In this world, there are only a handful of musicians who are born with a quality of voice that places them in another league, sets them apart. Jagjit Singh was blessed with that very rare quality of voice; it was undoubtedly his asset, something nobody in this country can match. The thing about such a voice is that it had the uncanny ability to deliver powerful, soul-stirring emotions with a mere rendering of a note or a turn of phrase. On the surface, Jagjit Singh’s music always seemed simple, so to speak. But rendering it isn’t always so. For example, I am a trained musician, one with the ability to do all kinds of vocal acrobatics, but let me tell you, it is extremely difficult to sing the way he did.
As a child, among the first ghazals I heard was his evergreen Aahista Aahista. I was simply floored. That song, even today, continues to haunt me, although my list of favourites has grown to incorporate Jagjit Singh’s musical journey that spanned decades and touched a million hearts across the length and breadth of India. His ghazals were in fact popular even in south India; people would hum his songs without following a single word. That’s because his music was about emotions. Even those who couldn’t soak in the lyrical sparkle of his songs could drown in the romance and mood of his voice. As his repertoire grew, he went on to become an icon in the world of ghazals. He was, and will always be, India’s pioneering voice in the genre of ghazals. I can say with conviction that apart from Hariharan there isn’t anyone of his calibre in this country.
In my growing years, studying to be an engineer, stars like Jagjit Singh, one assumed, were always unapproachable, inaccessible. But I think I’m blessed that life presented me many a moment and opportunity to sing, share, discuss and banter with Jagjit Singh. Even recently, at the launch of my album—Teri Parchai—he was the chief guest. In his speech at the launch, I was particularly humbled with the things he said about my music and me. He said he followed my music, that he admired the way I managed to sing across genres and therefore connected with millions of music lovers. I was really touched.
I also have vivid memories of our trips to Delhi; we were both associated with a campaign that promoted the cause of copyright for musicians and composers. Our trips were fun; we’d chat on the flight and once we landed in Delhi, Jagjit Singh would take us along to his brother’s Chinese specialty restaurant, Hao Shi Nian Nian. He knew how to make the most of life and had the ability to include everybody in that happiness. We’d chat for hours on all things music, and on various other topics too.
On yet another occasion, in 2008, he personally invited me to sing a Gurbani for an album to commemorate 300 years of Gurta Gaddi of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji Maharaj, Takhat Sachkhand Sri Hazur Abchal Nagar Sahib, in Nanded. I was probably the only non-Punjabi singer who was part of the album. I remember walking into the studio and Jagjit Singh drawing me into the comfort of his space. He said, to me, in Hindi, “You are talented, you will learn this really fast.” That recording experience was special for more reasons than one. There was a tabla rhythm loop playing continuously in the background and Jagjit Singh sat at the other end of the studio with his harmonium. He’d sing two lines, I’d repeat after him and we’d record. Then he’d teach me the next two lines and I’d repeat and record. Of course, he gave me the freedom to improvise and innovate. But it was fascinating to learn it from him and render it, instantly. That song was called Thakur Tum Sarnai Aaya. It’ll always remain one of the songs closest to my heart.
Perhaps, the greatest loss for me as musician is the fact that Shankar Ehsaan Loy was in the process of collaborating with him. We were discussing the possibility of an album, not in the shairana format but a ballad of sorts; a romantic album sung by Jagjit Singh to our music. Ideal for listening on a candlelit dinner kind of thing. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, it will not happen now. His loss, in that sense, for me is the loss of a voice, the loss of a musician, the loss of an opportunity to explore new possibilities, and finally the loss of a fine human being.
(As told to Akhila Krishnamurthy)