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Jagjit Singh taught us Urdu appreciation

October 21
22:01 2011

Jagjit Singh

My ignorance of the language slapped me hard during my first visit to Delhi, at the opening event at Hindu College’s cultural festival. The entire IIT Bombay contingent sat in numbed silence in the middle of a raucous audience of a Qawwali program.
We couldn’t understand a word of the lyrics. The melodies of the songs, the enthusiasm of the singers and the audience kept our interest and us in our seats. However, my total lack of knowledge of Urdu overwhelmed me.
Fast forward a few years, and I was at the University of Houston. A friend’s room-mate was this lanky, understated Pakistani undergrad, Nadir. He was a unique Pakistani undergrad rooming and hanging out with Indian graduate students. Nadir and I shared interest in music across many genres.
One day, he came to me, gave me this tape and said, “I think you’ll like this.” It was Unforgettables by Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh. Despite the lyrics being in Urdu, I loved the tape. It was produced and packaged by a master of the craft. The sound recording was immaculate, something that immediately put it heavens above the sound quality of Indian music recordings.
The Hindustani classical music melodies evoked glorious sentiments of their own accord. A rare chamber-music arrangement of Harmonium, Spanish Guitar, Santoor, Violin, and Tabla, accompanied Jagjit’s sonorous voice.
The first two songs I heard were “Baat Niklegi To Door Talak Jayegi,” and “Sarakti Jaaye Rukh Se Naqaab Aahistaa Aahistaa.” These two songs blew me away with their subtle sentiments, poetic nuances, masterful singing and musical craft. Jagjit and Chitra Singh’s first album was an instant hit.
I bought the album, an LP, made a copy of it on a cassette with the best magnetic tape that I could afford as a graduate student, and played it over and over again, in my home, my car, my office (with headphones) and in my friends’ homes.
Another Pakistani, Arji, heard the tape while I was playing it in my car. I had stopped at a traffic light and he was instantly attracted to it; we exchanged numbers and met later to compare notes. While I was fascinated by Jagjit and his ensemble’s musical skills, Arji was struck by the singing talent, pronunciation, language and lyrics. We decided to educate each other about why the songs were greater than what we had heard.
Arji was also a student at the University of Houston. He had the heart of poet and went, along with his room-mate Jamaal, to great extremes to not only define each word that I did not comprehend but also the various nuances of the word across a variety of contexts. For example, the commonly understood meaning of Zamaana was “age” or “era”. However, in a different context it could also mean society or the world or universe. I was limited only by the limits of my imagination.
Jagjit Singh and his Unforgettables sparked a learning of a language and a musical genre that was, until then, an undiscovered treasure. He made ghazals accessible to Urdu-semi-illiterates like me.
In the enthusiasm that followed my discovery, I insisted that all my South Asian friends listen to Jagjit Singh and made them converts. I even broadcast Jagjit Singh into the Houston air, when I guest-hosted Music of India during regular-host Meena Datt’s absence.
A dream came true soon. I was the president of the India Student Association at the University of Houston, when I heard that Jagjit and Chitra were touring the United States. Arji was my counterpart for the Pakistan Student Association. We got the two organizations together and hosted the singing duo at Cullen Auditorium.
That night Jagjit Singh and Chitra Singh sang to a sold out crowd. We had a “Rock Concert” quality sound system in the auditorium that made sure that every person in the remotest corners of the hall would receive the crisp, high quality sound that would be produced on stage.
It was an unbelievable concert; one of the best that I have attended in my life, including major rock acts and classical performances of the past four decades. Jagjit was a unique showman, a proselytizer for ghazals.
He knew that the heavy-duty poetry and imagery would escape the average listener, who would then get bored, shift and stir in their seats, and disturb the cognoscenti. He anticipated these tendencies and compensated for them by a talented, improvisational musical band, a timely performance of a foot-stomping, hand-clapping rhythmic composition, explanations of complex words and phrases, and jokes that fitted the contexts of the compositions.
In other words, Jagjit Singh made sure that ghazals were enjoyable to a larger mass that lacked the knowledge of the language to be drawn to them. He was the revolutionary who finally took the wealth of ghazals out of the closed coteries of royal durbars and dispersed it for all to enjoy. And we were all too willing to enjoy the spoils.
Thirty years and tens of albums later, I am still a loyal fan. The albums that he and Chitra autographed for me are treasured as are their CDs and records. More important, I treasure his cracking open the ghazal-vault so I could appreciate other performers such as Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Mallika Pukhraj, Iqbal Bano and Begum Akhtar, to name a few.
In the early 1970s, I had admired an Indian Government’s Films Division documentary on Mirza Ghalib, directed by Sukhdev. I didn’t understand a word of the poetry that flowed like light, wispy silk curtain in the breeze. Today, I still don’t understand Mirza Ghalib’s poetry in its entirety but its joy is a lot greater than it was more than forty years ago.
The beauty of Urdu as a language of poetry and music was a mystery of my childhood. Jagjit Singh dispelled that ignorance and added immense joy to my life.
When people pass away, our loss seems inconsolable. But then I remember the last line of Ahmed Faraz’s composition, Shaayad, sung by Jagjit Singh:
“Jo bhi bichade hain kab milay hain, Faraz
Phir bhi tu intezar kar; shaayad.”
“When do you ever meet the departed ones, (asks the poet) Faraz.
Yet you wait in anticipation; ‘Perhaps.'”
Perhaps, we will meet again, Jagjit Singh. Shaayad.
{Pradeep Anand is President of Seeta Resources; He is author of An Indian in Cowboy Country}
PRADEEP ANAND

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