A song of forever

A song of forever

We trace the maestro’s multi-faceted persona through the fond recollections of his students, contemporaries and loved ones.

Pt Jasraj

What a beautiful city Bengaluru is! You people may not realise this, but for someone coming from the commercial capital Mumbai, it still remains the garden city blessed with green lung spaces. After my drive through Cubbon Park, I can only say, mehsoos karo (feel and experience it),” Pandit Jasraj’s words to this reporter on the sidelines of his concert for Durga Jasraj’s ‘Jalsa Series’ a few years ago, mirrored a larger perspective.

The Hindustani maestro had a huge following here and he too appreciated Bangaloreans who nurtured diverse musical tastes. “I have always wondered why Bengaluru is not named the cultural capital of India,” he often said. Sangeet Marthand Pandit Jasraj, who considered the three Padma Awards he received as ‘just incidental’ while his music “remained his primary praana (breath), a prayer surrendered to his Lord Krishna”, passed away recently, leaving behind a huge void in the hearts of classical music lovers.

S N Varadaraj of the Chamarajpet Ramaseva Mandali agrees that the popularity Panditji enjoyed in the city was palpable, as he would be flooded with requests whenever he performed. Jasraj, who has performed several times for the Ramanavami series, was in 2009 conferred with the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ by the Mandali. “For years, we have been playing his superhit “Om Namo Bhagavathe Vasudevaya” during the aarti to flag off the concert evenings. It’s our signature song and people sing along. His voice is permanently with us,” says Varadaraj.

Jewel of Mewati

Jasraj died in New Jersey on August 17 at the age of 90, surrounded by some of his students. “He spent nearly six months a year in the US, where he ran a couple of music schools. His silken voice was active till the end and he was even teaching online,” said his daughter Durga Jasraj on phone from Mumbai.

Jasraj was born on January 28, 1930 in the Hisar district of Haryana and spent his initial years in Hyderabad where his father was to be appointed the Court Musician of Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam of Hyderabad. When the family moved to Kolkata in 1946, Jasraj began singing for the All India Radio. The Mewati Gharana he belonged to, has its flow coming from Ustad Ghagge Nazir Khan from Jodhpur in the Mewat region of Rajasthan. He settled in Mumbai in 1963 and the next five decades saw him rise to becoming a prolific international performer, recorder and teacher. He established schools in India, US and Canada.

While his father initiated him into music, Jasraj had his ta’lim from his brothers — tabla from Pratap Narayan and singing from Maniram, whom he accompanied in concerts before his teens. “I took up Raag Multani at my first solo concert in Kathmandu when I was 22 and then there was no looking back,” Panditji had once recalled.

Panditji enjoyed blending elements of various gharanas. He also brought into focus many forms hitherto unsung on the classical stage. It spoke of his enterprising mind, says violinist Dr L Subramaniam who looked back at his four-decade association with Pt Jasraj. Subramaniam recalls the maestro’s defining days in music. While in Kolkata, he familiarised himself with many styles and helped evolve the Mewati Gharana. Jasraj blended the elements of gayaki from Ustad Amir Khan, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Pt Omkarnath Thakur to form his own style. “Panditji’s sudden demise has left me lonely; even a month ago he was raring to record for my ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ video released during the lockdown,” says Dr Subramaniam, who has many recordings of Panditji as part of his yet-to-be-released collaborations.

A sense of permanence

Panditji may have cruised through nine-decades, but his voice showed no signs of ageing, says Bollywood playback singer Kavitha Subramaniam, who has also shared the dias with Panditji many times. “The beginning of his 90th birthday celebrations a year ago saw his wonderful renditions at Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai. The ease with which he traversed the higher octaves had left people gasping; his voice had a sense of permanence,” says Kavitha who learnt under Jasraj for six months in the mid-1970s in Mumbai.

An egalitarian approach

He was a pioneering artist, known for his egalitarian approach, says his prime disciple Sanjeev Abhyankar. “Pt Jasraj was a deeply spiritual person, known for his devotional overtones. The fulcrum on which the Mewati gharana stands firm are the devotional values attached to the school of which Panditji was the torchbearer for almost seven decades,” Abhyankar says.

On his sprinkling of the thumri features into the more serious Khayal, Panditji said he had devised his presentations to help expand his contours and bring a sense of ease in understanding for his audiences. “What brought him closer to people uninitiated into the serious classical format was his exploration of the bhakti repertoire that fused grammar and sentiment. His fans grew stronger and demanded his hit recordings in his concerts,” recalled Abhyankar.

One of a kind

Although his passion to become a singer ruled supreme, other interests too beckoned him. “Many do not know that I play Hindustani classical on my guitar!” he had once revealed. Ghazals always interested him as a young performer. “My childhood years were exposed to ghazal queen Begum Akhtar and the song ‘Deewana Banana Hai Toh Deewana Bana De’ with her cracked voice had attracted me when a local restaurant played it in Hyderabad where I stayed,” Panditji had said. 

Apart from scores of his performing students such as Sanjeev Abhyankar, Shweta Jhaveri, Rattan Mohan Sharma, Anuradha Paudwal and Sadhana Sargam taking forward his legacy, even instrumentalists such as violinist Kala Ramnath and flautist Shashank Subramaniam have been his disciples. “I have never declined teaching a talented musician; after all a guru-shishya parampara is the key to taking forward a well-architectured form,” Panditji had always said. And those are words to live by.