Tribute: Hindustani Vocalist Pandit Jasraj, the Musician of the Gods

An article on Pandit Jasraj, who passed away last week, by Bhushan Toshniwal a rare vocalist at home in both Carnatic and Hindustani.  He is a winner of the National Role Model Award from the President of India. His Gurus in Hindustani are Dr Vikas Kashalkar, Padmashri Anup Jalota, Padmabhushan Ustad Rashid Khan and he is training in Carnatic classical under Chitravina N Ravikiran. Inspite of loss of eyesight within 20 Days of his birth, he holds 6 Post Graduate Degrees beside a CA degree.

It was the cold evening of December 27, 2002, the 50th Savai Gandharva Mahotsav in Pune.  Many artistes have enthralled the large knowledgeable audience with their mastery in music over the years. It is around 7-30 PM, when the anchor announces the name of Pandit Jasraj. There is a great sense of excitement and anticipation among the audience. Panditji would be accompanied on the harmonium, by Pt.Appa Jalgaonkar, a harmonium maestro, and on the tabla, by Pt Vijay Ghate, another legend. Vocal support would be provided by Pt Sanjeev Abhyankar and others. After these announcements, the anticipation increases.

Bharat Ratna Pt Bhimsen Joshi, struggling with poor health, has specially come to attend the performance of Jasraj ji. Panditji is greeted with a thunderous applause. As a student of Indian classical music, just 15 years old at the time, I am waiting with an open mind, to enjoy the singing of this great artist, since this is for the  first time, that I would be listening to him. Pandit ji starts his performance with Raag Darbari Kanada. From the beginning itself, I start to get into a trance. Before starting the Khayal, Pandit ji invokes the god, by rendering the Shloka, “Mangalam Bhagwan Vishnu”. The soothing effect of the shloka resonates with even a non-spiritual person. Then begins the Khayal in Vilambit Ektal.

Darbari Kanada is a night melody, invoking Gambheer and Karuna Rasa, and Pandit ji does full justice to it by his melodious Alaps in the lower octave. After some time, he touches the lower Sa, which sounds extremely beautiful and rounded. The entire audience claps. As the elaboration goes on, everyone is transported to a different world, which is beyond space and time. I find myself so entranced, that not a single muscle in my body moves. After the Khayal, Panditji sings his own composition, “Aisi Darbari Gunijan Gaaye” in Jhaptaal. Even a novice like me also feels that Raga Darbari is giving me its Darshan. Panditji finishes the raga rendition with another of his own composition, “Ajab Teri Duniya Malik”. I could not stop clapping. No other rendition before or since, has had this kind of effect on me. Even words such as mesmerising, being spellbound, enthralling, etc. cannot describe my state of mind. I have been in awe of this maestro since then.

Secret of success

After this introduction, I heard many renditions of Pandit ji, both recorded and live, and in all of them his loving nature, and strong spiritual background, not to mention his hours of music Sadhana,  gets reflected. Pandit ji is among the rare artists who have equal command over both Swara and Laya. His effective use of range of 3.5 octaves, dazzling sargams, Meend in lower octave, his extraordinary voice, which stays sweet in all the 3.5 octaves, his great knowledge of literature, culminate into a presentation, which mesmerises the layman and the critic alike.

The secret to Panditji’s long and illustrious career, was his open-minded attitude to learn from all gharanas of music, his continuous enthusiasm to search newer and newer ways in the same ragas, discipline driven by passion to attend perfection at all times, his never give-up attitude, and his strong belief in god.

Spiritual aspect

Pandit ji saw god in everyone.  In his early career, even when he was poor, he would help people, and teach his students without any intention of earning money. Because of a strong belief in god, in spite of poverty, he never got tempted to compose music for films, or to sing other musical forms. He would often say Words like “jai ho.”, “Jai Sri Krishna.” Often at the beginning of his performance he would say, “Aatma so Parmatma.” [Every soul is a part of god]. His death was also like that of a Rishi.

