Pt. Jasraj made classical music accessible to those who did not understand its nuances
In April 2018, after trying for five days to reach him for an interview, I finally got to talk to Pt. Jasraj one afternoon. He had just returned to Mumbai after a concert in Dubai and was preparing to leave on a three-month concert tour of the U.S.
Apologetic for delaying the interview, he said, “Jab Mumbai me hota hoon samay nahi milta. Sab milne aate hain, aashirwad lene aate hain. Sangeet se mujhe sabse badi jo sampatti mili hai, woh hai logon ka pyar (when I am in Mumbai there is no time. People come to meet me, seek my blessings. The biggest wealth music has given me is people’s love).”
In turn, Pt. Jasraj’s music was a great leveller. When he rendered ‘Om Namo Bhagwate Vasudevaya’ in raag Bhimpalasi, ‘Mero Allah Meherbaan’ in raag Bhairav or ‘Mata Kalika’ in raag Adana, classical music shed its elitist tag and gained mass appeal, while his devotional music won over even connoisseurs with its sophistication and structure. By invoking both Allah and Kali, the Hindustani exponent bridged many divides.
And when a minor planet, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, was named ‘Panditjasraj’ by the International Astronomical Union, it seemed to suggest the transcendental effect of his music.
On a pleasantly cool day in November 2019, after what would be his last concert in Chennai, when I asked him how he felt about being the first Indian to receive this honour, he had replied matter-of-factly, “The greatness of our music extends beyond the sky.”
That evening when the doyen of the Mewati gharana walked on to the stage, dressed in a bright raw silk dhoti, kurta, and black waistcoat, he appeared frail and exhausted after his long flight from the U.S. But when, after greeting the audience with raised arms and an ebullient ‘Jai Ho!’, he began to sing, his face relaxed into bliss, as he brought alive every note with passion and elan. With each composition, he built a meditative mood and, along with the maestro, the audience internalised every swar and shabd.
“I see Krishna in all of you,” he told the full house, leaving many teary-eyed. “When you sing for the paramatma, your music reaches the atma.” Since he infused his music with bhakti, it had the ability to spiritually elevate the believers among his legions of listeners even while comforting others with its rich melody and soothing laya.
On January 28 this year, Pt. Jasraj turned 90, but his voice showed no sign of ageing. It moved effortlessly across octaves, as it had over the past eight decades.
It brought out every shade of emotion in ragas and bonded beautifully with the swars. “Music is like Krishna Leela. Whatever your heart seeks, you will find in it. It can be your best companion at every point in life,” he said during the interview.
The night before he passed away in New Jersey, he was teaching his disciples via Skype. Pt. Jasraj had no qualms about moving with the changing times. His last performance was through Facebook Live in April, when he sang for the annual Sankat Mochan Festival in Varanasi, a concert he had never missed in the last 46 years.
“Umar aur badlav se kabhi darna nahin (never fear age and change),” he had said when I asked him about his frenetic concert schedules and the impact of social media on music.
Though he staunchly believed in paddhati, his sangeet bore his unique stamp. He lent the romance of thumri to khayal, which let him soar with absolute freedom and bring his imagination into full play. He wrote several bandish; it was his way of communicating with god. He made deep forays into Haveli Sangeet, the tradition of temple singing of the Vaishnavas of North India. He also created Jasrangi, a unique form of jugalbandi styled on the ancient principle of moorchana, where a male and female vocalist perform different raags in different scales.
“My father Pt. Motiram, brothers Pratap Narayan and Maniram and my gurus Jaywant Singh Waghela, Ghulam Kadar Khan and Swami Vallabhdas Damulji have had a great impact on the way I think, create and teach. Every time I sing, I am only expressing my gratitude to them for moulding me into the artiste I am today and to god, for helping me find myself in music. When I visit Hyderabad for the annual Pt. Motiram Maniram Sangeet Samaroh in memory of my father and brother, I spend some moments in silence, praying at their graves in Amberpet. I have seen immense hardship during my growing up years, especially after my father’s untimely demise. I couldn’t pay Rs. 15 to the doctor for a house visit when my mother was unwell,” recalled Bapuji, as he was fondly addressed.
