The Arts

Sangeet Martand Pandit Jasraj: A Journey Across Three Octaves

Along with Vidushi Kishori Amonkar, from the early 1970s, Jasraj spearheaded what came to be known as the “romanticist movement” in Hindustani music.

By his own admission, the earliest memory of Pandit Jasraj was being enraptured by the rendition of Deewana banana hai toh deewana bana de…, a ghazal written by Sardar Hasan Khan ‘Behzad Lakhnavi’ and immortalised by Begum Akhtar.

Jasraj, who died on August 17 at the age of 90, belonged to the Mewati gharana, whose fountainhead was Ustad Ghagge Nazir Khan from Jodhpur in the Mewat region of Rajasthan. While his father, Pandit Motiram, had initiated him into music, Jasraj imbibed foundational ta’lim from his elder brothers Pratap Narayan and Maniram, whom he used to also accompany in concerts at the initial stage of his career.

Born on January 28, 1930, in the Hissar district of Haryana, Jasraj’s initial years were spent in Hyderabad where his father was to be appointed the court musician of Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam of Hyderabad. The family then shifted to Ahmedabad for a few years before moving to Calcutta in 1946 where Jasraj began singing on the radio.

Connoisseurs and critics in Calcutta around the mid-20th century were sometimes harsh, criticising Jasraj for mixing elements of various gharanas in his solo recitals. However, as time passed, this very aspect of his gayaki became one of the hallmarks of his performance because of the creativity with which he was able to imbibe influences and mould them, creating a style which was quintessentially his own.

His years in Calcutta proved to be critical in terms of the range of music he heard and the way in which he incorporated specific aspects of the gayaki of Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Pandit Omkarnath Thakur among others. In this regard, other eclectic sources of his ta’lim need to be kept in mind, which included important influences from Ustad Ghulam Qadir Khan, Swami Vallabhdas, Maharaj Jaiwant Singh Gohil and his deep foray into the bhakti repertoire, primarily the raga sewa (haveli sangeet) of the Pushtimargi sect.

Along with Vidushi Kishori Amonkar, from the early 1970s, Jasraj spearheaded what came to be known as the “romanticist movement” in Hindustani music. According to musicologist Deepak Raja, Jasraj “imparted a lyrical quality to (this) elaborate raga exposition through opulent ornamentation of phrasing, thus making his music explicitly communicative of emotional values.” A deeper scholarly analysis of this movement within the ambit of Hindustani music needs to be carried out to adequately situate the contribution of Jasraj.

Blessed with a soulful and sonorous voice which traversed masterfully across the octaves, his music was characterized by an intense spiritual expression. In fact, “spiritual and devotional overtones” are described by Jasraj as the core characteristic of the Mewati gharana of which he was the torchbearer for over seven decades. Apart from canonical rendition of several ragas such as Gurjri Todi, Basant, Bhimpalasi, Miyan ki Malhar, Poorvi, Bihag and Darbari Kanhra, Jasraj immortalized himself through his intense exploration of the bhakti repertoire. His concerts would hardly be considered complete without one among “Govind Damodar Madhaveti”, “Shri Madhurashtakam”, “Shivashtakam”, “Om Namo Bhagwate Vasudevaya”, “Mata Kalika”, “Kasturi Tilakam” “Vraje Vasantam” and other devotional offerings.  The way in which he was able to unravel a new dimension of the sub-genre of bhajan within the ambit of classical music made him a force to reckon with, and placed him along with luminaries such as D.V. Paluskar and Kumar Gandharva.

For me, perhaps what appealed the most about Jasraj’s music was the attention he paid to lyrics, whether singing a raga or a bhajan. In the rendition of a raga in Hindustani classical music, the lyrics of the composition are often thought to primarily serve as a springboard for creative musical ideas and very few vocalists are able to judiciously balance the attention paid to sangeet and sahitya during performance. Among several of his concerts that I attended, I recall being able to jot down complete compositions without any ambiguity whatsoever. He talked about this unique aspect of his musicianship often and credited his father-in-law, the movie director V. Shantaram, for making him cognizant of this aspect. In an interview, Jasraj said, “The most important tip he gave me was his remark ‘You sing lovely compositions with the choicest of words but take care about the clarity of those words so that they reach your listeners with the desired impact.’”

Jasraj created a unique kind of jugalbandi called Jasrangi, based on the notion of moorchhana in which a male and female vocalist perform different ragas alongside to deliver a unique experience of harmony to the listener. Through the course of his professional career, he tutored several students who have themselves become established artists over the years. Some of his well-known disciples include Sanjeev Abhayankar, Kala Ramnath, Tripti Mukherjee, Rattan Mohan Sharma, Anuradha Paudwal and Sadhana Sargam. Apart from the several music schools which he founded in different parts of the world, he was perhaps the sole vocalist of his generation who was continuing to teach his students over Skype during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The musicianship of Jasraj, expectedly, attracted several commensurate awards, honours and decorations during the course of his illustrious career. Besides the Padma Vibhushan, he was the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar and Marwar Sangeet Ratna among others, along with several lifetime achievement awards.

Irfan Zuberi is a student of Hindustani music and an audiovisual archivist.