A voice that woos gods

Legend speaks

A voice that woos gods

His sonorous voice has left many enchanted, bringing them close to Nirvana. Vatsala Vedantam speaks to Pandit Jasraj, the unmatched maestro of Hindustani classical music, who weaves magic in every note...

Aayi, bharaka ki ritu aayi…..” he sang as the rain beat mercilessly on the city streets that evening. If he had any mystical powers to command the elements themselves, it was proved beyond doubt when we conducted our strange interview, with me asking questions in English and he answering in his chaste Hindi, while the Diwali fireworks shattered the ambience from time to time. Although, none of this really mattered to me because I was listening to a voice that has mesmerised audiences worldwide with its rich resonance. A voice that spoke the language of music and that moved effortlessly over multiple octaves. Pandit Jasraj is no mere singer. He is an institution, a living legend who has defied age, custom and practice with his ground-breaking imagination that has made his music one of a kind.

Personal touch

Today, that voice was tempered and mellow. Perhaps, a little drowsy too. He confessed that he had been sleeping and did not know how his music would sound when I requested him to sing a piece for me. Yet, when he broke into the lovely dhulia malhar — a monsoon raag — it was the old Jasraj again who had thrilled listeners with his poignant melody that shook your soul with its intensity and fervour. The man who turned down Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s offer to teach him because he was already learning in the Mewati Gharana style. The artiste who declared at the height of his career that he had a lot more to learn, a lot more to grow. That was Pandit Jasraj. A musician who, like M S Subbulakshmi, is humbled by his own music.

Born into an artistic family — his father was a classical singer — Jasraj was initiated into music at a young age, more out of necessity than talent. As he writes in his diary, the sudden death of his father placed a responsibility on all the children who chipped in to do their bit for the family’s survival. His brother and guru Motiram sang, while the younger sibling played on the tabla to earn a livelihood. His introduction to vocal music was also accidental. As a percussionist, young Jasraj was enraged at the treatment meted out to accompanying artistes. So, he decided instead to sing. And the world of classical music became all the richer for it.

“I used to listen to many artistes like Khan saheb (Bade Ghulam Ali Khan) and my own brother, Pandit Motiramji. They were my inspiration,” says Jasraj. And adds thoughtfully: “Listening to music by great masters is important.”

Living in a musical environment, he had every opportunity to listen. He not only listened and sang, but he became an innovator too in his own field by creating a unique form of jugalbandhi (duet) called “jasrangi.” In this unprecedented format, he matched male and female voices where each singer would sing two different ragas in their respective scales which blend and become one. It was a novel concept and Jasraj himself reveals its beauty when he performs harmoniously with the well known playback singer, Kavitha Krishnamoorthy. When I asked him whether he preferred this form of music to solo performances, he answered with another question: “Don’t we have Shiv-Parvathy or Vishnu-Lakshmi or Radha-Krishna or Sita-Ram in our mythology?”

According to him, in music also, there was provision for that. It was a pleasant surprise to discover in him an easy tolerance to this or even something radical like fusion music which many musicians dislike. But not Pandit Jasraj.

“Maybe in 30 or 50 years, it will be accepted as the norm in classical music,” he calmly asserts.

Music afficionados see a striking resemblance between Pandit Jasraj and M S Subbulakshmi. Both combined sheer melody with perfect diction. The resemblance does not end there. Their music breathes spirituality. When Jasraj says, “I sing for God,” he is not striking a pose. His music is moving because it moves him.

“Music — whether it’s Hindusatani or Carnatic — is a spiritual thing,” he declares. And adds, “Prayer reaches God faster on the wings of music,” A firm believer that singing itself is communion with divinity, Pandit Jasraj, again like Subbulakshmi, is said to have often reached a point of samadhi when he sang. The spell was broken only when he became aware of his surroundings. When I ask him, “Then, do you sing only for God?” his one line answer is touching: “Yes, I sing because He is there!”

After a pause, he adds, “God is music, you know? Surya is Bhaskari. Vishnu is Bhaghashree. Bhagawan Shiv is Nataraj, the god of rhythm, and Lord Brahma himself was a mridangam player! So, wherever there is music, God is there. Music is my offering, my service to God.”

Hope for the future

It is as simple as that. Pandit Jasraj has great hopes for the future of classical music in India. “It is growing, growing,” he exclaims excitedly. “Listen to the new generation sing. They are coming in forcefully — hundreds of them. They are young and great musicians. I simply love them all.”

I ask him if he has a message for them. “Yes. My first message is that they should respect the guru, then the father and mother who brought them into this beautiful world. The second message is to be disciplined in their lives. Music itself teaches discipline,” he adds.

Perhaps it is this hope of Indian classical music growing beyond the borders of this country that has motivated him to set up that unique institution called the Pandit Jasraj Institute for Music Research, Artistry and Appreciation — the Mewati Gurukul in the US. Established on the traditional guru-shishya parampara, students at PJIM can learn music for their “personal or professional enhancement.” According to its creator, this institute will carry on the rich legacy of the Mewati Gharana which is so dear to his heart.

“But why in America, Panditji?” I ask him. “There is no particular reason,” he says. “I thought, America is such a big country, the people there must know our traditions. Now, there are at least 1,500 musicians there to carry on our classical music tradition. They are the true ambassadors of this country.”

The iconic singer then starts speaking about morning ragas and evening ragas.
“Depending upon the air, the temperature, you can feel the rishabh. In the morning rishabh, the notes rise higher because the sun is rising. In the evening rishabh, they go lower and lower to describe the setting sun.”

He starts an aalap, stops and laughs, “I am singing a morning rishabh in the evening!” He then switches over to a different raga. His voice trails off. Then, suddenly saying, “Achha, let me sing this for you,” he breaks into that stirring shloka from Adi Sankara’s Nirvanaashtakam.

“Mano Buddhi Ahankara Chitta Ninaham
Nacha Shrotra Jihve Na Cha Ghrana Netre
Nacha Vyoma Bhoomir Na Tejo Na Vayu Chidananda Roopah, shivoham shivoham...”
There was no more conversation after that. Pandit Jasraj lapsed into silence. Yet, long after the interview, his voice continued to ring “shivoham shivoham” in my mind. For a moment, I felt I had glimpsed the unknown.

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