Pandit Jasraj's students highlight the maestro's legacy with stories of his compassion and generosity
Pandit Jasraj was not just musician extraordinaire, but also a humble, doting, and caring teacher. From Sanjeev Abhyankar to Kavita Krishnamurthy, his students remember their beloved Guru ji, and commemorate his profound artistic legacy.
On 17 August, as renowned classical music maestro and Padma Vibhushan awardee Pandit Jasraj breathed his last, it veritably marked the end of an era.
His vision and musical acumen were instrumental to bringing a considerably lesser-known Mewati gharana global recognition. The major attributes of the gharana are the meend (linking one note to another), karna swar (joining the notes with cuts), a surrendered approach towards the notes, stable and steady development of ragas and clear pronunciation of verses, all of which were further highlighted by Jasraj's style of singing.
While paeans on his musical genius and expansive repertoire of creations have been talked and written about in his being, and will also be around after his passing, it is the story of the man behind the maestro that can lend us a glimpse into the true vastness of his legacy.
Firstpost spoke to his protégés to take us down memory lane, and tell us what it truly meant to be taught by Sangeet Martand Pandit Jasraj.
Dr Vandita Varma (who spoke on behalf of her husband Girish Wazalwar — a student of Jasraj —as he is not keeping well) —
Girish ji had been training under Pandit Jasraj for almost 50 years since 1971, after he won a national scholarship. He stayed there with Guru ji at his house in Mumbai's Shivaji Park till 1984, the year we got married. In fact, I also stayed in that house with all of them for about a year after marriage, and once our daughter was born we shifted to a separate house at Andheri. Since I used to teach at Allahabad University, we eventually shifted to Allahabad. That is when there was a physical separation of sorts between Guru ji and Girish ji. But in the 14-15 years that he was with Guru ji, he imbibed all the learnings very diligently.
Girish ji had been with Guru ji during the onset of his journey to global recognition; he was a part and parcel of Guru ji's early mentoring days. More than that of student-teacher, their relationship was like that of a son and father, and if you consider their age, it was like that of a younger and elder brother. But Guru ji always had a special place in his heart for him. And it was the same when I went and lived with them for a year. It never felt as if we were outsiders or strangers; we were always made to feel at home like family members. That house was accommodating of everyone who wanted to learn music.
Girish ji's entire musical learning has been moulded by Guru ji — be it is the expansion of the swaras, voice modulation techniques, presentation of the ragas, selection of the bandish, etc. Guru ji was very particular about his selection of lyrics. If you explore his graph over the years, you will see his bandishes (poetic compositions) were inclined more towards literature. He specialised in compositions inspired by the works of pioneers of the Bhakti period, such as those of Mirabai and Surdas to name a few.
Guru ji's music is at the pinnacle of spirituality. He didn't sing bhajans just for the sake of it; his spiritual songs were always about the higher concept. They were profound, intense, and at the same time melodic. His music had an immense pull — anybody passing by would be forced to stop and listen to it. One would begin to wonder, "Ye kya hai? Kaun gaa raha hai? Kaha se aa rahi hai awaaz? (What is this? Who is singing? Where is this voice coming from?)" And this was one of his biggest strengths — he would always come up with something new.
Sanjeev Abhyankar —
I went to him in 1983. I was 13 years old and was a prodigious talent. My mother was a very learned musician, and she taught me for about six years before I met Guru ji. My mother was a die-hard fan of Guru ji and she started learning from him two years before even I joined him. She understood that the kind of aesthetics and natural approach I had in my singing at that age, Guru ji's gayaki was suitable for me. It's like if you have a temperament of Virendar Sehwag, you wouldn't go to Rahul Dravid for training. A lot of musical stalwarts at that time had told my mother that I should only and only pursue music as a career, but my mother decided that only if Pandit Jasraj accepts me as a student would I be a full-time musician, else not. I guess I was destined to have a similar musical temperament as Guru ji's and my mother knew better of it.
It was his condition that I wouldn't pursue anything academically, and would fully concentrate on music, otherwise, he wouldn't teach. He told this to my mother upfront. I was in the ninth grade, and I somehow finished class 10, and later my BCom. But it was all just for the sake of it, just enough to get me a degree. Most of the time, I used to travel with him. I might have accompanied him on around 400-500 concerts. He had told me: "Don't worry, wherever I go, you will be with me." I was like his shadow; it was an intense training from 1983 to 1994.
