A tribute to Pandit Jasraj: Of glamour and gharana

Sumiran kar le mere mana…

Of late, I had been listening every morning to Pandit Jasraj’s rendition of this Kabir bhajan, set in Raga Bhairavi. Mesmerised by the sheer range of Jasraj’s sonorous voice, spanning three octaves, now soaring, now descending, creating a thousand melodic designs; the radiance on his smiling countenance; the depth of emotion in his voice as he gave sound to poignant lyrics like "deep bina mandir suna"; and the flourish with which he sang. Little wonder that Pandit Jasraj strode through eight decades of performing, teaching, and disseminating the opulence and deep beauty of Indian classical music – aptly decorated with high honours like the Padma Vibhushan award (conferred in 2000). His demise on this 17 August cannot but dent India’s musical scene.

In the mid-70s, with the advent of television, the clientele of Indian classical music shrank somewhat; the threat keened in the 80s with the entry of television serials. Suddenly people were watching and not just hearing musicians. And vocalists with their absorbed, solemn looks, unravelling classical delicacies, were a tad intimidating to the lay audience. At this juncture, Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and even more so Pandit Jasraj popularised classical music by bringing what singer-composer Shurjo Bhattacharya terms as "dramatisation" into their performances without compromising on classicism. If Joshi drew the indigenous "Abhang" into his recitals, Jasraj belonging to the Mewati gharana of Haryana, blended "Pushtimargi haveli sangeet" into his khayal concerts.

Observes Shurjo Bhattacharya in shraddhanjali, "What Ravi Shankar did for the sitar, Jasraj did for vocal classical performances. With his charismatic looks, apparel and intensity of 'bhavas' in his recitals, Jasraj brought glamour into presentations and gave "sanjeevani sudha" to classical music. Most importantly, he sang with a smile, unlike most vocalists. People started following him, reassured classical music was to be enjoyed and nothing to be afraid of."

While the glamour aspect of Jasraj's performances elicited some criticism, it was overpowered by the magnetic pull of his recitals and audience adulation. Mourning his loss, renowned tabla player Pandit Nayan Ghosh, currently heading the prestigious Sangit Mahabharati, says, "His vocalism reflected his youthful approach to life. He had a magnificent voice with an expansive range and presented rare traditional ragas with exceptional flair. He created a unique style, notable for its ornate and colourful expressions. His vast knowledge and repertoire of the Pushtimargi Haveli Sangeet added a beautiful dimension to his music."

Ghosh, whose family had a long association with Pandit Jasrajji and his elder brothers, Pt. Maniramji and Pt. Pratap Narayanji, states, "I was privileged to have known him since my childhood. It’s a rare honour that three generations of our family performed with him on numerous occasions -- my father (Pandit Nikhil Ghosh ) myself and my son Ishaan."

Apart from performing, Jasraj schooled many eminent musicians (violinist Kala Ramnath, Anuradha Paudwal, Sadhana Sargam, inter alia) and understandably inspired many like music composer- sitarist-writer Tushar Bhatia. Recalls Bhatia, "My journey into Indian classical music began with listening to Pt. Jasraj. When I was growing up in the 70s, I would attend every concert of his with my parents, spellbound. In private mehfils, Panditji would seek me out, saying where is my 'beta' and ask me to sit in the front. He would come to our house and he taught me to play the tanpura. Later, when I did the music for the television show, Chakravyuh, he called me up and praised my composition. He was very affectionate towards me till the end."

Among Pandit Jasraj's musical achievements, Bhatia ranks high Panditji's propagation of devotional music. "In last 50 years, Pt. Jasraj brought the work of Ashtachaap poets of the medieval period (Surdas, Parmananda Das, and others) into the classical domain. Some of Panditji’s bandishes that remain embedded in my memory are: Matakalika, Aur raag sab bane baarati, dulha raga Basant, Aye ati dhum-dham, and Karata shringar maiyya mana bhavana.” Jasraj clearly has left us a rich musical legacy. As Nayan Ghosh says, "Personally, I will deeply miss my Pujya kaka, but his unique music is there to live on forever."

(The writer is an author, journalist and sitarist)

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