Melodious Khayal singing

Pandit ji’s contribution to Khayal singing, was that he didn’t compromise on the sweetness of voice, even while performing complex things. He invented many sargam patterns [building on the Merkhand style of Ustad Amir Khan] and presented the mixture of those with taans, which gave a unique experience. Because of his earlier Tabla training, he could use the Tihais very effectively. Especially his Drut bandishes, would have a lot of sargams ending with Tihais. Even if he could sing all the three octaves, he didn’t over do the same. His first focus was melody. This sweetness in Khayal singing, helped him attract masses towards him.

Respect to and from other artists

Pandit ji respected not only senior artists like Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar and others, but also his contemporaries like Pt Bhimsen Joshi [with whom he sang Raga Malkauns for a film], Lata Mangeshkar [with whom he sang for a Marathi film in 2010] , Pt. Shivkumar Sharma, Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia [with whom he performed many vocal-flute Jugalbandis]  and others. He even did jugalbandis with his juniors like Dr L Subramanyam, Kavita Krishnamurty and others. My guru, Bhajan Samrat Padmashri Anup Jalota reveals an incident, which has been mentioned in his own words, as follows.

“My father and Pandit ji performed one after another in many programmes. In one such programme, my father sang Raag Bihag. Pandit ji hugged my father, and said that, he does not sing Bihag, but after listening to my fathers rendition, he will also start singing it.”

Pandit ji  mentioned about the Flute Maestro Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasiya, “Bhagwan ne Hari ko Prasad mein Bansuri di hai.” [God has given the flute to Hari as a Prasad.] He also had great respect for Carnatic artists like M S Subbulakshmi, Dr. M Balamurali Krishna [with whom he performed many Jugalbandi concerts, and thought of him a worthy successor of Saint Thyagaraja], Dr M L Vasanthakumari, among others.

He in turn, was respected by many artists. M S Subbulakshmi said, “God speaks through Jasrajs voice.” PT Hariprasad Chaurasiya considered him a Yogi in music.

Vagyakara

Panditji composed many Bandishes in various ragas. These compositions came in his mind, on various occasions in his life. Once, when he had an argument with his wife, he composed, “Jaga Raina Kaa Sapnaa, Koyi Nahin apnaa.” [This world is a dream in night, no one is mine]

In Raag Bhatiyar. on another time, when his wife was asking him to come as soon as he could from his concerts, he composed, “yaa rabba more piya ghara jab aaye, piya se Milungi, Kachu Kahungi Man Ki Ali” [O God! When my beloved comes home, I shall meet him and open my mind before him] [raga Suha Kanada. I am sharing another such story in his own words :

“In early 1960s, there was a concert in Mumbai, where several artists were going to perform, followed by the rendition of Ustad Amir Khan. One of my friends told me, that since you follow Ustad Amir Khan, people may think that you just sing like him. At that time not just me, but every classical singer would follow Ustad ji.  It was too difficult to follow Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan. I was worried because, I didn’t want people to think of me as a clone of Amir Khan Saheb. Then a Bandish came to my mind, viz. Ab Thara Bin Kuna Mori Laaj Raakhi [O God, who will protect me except you] I presented this Bandish, set to Raag Puriya, in that concert, and luckily my singing came out totally different from that of Ustad Amir Khan.”.

Jasrangi

Pandit ji observed that, if a male and a female want to sing together, either the man has to sing in lower pitch, or the woman should sing in higher pitch. To avoid this, he innovated a concept called “jasrangi Jugalbandi”, using the principle of “Grama and Murchana”. In this, a male and a female singer sing the same scale in their respective pitches. For example a female sings raga Abhogi, taking her Madhyam as Sa, the male sings raga Kalavati. This jugalbandi is one of its kind, and is becoming very popular these days.

