Monday, May 23, 2011

Pandit Jasraj: the romanticist crusader

Pandit Jasraj (Born: 1930) could well be the most popular male vocalist in Hindustani music today. In a career spanning half a century, he has emerged as a major force in the romanticist movement sweeping khayal vocalism since the 1970s. He also enjoys a substantial international following, having established several teaching establishments in the US, where over 300 students are studying his style of vocalism.

His musicianship has, expectedly, attracted commensurate honors and decorations. Besides the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honor in the country, Jasraj is the recipient of a host of other honors, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar, the Dinanath Mangeshkar Award, and the Rajiv Gandhi Award.

Jasraj belongs to the Mewati gharana, whose fountainhead, Ustad Ghaghe Nazir Khan (late 19th century), hailed from Jodhpur in the Mewat region of Rajasthan.The gharana founder had three principal disciples – Ustad Munawwar Ali Khan (no relation of Bade Gulam Ali Khan), Pandit Chimanlal, and Pandit Nathulal. The third named, Pandit Nathulal, was the grandfather of Pandit Jasraj.

Neither the gharana, nor its distinguishing features have been documented yet in authoritative musicological literature on the subject of gharana-s (VH Deshpande and Bonnie Wade). However, according to Pandit Jasraj, the gharana specializes in elaborate and comprehensive exposition of the melodic personalities of raga-s through all four sections – sthayi, antara, sanchari, and abhog. Jasraj has imparted a lyrical quality to this elaborate raga exposition through opulent ornamentation of phrasing, thus making his music explicitly communicative of emotional values.

Romanticism in Hindustani vocalism

The first half of the 20th century saw the beginnings of romanticism, especially with Pandit Omkarnath Thakur (1897-1967), whose romanticism was not categorical. But, as a significant movement in Hindustani music, romanticism is essentially a post-independence phenomenon. It signifies a preference for emotionally charged expression, along with relative indifference to the structural aspects of music. While romanticism is happy to function within the limitations of the subject, classicism attempts to transcend it. Classicism is characterized by an aloofness which “passively” elicits a response from audiences, while romanticism adopts an intimacy which actively solicits it.

The emergence of romanticism in khayal vocalism was “logical” when it happened. By the 1950s, the specialist singers of the Benares thumree – the original romanticist genre – had almost disappeared from the scene. Khayal singers tried to satisfy the audience need for emotionally rich music by adding thumrees to their repertoire. At the same time, ghazal singers also began enriching the melodic content of their poetry-dominant romanticist genre in an effort to fill the vacuum. These trends shaped sterling individual contributions to the art of the thumree by khayal singers like Bade Gulam Ali Khan, and to the art of the ghazal by the likes of Mehdi Hassan. But, as a category, neither the khayal-style thumree, nor the thumree-style ghazal could fill the void created by the disappearance of the authentic Benares thumree.

The cultural environment was apparently ready for vocalists with the courage to attempt something bolder. At such a time, the movement pushing the khayal into the thumree territory was triggered off by musicians who had the romanticist temperament, and the courage to carve out a new artistic path. Pandit Jasraj is amongst the rebels against the formal aloofness of the khayal, who gave romanticism a respectable place in Hindustani music. The other two, who did so at about the same time (1970s) were Kumar Gandharva (1924-1992), and Kishori Amonkar (Born: 1931). Interestingly, all these pioneers of the romanticist khayal have also been deeply involved with devotional music – an explicitly emotional genre – and none of them has shown any particular interest in the thumree, whose methods of musical expression they have already incorporated into the khayal.

Childhood and grooming

In early childhood, Jasraj was trained in vocal music by his father, Pandit Motiram and, after his demise, by his elder brother, Pandit Maniram. As an additional accomplishment, Jasraj was trained as a Tabla player by his uncle, Pandit Pratap Narayan. Jasraj had, in fact, become a very proficient Tabla player, and could have made a career as a percussionist. Once, while still a teenager, he was insulted publicly by the vocalist he was accompanying. Revolted by the way accompanists were treated, he swore never to play the Tabla again, and committed himself to singing.

