It was a shock to hear from an editor at the Hindu on the evening of August 17 that Pandit Jasraj had died a few hours earlier in New Jersey. My first thought was that the extraordinary group of vocalists I’d heard live in Bombay at the end of the seventies and early eighties, and whose approaches to khayal contributed to my own education in that genre, was now, at last, a historical fact, with an account of how that generation emerged waiting to be written.
At the moment of receiving the news, I’d forgotten that Parveen Sultana is still with us; I asked the editor: “How old was he?” She said: “90! He did live a full life.” We marvelled at his youthfulness, a reason for being caught off guard by his passing.
I didn’t write the obituary I was asked to by the Hindu because there was too little time to write one: the condition in which obituaries are composed. But, expectedly, I immediately began to sift through my awareness of Jasraj’s music; to make note of a transition to do with his self-possession in performance that I have always been aware of, but never had the need to point out.
The elements of greatness
Is a death an occasion to celebrate a great person’s greatness, which we’ve done obediently enough all his life, or to reconsider what we believe makes them “great”? Or could it be possible that we don’t have a clear idea where their greatness lies? Too often, this seems to be true of iconic artists in India: that we know they’re among the “best”, but not why. The “why” becomes irrelevant in the haze of praise offered in the artist’s lifetime, once consensus is arrived at and the ad hominem attacks that pass for criticism are suppressed; the irrelevance resurfaces in the eulogies after the death. To articulate the “why” implies a kind of engagement that seems out of place in the context of the sacred.
When MF Husain died, for instance, we were told that India’s greatest contemporary painter had passed away, though few seemed to know what his most notable paintings or creative periods were. This was as revealing of our cultural milieu as the tragic circumstances of Husain’s exile. Obeisance without engagement, whatever your political persuasion, is a characteristic of nationalism, and is as political as any slogan.
I’d never thought of writing about Jasraj in this column because he was clearly too central to need retrieving. The moment he died, though, I became newly conscious of a periodisation in his output that I’d long been aware of, but which needed pointing out now in order for us to seek out – and retrieve and protect – what’s most valuable about his music.
Jasraj had had a heart attack very early on in the 1980s, after which he’d disappeared for a while from the music scene. There was an absence for a duration – no more concerts or recordings. Then he returned, and I recall hearing him at Rang Bhavan in Bombay; the voice was shaky, as was to be expected in a singer recovering from a life-threatening setback and one who’d been, for a significant amount of time, without riyaaz.
Then, gradually, in the months and years to come, the voice regained its steadiness and attempted once more the intricate bursts of detailing – short taans, murkis, and adolan or graceful oscillation, all of which were characteristic of his alaap. The authority of performance returned, but it gradually grew clear that the peak was over.
In the mid-’80s and onwards, the voice required to do justice to the peculiar finesse of Jasraj’s imagination – to the delicate, oblique, but difficult aberrations that comprised his style – was never wholly present.
A melodious, urbane style
This is not a criticism. Every artist – especially every classical performer – has a period when they’re at their peak, and at their most creative. Then family and livelihood take over, and subtle changes come over the human body: for the singer, this is particularly important - singing, however disembodied and transcendental it may sound, is as much a physical act as walking. By 1980, Jasraj was already 50: he’d been a performing artist for about 30 years, and a recording artist for 15 or so. All the significant work was done in this period, although it’s extremely difficult to access now –
precisely because of the numberless recordings he did in the next 40 years.
To understand his achievement today, one will have to sift, reject, and glean. There are multiple later recordings of the ragas recorded early on – Nat Bhairav, Shuddh Nat, Kedar, Darbari, Puriya, Adana – that entangle the listener and impede the discovery of recordings and interpretations from the late ’60s and early ’70s that announced a style that was at once deeply melodious and urbane.
There were no rustic elements in Jasraj’s singing, no overt insistence of bhakti: he treated singing primarily as an art, and gave us a deeply idiosyncratic, original, and modern version of the sophistication of court culture. By modern I mean secular, but not in the Nehruvian sense: I mean a 200-year-old development in the arts, preceding Nehruvianism and the Constitution, which emphasises art as diction, texture, and detail rather than just as tradition.
This is a temper to which Ustad Amir Khan and Kishori Amonkar and Jasraj come in various ways, as much as any modern Indian poet or filmmaker did. The leap Jasraj is making when embracing this temper is clear from a comparison of his older brothers Maniram and Pratap Narayan’s treatment of the khayal and his own. See this interview with Maniram and Jasraj, which is interspersed with performances; or listen to this clip of a recording of raag Jog by the three brothers.
It isn’t just talent that separates the younger brother from the older ones (who are considerable performers), but Jasraj’s contribution to the ethos of artistic modernity. It doesn’t matter what kind of religious beliefs Jasraj believed himself to subscribe to; I’m concerned with the person he chose to be when he sang the khayal. This person is to be found most compellingly in what one has to now call the “early recordings”, though, when I came to classical music in 1978, these were the only recordings, and these were Jasraj.
The ethos that I’m describing – the ability to sing in a particular way; the audience’s ability to cherish that kind of singing; the ability to take from one’s built and natural environment and from “tradition” in an open-ended way, relatively unburdened by religious or national identity – was a delicate balancing act. It’s a wonder that it sustained itself for as long as it did before it was largely destroyed by globalisation and its various manifestations, including Hindutva.
To encounter the pre-globalisation Jasraj, the artist, go to his first recording, Nat Bhairav. After investigating several uploads of the raga performed by him, I could only find the chhota khayal from the original recording.
Listen, too, from around the same time, to this beautiful Shuddh Nat. The Saregama upload is near-impossible to trace, as it’s listed not by raag, but by the opening words of the bada khayal, mati malania.
Equally difficult to find, and for the same reason, are these recordings from 1974 – first, raag Kedar from 1974; and, from the same vinyl record, raag Darbari. When listening to Kedar, notice the very fine embellishments with which Jasraj, roughly for a minute from 5 minutes 30 seconds, explores the movement from tivra ma (the sharp fourth) to dha (the natural sixth) down to ma (the natural fourth) – Kedar’s loveliest identifying phrases, usually covered no less movingly by a meend or a glide, but by Jasraj with spontaneously complex mini-phrases.
This terrific live version of Khamaj Bahar, a variant of a composition by Kunwar Shyam, must also be, from the voice’s timbre and the taankari, from the ’70s.
Finally, this link leads to a documentary on Jasraj and Bhimsen Joshi that captures something of the last phase of the modernity I mentioned.
The evolution from courts to concert audiences has often been remarked upon; but what happened in drawing rooms and houses in the ’60s and ’70s to sustain Hindustani classical music and practitioners like Jasraj? The documentary gives us a portrait of the singer as teacher, and then accompanies him on his journey to Thakur Jaywant Singh Vaghela, a landed aristocrat who acted as the patron of Jasraj and the Mewati gharana and who also composed the great bandish in raga Adana that Jasraj performs for him here, splendidly (you can watch it from the 21st minute onwards), and which he recorded for his first vinyl release.
Vaghela himself appears ensconced in, but slightly alienated, or displaced, from his cultural inheritance. The spiritual contradictions of such a milieu created a particular creative setting in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s – the setting for Jasraj’s unforgettable response.
Amit Chaudhuri is a writer, a Hindustani classical vocalist, and a composer of crossover music. Listen to his music here.