sitting right at the back.” They were married two years later. After spending a year in Calcutta they moved to Bombay in 1963 and began living near the Opera House. “It’s been a wonderful life with her. No one else could have understood my eccentricities better,” says Jasraj.
His popularity as a musician owes a lot to his friendliness with the audience. Jasraj isn’t temperamental like Amonkar, or oblivious to his audience as Bhimsen Joshi was or strict like Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma. “Kishori mein thodi zyada Kesarbai Kerkar hai. (There is a lot of Kesarbai Kerkar in Kishori) There is less of her own mother Moghubai. That is why she is a little angry at everyone all the time. But that’s her nature. Her music, however, is beautiful and pure. As for me, I learnt from my elder brother, who was gentle and nurturing. I can’t be mad at my audience. I enjoy talking to them, giving in to their farmaish (requests) sometimes. On other occasions, I coax them to listen to what I want to present,” says Jasraj. “He is a performer who connects with the audience’s innermost thoughts. It’s hard to find a greater male voice in the current classical milieu,” says classical vocalist Prabha Atre.
These days, a lot of his time is spent teaching. In his spare time, he plays the LPs of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Amir Khan. But he still hasn’t been able to acquire a taste for Bollywood music. “Young classical musicians are doing interesting work and we have to stop underestimating them. I like Ramkumar Mishra and Rattan Mohan Sharma a lot,” says Jasraj.
But his greatest legacy remains in rejecting the elitism of Indian classical music. “Music belongs to everyone. It should be heard by everyone. Only then will it throw up new insights and reach Allah,” he says.