He used to do 14 hours of riyaaz a day, when he decided to become a vocalist from a tabla player. It was also Begum Akhtar’s voice that motivated Pt. Jasraj to become a singer. He would recall stopping every day by a roadside eatery on his way to school in Hyderabad to listen to Begum Akhtar’s ghazals, mesmerised particularly by her ‘Deewana banana hai toh deewana bana de’. “This ghazal was also a favourite of the owner of the eatery. When he saw how much I enjoyed her singing, he began to offer me food. I skipped attending school and spent all my time at the restaurant,” he reminisced, laughing.
The renowned singer was as simple and warm as his music. Shashi Vyas, the son of legendary musician C.R. Vyas and a culture curator, once spoke of how Panditji had helped him launch his popular Pratahswar series in Mumbai. When Shashi said he had no money to host Panditji in a good hotel close to the venue, Pt. Jasraj decided to stay with one of his disciples in the neighbourhood. He later advised Shashi to not let money come in the way of his musical initiatives. “Krishna will take care of your needs,” he told him.
And now, Pt. Jasraj is probably serenading Krishna with a rendition of ‘Om Namo Bhagwate Vasudevay’ in his splendid style.
daughter and founder, Art and Artistes
He was the most chilled out father when my brother Sharang and I were kids . Bapuji would join us in all the fun and games. He would play cricket and table tennis and jump the parapet walls with us in his lungi. I think by spending time with us, he made up for all the fun he missed out when growing up. But when he went up on stage, I would watch him transform into a completely different person. As a child, it used to amaze me. At any point of time, there were at least 10 disciples living with us in our modest house. Whenever he came across a promising talent, he would get the youngster home to train. It was like one big family. You could hear the tanpura all through the day. I have seen him get up in the middle of the night to write or teach a bandish. When it came to food and comfort, he never made any distinction between his students and children. Sharang and I were never under any pressure to take forward his music legacy; he allowed us the freedom to follow our heart. But he insisted that we excel in whatever we did and trained us in music. Bapuji divided his time between India and the U.S. He has schools across America, an auditorium in New York is named after him and the University of Toronto has instituted a scholarship in his name, which is awarded to deserving students of Indian music.
Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, veteran flautist
“Our bond went beyond music,” says veteran flautist Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia. “Last year I was in New Jersey. When he came to know about it, he ensured that I spent my birthday (July 7) with him at his house there. He had decorated the house and meticulously arranged for an elaborate lunch. Thirty of his disciples welcomed me. I was given a royal treatment. He made it my most memorable birthday. He even remembered that I am diabetic, so instead of a cake, he made me cut a tarbooj and fed me with his hands. “He never forgot old associations and the days of his struggle. Whenever we met, it was wonderful to go down memory lane together. He left this world the way he would have wanted to — singing till his last breath. Musicians like him and Pt. Bhimsen Joshi were born to spread the beauty of music around the world. They earned immense respect and love of the people for their commitment to the art. Even in his late 80s, when he sat on the stage, he roared like a lion. There was so much power in his singing. Bapuji was always busy creating a bandish, teaching, travelling, meeting people, performing… it was a life lived entirely for music.”
Sur Mandal’s Mohan Hemmadi with Pandit Jasraj
Hyderabad got its share of Hindustani music through the Pandit Motiram Pandit Maniram Sangeet Samaroh. Says Mohan Hemmadi, founder of Surmandal, a cultural organisation, “In 1969, Dr. M.S. Deshpande (a well-know paediatrician) and I suggested to Panditji that he should host an annual music festival in Hyderabad in memory of his father, who spent most part of his life in the city as a revered musician in the court of Nizam Osman Ali Khan. He immediately agreed. I cherish my five-decade association with him.” Hemmadi also got one of the roads named after Pt. Motiram. Recalling his last meeting with Pt. Jasraj, he says, “We met in Dhaka at the Bengal Music Conference three years ago, where he introduced me to the organisers as his younger brother.”
A long associate of the festival and of Pt. Jasraj, Hindustani vocalist Lakshmi Reddy says that Pt. Motiram lived in the neighbourhood of their ancestral home, Maha Bhupal Palace, in Jambagh. “When Pt. Jasraj came to know about it, he was keen to see the house where his father lived. Once when the late Akkineni Nageswara Rao commended him for his choice of dhotis, within three days, Panditji sent him a set of dhotis. He loved to engage with people.”
Well-known textile activist and connoisseur Lakshmi Devi Raj cannot get over the loss. “He called himself a son of Hyderabad. Thanks to the samaroh, I got to see and listen to some of the best classical musicians. And when he was here for the festival, I enjoyed hosting a lunch at my house for him and his entire team.”
As told to Vijaya Mary