His early years were full of struggle. The family was in Hyderabad when he was born. When Hyderabad was engulfed in communal riots, the family moved to Ahmadabad. There, his family established strong bonds with Maharaja Jaywant Sinh Gohel of Sanand in North Gujarat, a distinguished disciple of the Mewati gharana, who became mentor as well as patron to Maniram, along with his brother, Jasraj.  Then came the merger of the princely states with the Indian Union, when the Maharajas lost their capacity for patronage of the arts. Jasraj’s family then moved to Calcutta in search of a career. Jasraj’s own career was, however, destined to take off only after he moved to Bombay, and married Madhura, the daughter of the legendary film maker, V Shantaram. Despite this proximity, the film industry did not attract him.

Jasraj’s exceptional musicianship was first noticed in the late 1950s, as a supporting vocalist to his elder brother Pandit Maniram. Their duets were rich in melodic content and depth of raga exploration, and a model of perfect understanding and collaborative effort. Gradually, Jasraj acquired a following of his own, and started performing independently. In his early days as a soloist, by his own admission, his style was greatly influenced by Ustad Amir Khan. But, as he grew in maturity, and responded to audience preferences, he evolved an original style.


In the classical segment, Jasraj’s repertoire features a wider variety of raga-s than most leading vocalists of his generation. His repertoire features common raga-s like Purvi, Bihag, Darbari, and Bageshri, moderately rare ragas like Bihagda, Gorakh Kalyan, and Suha Kanada, and also rare raga-s like Gauri, Abiri Todi, and Gaudgiri Malhar. Like the other major romanticists, Jasraj presents a substantial repertoire of devotional music. In the devotional segment, his erudition has enabled him to cover a vast range of literature starting from Meera Bhajans at the more popular end, to mediaeval Padas performed in the Vaishnava temples (Haveli Sangeet) and Jaideva’s Geeta Govindam at the intermediate level of literary abstraction, to Vedic chants and recitations of Upnishadic texts at the esoteric end.

The devotional aspect of Pandit Jasraj’s musical personality is central to his musicianship. As he told the American composer, Michael Robinson, in an interview on 31 October 1999.

… music is not for only enjoyment. The enjoyment is there every time, but it is a prayer to God. So, I always, when start my disciples, start to teach them: First, I explain to them, think of your mother, father. Think of your guru. Think of your Almighty. We have plenty of gods, so you can think of whatever which god you love, and offer, this is my service. Please accept it, and forgive my mistakes. And accept it, and please come. Please come in my... wherever you are singing, wherever you are making music. Wherever. You invite him, because God loves music. He loves music.

“You know Narada? He is a saint of Lords. Once Narada asked Lord Vishnu, "Where do you live?" Then he said, he laughed, and said, "Why you are asking me?" "You should know where am I, where I be." Narada said, "No, you tell me." Vishnu replied, "I am not in heaven, I am not living in heaven." Yogi means saintly people who do penance, prayer, and think of God only. "I don't live in their hearts too." "Wherever my devotees sing, I am there." So it’s my strong belief that God loves music. If you offer him, and invite him. Please come. I am making music, or I am singing for you. Now don't sing for any XYZ. Let them listen to your music, but think you are singing for God”

While being steeped in the other-worldly aspect of music, Jasraj is also a master of stagecraft. A significant aspect of his musicianship is his view of music as a theatrical art. In this sense, he takes after Pandit Omkarnath Thakur. His music is not only a feast for the ears but also for the eyes. His charming persona, the Swaramandala in his lap, his exceptionally large ensemble often consisting of three or four tanpura-s and two melodic accompaniments, his body language full of dramatic gestures – all contribute to building a majestic aura that enhances the appeal of his music.

© Deepak S. Raja 2011

ECLP 2325 Raga Nat Bhairav 1966
ECSD 2705 Shree Kameshwari, Raga Bilaskhani Todi 1971 
ECSD 2739 Musical homage to a guru 1974 
ECSD 2798 Jab Se Chhab Dekhi 1977
ECSD 2832 Raga Shudh Sarang, Raga Bhimpalasi 1980

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