The crowning of Jagjit Singh as “Ghazal King” might have something to do with the late music composer Madan Mohan. When Jagjit Singh died on October 10, 2011, playback singer Lata Mangeshkar remembered him in an interview. “The first time I heard about Jagjit Singh, I was recording with Madan Mohan who told me, 'Ek Jagjit naam ka ladka aaya hai bahut achcha gaata hai' (There is a boy named Jagjit who sings very well).”
Madan Mohan used to be called the “King of Ghazals” for his film compositions. He was one of the first people to spot Jagjit Singh’s talent. The mantle passed on from one great artist to another with the passage of time, even though the two never worked together. In 2004, when Madan Mohan’s son, Sanjeev Kohli, revised old compositions of his father for the soundtrack of Veer-Zaara, Singh sang a romantic duet with Lata Mangeshkar called “Tum Paas Aa Rahe Ho” (You are coming close to me). The moment marked a delayed embrace of the ghazal titans.
Born in Rajasthan on February 8, 1941, Jagjit Singh trained in music with Shagun Chand Joshi and Jamal Khan. He moved to Mumbai in 1965 to seek work in the movie business. His first break was for the Gujarati film Dharti Na Chhoru (1968), in which he sang a duet with singer Sudha Malhotra called “Ghanshyam Nayan Ma Gupchup.” A distinct baritone and an emphasis on enunciation quickly established his voice.
Singh met singer Chitra Dutta and married her in 1969. The two came to be known as the “ghazal couple.” They got their first Hindi playback song, “Babul Mora”, in director Basu Bhattacharya’s acclaimed film on marital discord, Aavishkar (1974).
The duo’s album, The Unforgettables (1976), became a watershed moment for the ghazal as well as for their singing careers. The album is considered a milestone in popular ghazal music, reviving the form with modern orchestration and the use of instruments such as the guitar and the santoor at a time when the ghazal was traditionally performed with the tabla and the harmonium. The private album took the ghazal out of its film setting and paved the way for its packaging as a mass-market product. This also lead to the couple recording several hit albums in which the poetry ranged from ornamental Urdu to simple Hindi, attracting new legions of listeners.
In other firsts, when he made his debut in Hindi cinema as a composer for the movie Prem Geet (1981), Singh sang a solo “Honthon Se Chhu Lo”, written by Indeevar. The simple lines “Honto se chhu lo tum, mera geet amar kar do (Touched with your lips, make my song everlasting) became immortal in his silken voice.
A fan of ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan, Jagjit Singh initially followed his icon’s style, but later evolved his own. His timbre had a deeper bass, unlike Hassan, who could glide over classical ghazals owing to his gharana training in Indian classical music.
Singh developed his style into crooning, delivering heartfelt elegies in the process. Note his inflection of the word “door” (distance) in the nazm “Baat Niklegi Toh Door” by poet Kafeel Aazar Amrohvi. Singh stretches the word to bridge the chasm dividing him and his audience, bringing them closer to him each time he closes the gap.