Excellent guru

Pandit ji was an excellent guru as well, who would always aim to get the best out of every disciple. He wanted every disciple, to make their own identity. If someone did not sing perfectly, he would get angry, but once he sang perfectly, he would instantly praise him as well. He believed that rigorous discipline, [especially in formative years], ability to use one’s own creative powers to build on the guru’s teaching, and healthy competition among disciples, would help the disciple progress. His effort would be to make a disciple good natured and a mentally tough human being, who can cope-up with all challenges. In his younger days, when students had a break from practise, he himself would play various games with them like cricket, and would laugh and joke with them. Through this, he would teach them sportsmanship, which aims at taking success and defeats with equal grace. He believed that, in order to do Sadhana, one should not succumb to emotions, but should be able to overcome hindrances. To achieve this, he would deliberately create challenging situations for his disciples. if they get through the same, they would emerge as stronger human beings. He would always take care that; his disciples should not suffer financially, like he did in his early career. People came to learn from him, from different parts of the world. Many of his disciples are world famous artists.

As a Bhajan singer

Pandit ji aimed to popularize classical ragas through Bhajans, which became very popular among masses. He had deeply studied Haveli Sangeet, and set those songs in various ragas. For example, “Chalo Sakhi Soutan ke Ghar Jaiye” [Raga Gujri Todi], “Aur Raag Sab Bane Barati”, “Aiso Patra Pathyo Ritu Basant”, “Khelat Basant nis Piya Sanga Jagi” [raga Basant] etc.  Many of his bhajans were from Haveli sangeet, such as, “Govinda Damodara Madhav eti” [Nat Bhairav], “Dhani Rani Jasumati” [Jayjayvanti], “Rani Tero Chira jio Gopaal” [yaman], “Om Namo Bhagwate Wasudevaya”, and “Sab se Oonchi Prem Sagai” [Bhimpalas] etc. along with Krishna Bhajans, he sang many compositions dedicated to Goddess Kali. His rendition of Mata Kalika [Adana], Niranjani Narayani [Bhairavi] come to mind.

My Carnatic classical guru Sangeet Samrat Chitravina N Ravikiranji reveals an incident.

“ Pt Jasraj ji was doubtless one of the all time greats of our music. I first heard his concert when I was about 20 years old in the 3-day Raagmala Festival in Seattle where we both performed on successive days, with Ustaad Bismillah Khan on the opening day.  His Niranjani narayani in Sindhubhairavi is still etched in my memory. For long I wanted to learn it but never got the opportunity as Pandit ji and I would meet rather briefly in airports or in green rooms before our respective concerts! Years later, I was inspired to compose my own Sanskrit bhajan in the same raga using the same opening two words and tune, but  the rest of the song is completely different.”

Panditji even sang compositions on Allah and guru Nanak for example, “Mero Allah Meherbaan” [Bhairav], "Sumiran kar le Mere Mana” [a guru nanak Bhajan in Bhairavi]. One of his important presentations was “Allah Om’ which demonstrated that all religions are one and the same. When asked about singing on Allah, he would say, “Bade Gulam ali Khan has sung an immortal song ‘Hari Om Tatsat.’  So for us, every god is the same.”.

Epilogue

Pandit Jasraj served the noble cause of promoting Indian classical music on the world stage, both as a singer of Khayal and Bhajan, and as a Guru. Now his disciples from various parts of world are carrying his legacy forward. On 17-8-2020, this Gana Gandharva sang the Bhairavi of his life. He has left his physical body, but he will live in our hearts through his music.  A planet has been named after him, so his memory will be there in this universe as well. He was truly “The Tansen of our times”.

“Pt Jasraj ji was doubtless one of the all time greats of our music. I first heard his concert when I was about 20 years old in the 3-day Raagmala Festival in Seattle where we both performed on successive days, with Ustaad Bismillah Khan on the opening day.  His Niranjani narayani in Sindhubhairavi is still etched in my memory. For long I wanted to learn it but never got the opportunity as Pandit ji and I would meet rather briefly in airports or in green rooms before our respective concerts! Years later, I was inspired to compose my own Sanskrit bhajan in the same raga using the same opening two words and tune, but  the rest of the song is completely different.” - Chitravina N Ravikiran

(A Bhushan Toshniwal is a performer of Hindustani, Carnatic classical and semi-classical music. The purpose of this article is not to give the biography of Pt Jasraj, but to focus on his musicianship, and the secret of his success in life.)