He would observe every minute details in my singing. I remember my voice had changed when I'd gone to him — earlier it was a high pitched voice, almost like a female singer, and then with age, it changed. So Guru ji completely groomed my voice culture. He would teach us everything...even how to do a proper namaskar for that matter. You see, our tone and gesture while doing a namaskar could bring about multiple connotations. Then, he would teach us how to sit while performing, what to wear and how to conduct ourselves. I remember earlier I used to wear very simple clothes, then when I started giving solo performances, Guru ji told me, "Sanjeev, wear good clothes. Now you are sitting right at the centre of the stage." I didn't take that seriously, so one day he asked his daughter Durga to buy me two raw silk kurtas and jackets to go along. I still have them in my cupboard.
He would always try to make you a perfectionist. He would tell me that while singing a raga one should make sure that the swaras of the raga become one with the raga. So the rishabh in Raga Des should sound like rishabh of Raga Des only and not like that of any other raga. He taught me how to make a note a perfect fit for the particular raga that it is being sung in. Honestly, he never shared the basics with me because I had already come to him with my basics sound and strong, so our discussions would entail the intricacies of the performative aspects of classical music. For me, his words of appreciation used to be the ultimate award, more than anything else. I knew if I could satisfy him, I could satisfy the entire world. I have also told him that whenever I sing, or even tune my tanpura, there is never a moment when I don't think about him.
The responsibility of carrying forward that great musical legacy was always on me. He even told me, "Beta, guru aur shishya ko 30 saal tak eksath duniya ne suna, aisa pehle kabhi nahi hua (The world watched the teacher and disciple perform together for 30 years. This has never happened before in history)." I will always have to keep the standard as high as he has set in these years. His place in my life and in my thoughts has always been that of a deity and it shall remain the same till my last day on this planet.
Kala Ramnath —
I have known Guru ji first through his music from when I was a child, and then personally from my early teens as my Mama ji, which is how I addressed him. Before starting training under Guru ji, I was trained at home by my grandfather and my aunt, Dr N Rajam, who was already a very renowned Hindustani classical violinist.
When I was young, after returning from school, my grandfather used to make me listen to a programme on the radio called Anuranjani, which was aired at 3.15 pm in the afternoon till 3.45 pm. Every time I listened to Guru ji, be it on the radio or his LP records, his renditions of Gorakh Kalyan, Bhimpalasi, Shudh Sarang, Bilaskhani Todi made me feel, 'If music was indeed this beautiful, then I only wanted to do this.'
So when I met him for the first time, I was so happy and thrilled. And he being himself really showered me with a lot of affection and pampered me. My aunt would make me practice trying to make sure that I was ready for my first concert, and he would be present during some of my practice sessions. Me being a scatterbrain that I was then, would be looking for opportunities to make a mistake and raise my aunt’s blood pressure. From the corner of my eyes I would see him and his face would tell me that I was about to make a mistake even before I actually made one, and instead of correcting myself, I would fall for the trap set for me. After the practice sessions got over in the evening, he would take me and my cousin [Sangeeta Shankar] for a walk, talk to me, advise me and then buy me chocolates to make me feel better. And, if nothing was available, he bought me a banana at least.
Six months after that concert, my dad passed away. And, when Mama ji came to know, he visited Chennai where I was staying then. He would promote me in small venues and got me to perform there. I remember when I was 15, I had Ustad Zakir Hussain tell me, "Who would want to listen to an imitation of Dr N Rajam?" That really stuck with me and got me thinking.
I always loved Guru ji's music and at home, I would try to render his vocal compositions on my violin. And when I turned 19, I mustered enough courage to ask him if he would teach me, to which he readily agreed. And thus began my journey as a disciple of Pandit Jasraj. I travelled a lot with him across the globe. I learnt everything on the go, I would listen to him perform live on stage and I would practice those compositions on my own. Otherwise, I would ask his other senior students to record it for me and then I would learn it. Just in six months of being a disciple of his, I had made a conscious effort to try and play Guru ji’s style of rendition in my first All India National Programme on radio, and was lucky to have him home that day to listen to it. He understood by then that I was very serious and I wanted to learn more from him in depth. Thankfully, by the grace of the almighty, my sharp memory and strong grasping power helped me in my quest. He incidentally called me his computer!
