The experiments and flamboyance of Pandit Jasraj: Examining the celebrated vocalist's Khayal legacy

Pandit Jasraj handled well known and rare ragas with mastery which revolved around something that was a wondrous rarity in the world of Khayal – pronouncing the text of the composition right, and presenting the composition as if it mattered.

Lakshmi Sreeram August 19, 2020 16:22:53 IST
The experiments and flamboyance of Pandit Jasraj: Examining the celebrated vocalist's Khayal legacy

Celebrated exponent of the Mewati gharana of Khayal, Pandit Jasraj, passed away earlier this week plunging the world of Hindustani music into mourning. His stature as a musician of global reach and impact is unquestioned as reflected in the outpouring of messages from every eminent person, beginning with our Prime Minister.

Pandit Jasraj started out as a tabla player in a family of eminent musicians. His father Pandit Motiram was his first guru after whose demise he learnt primarily from his brother, another eminent musician, Pandit Maniram. Drawing the meend, ghasit and other dignified movements of dhrupad as well as the quick, exciting trills of the tappa like the kan, the gharana had a clear stylistic as well as an enviable repertoire of ragas and compositions.

Humiliated on a couple of occasions for being a mere accompanist, Jasraj turned to vocal music. One of these incidents gives an indication of the artistic choices he would make later on. He recounted in an interview that Pandit Kumar Gandharva had performed at Lahore where he and his family were then based. And Kumarji was criticised for his rendition of the raga Bhimpalasi for placing the sam — the weight of the refrain of the composition that also resolves the taal cycle to arrive at the first beat — on the Dhaivat. This would have raised eyebrows anywhere.

Jasraj, a young boy then, spoke up saying that one has to look at the artistry of the musician and appreciate how well he carried off even such a grammatically suspect movement. At this Jasraj was told to keep quiet about raga discussions – you beat dead skin, what can you know of raagdaari? This and a couple of other incidents angered him and he turned to vocal music. His defence of Kumarji also shows what kind of artist he would become – not one to be bound by rules and expectations.

The experiments and flamboyance of Pandit Jasraj Examining the celebrated vocalists Khayal legacy

His voice alone would have been enough for him to become the brilliant singer he was, but added to this was a first-rate training and a keen artistry. All images sourced via Facebook/ Pandit Jasraj

Another indication of the kind of musician he was comes from an interview with eminent musicologist Dr Mukund Lath. Panditji says there are three steps to becoming a performer — seekhiya dekhiya parakhiya (learn, observe, assess). One has to learn well first and then observe what is happening in the music world — other performers, audience tastes, capabilities of students and so forth. And then you have to assess the situation and craft your music. Clearly, his assessment of the music world led him to craft a style that won him swooning fans while also, inevitably, putting off many other listeners.

His voice alone would have been enough for him to become the brilliant singer he was, but added to this was a first-rate training and a keen artistry. He rose in the world of Khayal to become one of the most successful classical musicians in the country. He handled well known and rare ragas with mastery which revolved around something that was a wondrous rarity in the world of Khayal – pronouncing the text of the composition right and presenting the composition as if it mattered. Khayal musicians, most of them from Maharashtra and Dharwad, paid scant attention to the texts of compositions, which are in Braj and other bolis of Hindi. He also showed the world of music the rich repertoire of the Pushtimargiya Sangeet or Haveli Sangeet.

As an artist and person, it seems he was unafraid to follow his heart and try new things. Jasrangi is one such interesting experiment in which two ragas are performed by two different individuals together with different tonics. The pitches are the same, but given the different starting points or tonics, the scale and raga are different.

No doubt these were interesting experiments more likely to fly with lay audiences than the serious listener. When he was past 80, on a cruise to Antarctica, he performed for an hour and a half when requested. Any other musician of his stature would have refused because accompaniment was an issue. But he sang and he made news as the first “Indian musician to sing in the South Pole”, even though he was not quite at the South Pole. More recently, a minor planet was named after him – an honour that seems, well, extra-terrestrial! His most favoured title was one that another eminent musician in the past, Pandit Omkarnath Thakur, too favoured — Sangeet Martand, the sun of the world of music. It was mildly humorous too that he who had the sun in his title lent his name to a planet. But the point is he went to places few others did.

