November Issue 2015

By | Books | Published 4 years ago

The one genre of Urdu poetry that is most often rendered musically is the ghazal. A gift from Persian, the ghazal is set to light music or sung in a semi-classical style. It is at its most appealing when the ghazal’s tune is based on ragas.

The first ghazal singer of repute was Begum Akhtar, although admirers of Malika Pukhraj will lynch me for not mentioning her name in the same breath. The fact, however, remains that Pukhraj’s repertoire was quite limited, unlike Akhtar’s or even Farida Khanum’s or Iqbal Bano’s, both of whom were outstanding ghazal singers with distinct individual styles.

Among the male exponents of the semi-classical style of ghazals, the singer who stands head and shoulders above everyone, past or present, is Mehdi Hasan. He has had many clones in both Pakistan and India. However, one singer who looked upon him as his inspiration but developed a style all his own, was none other than Jagjit Singh. Not much is known about Jagjit’s life and his career, particularly among Pakistanis. Sathya Saran’s well-researched book, Baat Niklegi Toh Phir: The Life and Music of Jagjit Singh fills the vacuum to a large extent.

One can’t think of a single living ghazal singer who renders verses with quite as much feeling as did Jagjit Singh, nor could any other vocalist enjoy the immense rapport that he built up with his audience in live performances. He often punctuated his numbers with jokes, particularly before switching over to lively and sometimes slightly bawdy Punjabi songs. A case in point is ‘Dhai din na jawani naal chaldi.’

His audience often joined him in singing the refrain “ahista ahista,” when he rendered their all-time favourite, Ameer Meenai’s ‘Sirakti jaiye hai rukh se niqab ahista ahista.’ Those with discerning taste will not consider it one of his best ghazals, but no one would dispute that the number has popular appeal.

Jagjit served as an inspiration to many upcoming singers but the one who gained the most out of him was Chitra, who was merely a singer of advertising jingles before they formed a musical bond. A Bengali, Chitra was unfamiliar with Urdu and needed tutoring from her husband. The story of their marriage makes for interesting reading. However, what is heart-wrenching is the accidental death of their teenage son Vivek. She gave up her musical career, as did her husband for a short time before realising that he would find solace in music.

Jagjit Singh had a prolific career. He recorded as many as 80 albums in several languages, but it was in Urdu that he won the greatest acclaim. It is tempting to say that the icing on the cake was his compositions and renditions in Gulzar’s memorable TV serial Mirza Ghalib. If Naseeruddin Shah impersonated Ghalib impeccably on the screen, Jagjit Singh was not far behind in musically rendering the great bard’s ghazals. One is tempted to claim that the serial was the highest point of the singer’s career.

One of Jagjit’s life-long wishes was fulfilled when Lata Mangeshkar agreed to record a ghazal album with him. Titled Sajda, the recordings were not much to write home about since Lata was long past her prime when she teamed up with him.

The author traces Jagjit’s life from his childhood and ends with his death. The name his parents gave him was Jagmohan and not Jagjit. One also gets to learn how his father was opposed to his musical career and his evolution from a bearded and turbanned Sikh to a clean-shaven young man.

Jagjit was generous to the tips of his fingers. He supported several families suffering from extreme poverty. When he acquired fame, he saw to it that the poets whose verses he rendered were paid well before he was given his own hard-earned emoluments.

Jagjit never felt threatened by new entrants; in fact he supported and helped many. The list includes many who made a name for themselves such as Talat Aziz, Pankaj Udhas, Anup Jalota and Rajkumar Rizvi.

Sathya Saran gives interesting details about how Jagjit composed his ghazals, how and when they were recorded and how involved he was even in the post-recording sessions. In short, he was passionately involved in what can be called his creations.

Saran and her editor falter when they spell tou as tho in the title of the book. The word is not aspirated and the ‘h’ sound is distracting.

This plus a couple of mistakes in captions are only minor errors in what is otherwise a book worth recommending, both for its highly readable text and for the large number of relevant photographs.

In the next edition one would like to see the names of the poets and their poems reproduced in the Roman script.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.