He was not just a great guru, but a very generous person. He had a great sense of humour and was very spirited. He would literally pamper us like a father. In all these years, he never charged a single penny from any of us. The relationship we had with him was exactly like a family. We lived in his house, we ate there, slept there and learnt music and also a lot about life. He was literally like my father I lost years back. Today, I feel the same pain that I had felt when my father passed away. I am yet to come to terms with the fact that I won't see him in person ever again.
Pritam Bhattacharjee —
I belong to a place called Silchar in Assam. When I was about 12 years old, in 1995, Guru ji had visited Silchar to perform. I was a devotee of his music from my very childhood. I had made up my mind that it would only be Guru ji [who would teach me] and nobody else. So, after his concert, I met him and told him that it was only through his music that I had developed an inclination towards classical music. He used to speak fluent Bangla and since I am a Bengali, he said, "Kichu gaao (sing something)." I sang his bandish in Raga Puriya in front of him; I had copied his entire rendition from the cassette. And when I finished, he was so happy that he stood up and begged to my parents saying: "Is ladke ko main apne saath Bambai leke jana chahata hu. Isko mujhe de dijiye (I want to take your son with me to Bombay. Please allow me to do so)." He wanted to take me with him the next day itself. It was obviously a very big decision for my parents. What do you say when Pandit Jasraj asks you to leave your child with him, that too the very next day. They took some time, for about a week or so, and then wrote a letter to Guru ji saying they were ready and then they took me to Bombay.
I went and stayed with him for 10 years in a proper gurukul parampara. His teaching process was multi-faceted and he made music an all-encompassing part of our lives. Of course, he would teach us music for hours together, but apart from that when he used to talk to us normally, or while eating, or when we used to travel with him, the taleem would continue — it was a constant thing. It was not limited to just riyaaz or the teaching sessions, it was a 24 hour-long endeavour.
He would always tell us that when I'll teach you, I won't teach you how to identify the swaras, but how to love them. When you start loving swaras, they will automatically become familiar to you. He didn't just teach us the elements of music, but also the principles of life. He was not just a musical guru, he was a spiritual guide, a mentor, a philosopher, a friend, a father figure — everything. He meant the world to me. And even today, he lives within me through music and will continue doing so till my last breath. For me, he can never be 'was'; he will always be 'is'.
Ankita Joshi —
It's been 21 years since I started learning from Guru ji. I was always a fan of his music and would often imitate his singing in my own little ways. I used to try and learn from his recordings — how he would sing certain phrases, his style of gayaki. I always wanted to learn from him and I think I was blessed in a way when he had come for the Sawai Gandharva Music Festival in Pune sometime around 1998-99. I wanted to meet him but nobody was letting me cross the barricade, so I crawled through between the security guards. I went up to him and told him I wanted to learn music from him. He looked at me for a while and said, "Do you sing?" I immediately said yes. "I sing a lot of your phrases," I told him without any hesitation. I think I was too young and daring to even comprehend what I was doing.
I remember I sang Raga Bihag in front of him in the green room, and the moment I finished he said, "Aajao tum. Tumko main sikhaunga (Come, I'll teach you)."
I came to Mumbai in 1999 and I stayed with him; he and his entire family treated me as their own. He really pampered me and imparted all his knowledge with open arms. He taught me a lot; and not only music, he took special care of my education as well. Once when my schooling was done, he started taking me along for his concerts; I used to accompany him on the tanpura as well as vocals.
He would often tell us while teaching music that there should not be any hurry or stress while singing, and that one should always try to sing calmly and while at ease. He was undoubtedly a great guru and he taught me everything in music, and at the same time, he taught me how to live life as a good human being. For Guru ji, everyone — his students as well as those who knew him closely — will attest to the fact that he made each one of them feel special.
