In Film Division's 'Sangeet Martand Pandit Jasraj', an insight into the maestro's music and quest for the divine
Pandit Jasraj’s was a life lived in the service of his craft. As he explained in an FD film on his life: “Main sangeet ko bhagwaan hi manta hu, bhagwaan ke sabse kareeb manta hun”.
In a brief interview from 2019, an 89-year-old Pandit Jasraj says, “At this stage in life, I realise that I know nothing and I will never know anything.” In many ways Jasraj’s life was intertwined with that of Bhakti, the feeling of belonging, of devotion to the spiritual without it having to also be religious. Jasraj’s lyrical consciousness, his ability to find a style separate from that of Begum Akhtar, at one time his inspiration, is why the Mewati Gharana became synonymous with the late vocalist. Music, unlike the visual arts, is a more precise medium. For one, it is both finite and short-lived. It must be repeated, and Pandit Jasraj was a master of recreating magic. As he leaves us, rightfully declared as the doyen of both Bhakti and Gayaki, it is also important to understand the life he lived and the experiences he had to have sought the holy through music.
Indian artists are so poorly documented it is often left to contributors of Wikipedia pages to piece their life back together. Thankfully, the Films Division (FD) of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, has over the last few decades performed the herculean task of preserving our cultural heritage, and moreover put its lived reality into the context of a life rather than careers alone.
Jasraj was born into the family of a poor classical singer, Pandit Motiram, in a small village in Haryana. As a five-year-old he would listen to the songs of Begum Akhtar. He spent the majority of his youth in Hyderabad learning the tabla, which would become his first instrument. It was, as he would explain years later, a fickle relationship, for it enraged a young Jasraj, the way accompanists were treated. Young and idealistic, he renounced the tabla and took to vocal training at the age of 14. As Partition neared, Hyderabad fell into communal turmoil. The Brahmin family had to soon leave for the safer pastures of Ahmedabad where the princely state of Sanand and its court accepted the 14-year-old as its official vocalist alongside guru and eldest brother Maniram.
Jasraj’s devotion was perhaps born out of both faith and experience, both deeply personal perspectives. In the FD film, titled Sangeet Martand Pandit Jasraj, the maestro narrates to his granddaughters the story of when Maniram mysteriously lost his voice, and then incredibly regained it after singing for the Goddess Kali. Post-independence, it was towards this deity of the east in Kolkata that Jasraj then moved after the scrapping of Sanand’s statehood. It was as the singer often summarised, the hand of God pulling him forward. “I have experienced innumerable miracles of spirituality and bhakti in my life and I believe that the almighty holds your fingers and takes you along this path without even you being aware of it,” he said in an interview.
Other than being gifted, Jasraj was also known to be a ferocious practitioner. Even though he seldom performed on the tabla himself, he would endlessly tune his music and his rhythm over it. Despite being a disciplinarian and a dedicated practitioner, Jasraj was always open to questioning and reinventing prevalent systems. He christened the jugalbandi, as a way to rewrite the male-female duet in performance. He interweaved not one, but two ragas, where a male and a female artiste collaborated in a way never heard before. Rumour has it that when this new format of jugalbandi was presented for the first time, to the city of Pune, the audience broke into rapturous applause spurred by disbelief. So much they christened the format ‘Jasrangi’. Jasraj explains the dilemma of this perceived binary. “Like air and water, land and sky, Shiv and Shakti, why is it that a man and woman cannot be one?” he says in the film.
A lot of Bhakti musicians veer towards Bollywood. (Pandit Jasraj’s nephews are the composers Jatin-Lalit.) Jasraj himself, however, rarely lent his voice to cinema. For director V Shantaram, whose daughter he would marry, he performed a raag for the film Ladki Sahyadri Ki (1966). A decade later he collaborated with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for the film Birbal My Brother. The closest he came to the mainstream was through the Vikram Bhatt directed 1920(2008). Perhaps Jasraj was too refined a vintage to be experienced fully over second-hand digital sounds. That may in fact be true of all Indian classical music. It is best lived through concert.
Artists may or may not be touched by divinity, but they are rarely occupied by devotion as Pandit Jasraj was. He submitted himself to the arts and towards ensuring that the gharana that he helped respawn after a lull, would survive. Jasraj’s students, who he continued to teach over Skype, even during the pandemic, are spread all over the world. It might be difficult for any to replicate not just his intoxicating music, but also his learned and trained commitment to sharing his knowledge with the world, but in a way they are part of his plan. While stardom and popular culture are easy distractions, Pandit Jasraj’s was a life lived in the service of his craft. Through the known, perennially seeking the unknown, yet living without the fear of knowing nothing — this Jasraj explains in the film: “Main sangeet ko bhagwaan hi manta hu, bhagwaan ke sabse kareeb manta hun”.
Wherever he is now, music and God, as he saw it, won’t be far.
— Featured image via Facebook/@ptjasrajji
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