Jagjit Singh or Ghazaljit Singh as Gulzar once called him - he should know for the two worked on several albums together and shared an easy camaraderie. Or Ghazal King, as he was popularly called, because, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in his tribute to the maestro, he made ghazals accessible to everyone.
In the palimpsest that is India, ghazal arrived to its shores on ships that sailed from Persia, on horseback as marauders galloped down from central Asia, in the songs of mystics who roamed Hind in the wake of the conquerors. With the eclipse of Persian in the Mughal court, the ghazal of Rumi and Hafiz transitioned to a polyglot language which was birthed in the Indo-Persian-Arabic roiling on the subcontinent, Urdu.
Ghazal in India is supposed to have begun with Amir Khusrau in the thirteenth century and its golden period is the 18th and 19th centuries when luminaries like Mir, Dard, Ghalib, Momin and Zauq elevated this form of poetry.
For the uninitiated, ghazal is a short poem, rarely exceeding a dozen couplets in the same metre. It always opens with a rhyming couplet called matla which sets the mood and tone of the poem. The last couplet of the ghazal is called makta and often includes the pen-name of the poet and is usually more personal than general in its intent.
Also, though a ghazal is commonly understood to be a love poem, (in Arabic the word literally means talking to a woman) it deals with the whole spectrum of human experience. Ghalib has such a vast oeuvre that it is said there is hardly any situation or state of mind which he hasn’t rendered in his inimitable style. Which, in turn, explains why he is the most quoted of all Urdu poets.
For a whole generation of Indians Ghalib came alive when Jagjit Singh sang his ghazals for the eponymous TV serial directed by Gulzar in 1988. His mellifluous voice gave new life to Mirza Ghalib’s lyrics as entire India nodded and hummed to ‘Zulmat kade mein’, ‘Dil-e-nadaan tujhe’, ‘Bazeecha-e-atfal hai’, comprehending some of the lyrics and suspending incomprehension for the balance, as the voice and words alighted straight from the ears to the heart.
Jagjit Singh is rightly credited with reviving ghazals in India, with giving them a home again in Bollywood, and with filling our drawers and shelves with cassette tapes, then CDs, now ipods of his melodious renditions.
In my childhood I was surrounded by Mehdi Hassan and Begum Akhtar and in my adulthood I discovered Abida Parveen. But Jagjit Singh was a friend I made in adolescence, and since then he has remained a steadfast ally. He made the genius of Mirza Ghalib accessible to me; he molded the pain of being away from home by his rendition of Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s Birha da Sultan; he lifted ordinary Bollywood films with his magical singing; his rendition of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ‘Meri tanhaiyon tum hi laga lo mujh ko seeney sey’ has provided a balm on many a sad day; his Punjabi tappe cheer me up; his teaming with wife Chitra a continual delight both to listen and to watch …
I have had the good fortune to attend some live performances of the maestro and the delight with which he rendered the ghazals was always palpable – it got the audience clapping hands and jigging shoulders while seated until, eventually, the tapping feet led to dancing in the aisles. For all lovers of Urdu poetry, of ghazals and ghazal-gayaki, he was our rockstar.
Now that he has passed into that great unknown, perhaps his journey will take him to a caravanserai where Rumi and Ghalib are in a mushaira and an enthralled audience is deep into wah-wahs, and Jagjit Singh will pick up the matla, and, with his trademark glint, will begin strumming the rhyming couplet, ta-nana-ta-nana-na-nana …
As for me, I shall always have the company of the friend I grew up with. Jagjit Singh is a friend for all seasons as he so beautifully extolled in Mirza Ghalib’s couplet,
What use is this friendship where there is much advise,
O for a friend, who’ll share with me my sighs.
P.S. Note his trademark wit right at the beginning of the above video