Where do I even begin to talk about how he influenced me! I belong to a small town of Nanded and because of him my life completely changed. Whatever I am today is because of him. I spoke to him last on my birthday, 15 August, and I wanted to know some details about the presentation of a certain raga. He was in the US and I couldn't reach him initially. Still, when he got to know I needed some help, he immediately called me, taught me and blessed me a lot.
Sadhana Sargam —
I learnt from him for about six to seven years after I received a scholarship from the government — he was a judge in that competition. Earlier in my childhood, my mother used to teach me classical music and it was she who took me to Pandit ji. I was very fortunate that he agreed to teach me because he used to be extremely busy those days. I was in class six or seven when I started learning from him. He taught with complete dedication and would ensure his students' knowledge base was very strong, which according to me is of prime importance when it comes to learning classical music. From selecting the ragas, to a precise understanding of the notes, he would make sure we learnt all of it.
His house was like a gurukul. People would come and go, there was always music happening somewhere or the other, and there was food for everyone. Pandit ji was always very jovial and welcoming.
The way Pandit ji would teach us classical music, it also enabled us to perform light music with equal ease. Usually, what happens after being trained in classical, is that one's voice is set to a certain mould. That never happened with Pandit ji's style of music. If you listen to Pandit ji's concerts or records, you will realise that his music was inundated with emotions and rasas. Despite being a classical form of singing, his style also focussed on the verse — its clear enunciation and doing justice to the mood of those words. And, that really helped me as a playback singer in films. After all, it is about lending voice to a character in a certain situation, so it needs to be packed with emotions. Each and every word should be crystal clear, hit perfect notes, and in doing all of this one must maintain that voice quality. Whatever I am today, I owe a lot to him and I am forever grateful.
Kavita Krishnamurthy —
In the early '70s, I had already heard of him as one of the emerging classical vocalists. One fine day, maybe around 1976, I hear a knock on my door, and I open and see Pandit ji and his wife outside. Those days, my aunt and I used to live in a flat in Bandra. When I saw them, I was quite flabbergasted. Then he said, "I know you sing. Can you sing something for me?" He listened to me and asked if I would want to join him in a Hindi musical play that he was conducting, named Tan Kahaani Sunio Kare. He had asked me to come for rehearsals at his Shivaji Park residence, and learn the compositions. We subsequently did a few shows in Bombay and then we also went to Bhopal and performed; I did around three or four concerts of the play. I really enjoyed being there — it was a beautiful experience. All his students would also sing and Pandit ji would come towards the end and sing 'Mai Saawre Rang Rachi', which was the last song.
After the whole thing was over, I decided to learn from him for some time. So I used to go from Bandra to Shivaji Park on a bus. There would be many of his students practising there — his son Sharaangdev (Durga was probably married that time, so she wasn't around much), Girish Wazalwar, among others. Pandit ji would sometimes give me a tanpura and ask me to practice, or sometimes he would sit with five to six students, including me, and would give us a line of bandish and see how we improvise on that.
This went on for about six months; later, he became very busy with his performances in various parts of the country as well as abroad. At the same time, I was getting so involved with my film industry recordings that eventually I couldn't go to him anymore. After many years, when Protima Bedi was doing Geet Govind with music by Pandit Jasraj, I got to sing two songs. Over the years, I continued meeting him on and off here and there — at studios, airports, etc. And then after my marriage to my husband, I started attending a lot of these concerts where Pandit ji and my husband would perform, or many music collaborations that they did together.
He is one of the greatest there ever was. That kind of mellifluous voice quality...it was like silk. His emotions, expressions — it was like great artistry. As an artiste, both my husband and I admire him immensely, but also as a human being. He had a radiant personality, almost like a sun showering his light upon people. He always had that beautiful smile. Till date, I have never ever seen him or heard him speaking harshly with anybody.
He was most dedicated to music. As a guru, he has been so kind to impart music education to so many students. He was among those people who just teach — they don't care about money. For them, it is only about sharing knowledge...he belonged to that generation of musicians. At the age of 90, he was teaching till his last day. What better a way to depart from this world than this? It is undoubtedly a great loss for all of us, but at the same time, how blessed are we that we got to know him. His is the story of the journey of a great musician — birth of a great musician, life of a great musician, and till the last day, a grand funeral of a great musician. That was a birth!
— All images via Facebook/@ptjasrajji except where indicated otherwise
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