Jasraj was also a prolific teacher, training well-regarded performers like Rattan Mohan Sharma, Kala Ramnath, and Sanjeev Abhyankar. His student base was extensive especially in North America. He conducted shibirs or music retreats at various places in North America, creating communities with shared experiences and love for music, communities that were happy and proud to consolidate around his name and music.

Akhil Jobanputra, a Hindustani vocalist and organiser in Vancouver, learnt from him in the first of such schools in Vancouver. He recounts that Panditji’s music “reflected his personality – playful, passionate. While teaching he was concerned with the emotional expression as much as if not more than grammatical correctness.”

Sriram Emani of the US-based company IndianRaga says: “Students of Pandit Jasraj Music schools that I met were excited about the prospect of learning the art form, and also about the annual events where they would get to meet Pandit Jasraj by means of the various competitions hosted by the schools or his master classes. Being a role model and a nurturing guru to them, he definitely catalysed the learning and propagation of Hindustani classical music across hundreds of students.”

Pandit Jasraj appointed his own students to take charge of these centres, and they do attract eager students. How lasting their impact will be is for time and music lovers to assess.

There can be no denying that Pandit Jasraj had a large following of admirers among listeners and students. And this is his legacy. But many others sense a disquiet about the very aspects of his music that made it so popular.

The experiments and flamboyance of Pandit Jasraj Examining the celebrated vocalists Khayal legacy

While teaching he was concerned with the emotional expression as much as if not more than grammatical correctness

Classical music is about discipline. Discipline of raga, its grammar, discipline of sur and taal, discipline of presentation and discipline of restraining overt emotionalism. Pandit Jasraj toyed — deliberately — with the last of these, as also the first.

Khayal as serious music had little place for engagement with emotive expression – that is reserved for thumri and other genres. Khayal is concerned with the authentic and evocative exposition of ragas, not deliberate expression of emotions. Another musician of his generation to question this dissociation was Pandita Kishori Amonkar. But there was a difference. While Kishori Amonkar injected bhaav into the extremely austere Jaipur gayaki, Jasraj did not depart from a similarly austere style, but one already generous in its use of ornamental devices like the zamzama, kan and ghaseet. In taking it further down the road of embellishment, he offended the sensibilities of many who felt it to be too much.

The little boy who defended the highlighted Dha in a Bhimpalas exposition by another musician could be expected to bend rules himself, and he did that – in plenty. A phrase proper to Nayaki Kanada in an exposition of Miyan Malhar, a hamsadhwani-ish phrase in Bihag and so forth – he could get away with these, though not everyone was amused.

Pandit Jasraj said, "Woh Khayal hai jis khayal mein aap ram jaye (That is Khayal which enchants you). Khayal means idea, a thought, not a statement of fact or deduction. It involves the element of imagination, of the uncharted. His student, violinist Kala Ramnath, echoes that idea by saying, “He made Khayal really khayal. I wanted to learn from him because I was besotted with the utter beauty of his music. He was the most generous teacher one could have.” About the licenses taken with raga grammar, Kala points out that there is little standardisation in Khayal and raga in general. Ragas change over time, even within living memory, compositions change, and each gharana has its own little details of every raga, and so it is hard to say what is absolutely right and what is not.

Pandit Jasraj accumulated around himself much mystique and projected an image of being a worshiper of music with much flamboyance. He spoke of ragas being able to help with blood pressure and mental stress, and so forth. These too did not go down well with many who would like the art of Khayal to have a validity in its own right.

Our great musicians each represent not just a lifetime of dedicated practice seeking mastery over the multitudinous aspects of music, but also one or the other facet of the larger cultural package that music is and the myths that give it meaning.

In professing a religious and spiritual goal as a musician, Pandit Jasraj can be seen as owing a literal allegiance to the ancient Hindu idea that all pursuits, especially music, are ultimately justified, because they are conducive to moksha.

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