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The Sun of Music

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
August 2009
The Sun of Music

When I titled the sound file for this interview as “Pandit Jasraj,” the legendary vocalist did not hesitate to remind me that he is formally referred to as “Sangeet Martand” Pandit Jasraj. He then elaborated on the meaning of the title: “The sun of music.”

What would normally seem like a conceited gesture, strangely, did not seem so in the least. Pt. Jasraj strikes one as being childlike in his innocence, and yet naturally authoritative. He seems completely settled in his stature as a doyen of Indian classical vocals.

With his long, flowing, salt-and-pepper hair, and deep, soulful eyes, he is a vision of the ethereal—a befitting physical presence to his celestial music. The Padma Vibhushan, one of India’s highest civilian honors, is just one of the innumerable accolades showered upon this master. But what trumps the accolades is Pt. Jasraj’s success in achieving a popular following for a decidedly elite art form. More than any other maestros of the Hindustani vocals, he has managed to make the classical accessible to the masses.

Amitava Sen, a respected peer amongst exponents of Indian classical music in Atlanta, sheds light on such wide appeal of the master. He notes that when classical singers give long, wordless alaaps, many listeners find it “boring.” Pt. Jasraj, on the other hand, observes Sen, made it more interesting by using the lyrics of bhajans (devotional songs), bringing elements of the lyrical and the romantic into the khayal (classical vocal style).

One of the first things you learn about the virtuoso is how he sees himself as just a conduit for the divine. Time and again, he has said that his singing is not his own, and that it comes from the beyond. It is a mark of humility that allows him to discount a lifetime of riyaaz (dedicated, rigorous practice) in the name of the divine. Throughout our interview, his reverence for the divinity in music showed through. Following are some highlights of the translated interview, which was conducted mostly in Hindi.

The ragas of Indian classical music are known to be spiritually infused. There are legends of their power. For example, raga Malhar was known to have the effect of producing rain, and raga Deepak could light up lamps. Were these just fables, or do you feel that ragas could indeed have such powers?

In 1960 I was in a town called Nabur, and my host, Mr. R. K. Gallah informed me that the last rains they had seen in the region were three years back. The area was hurting, and he asked me if I would pray for them and sing the raga Malhar. I said I would certainly do that, but rain or no rain was not my business. I just sang Malhar with a deep submission to God, from 9 at night to 2 in the morning—and then proceeded to retire for the night. At 5 in the morning I was woken up by an excited Mr. Gallah—it had rained! From that day I have believed that it can happen.

Then there was this incident in 1998 when I was invited by the Revenue Minister, N. K. Singh, to his open house. It was May 8th, and it was extremely hot outside his large farm home. They had planned the whole event outside and the food was laid out there—but the heat was terrible. After singing for two-and-a-half hours that evening, the heat and the setting inspired me to sing the Dhulia Malhar. This is the foremost amongst all Malhars, and is known to produce an intense dust storm, like the ones that often precede a rain shower. After singing for about 25 minutes on that full moon night of Buddha Jayanti Purnima, almost instantly a stormy environment developed. Earlier, there were not even any clouds in the sky, and now it all started so suddenly that we did not even get a chance to collect everything indoors.

There have been many other instances in my life where the Malhar has shown its power.

Can I ask if there have been times when you have sung the Malhar and nothing happened?

Yes, that too has happened. As I said, music has power in it, but ultimately there is a larger power behind it that makes things happen.

You started as a tabla player. What influenced you to become a vocalist?

I was born in a vocalist family. I am the fourth generation in our family of vocalists. But early on, I was good at tabla. From age seven to 14, I played tabla. I used to teach at the Saraswati Music School, which was run by Bansilal [Kapoor], a student of my baday bhaisaab (elder brother), Pandit Maniram Ji, who was also my guru. I was a 14-year-old teaching older kids, as well as those in their twenties.

Then in Lahore, where we were at the time, a famous artist, Pandit Kumar Gandharva, came for his radio concert. He asked my brother if he could borrow me for the tabla accompaniment. When I performed with him, I was really taken by the power of this man’s singing. Here’s a man, I thought, who has so much shakti that he could sing the raag Bhimpalas and use the dhaivat (the Dha) in such an effective way without taking any liberties with the raga. I was so overjoyed with that experience. But the very next day, one gentleman came to see my brother and started criticizing the previous evening’s performance of Pt. Gandharva. His name was Pt. Amarnath Chawla, and when he started criticizing, I was taken aback and protested, saying he should be praised and not criticized for experimenting with dhaivat without taking liberties with the raga. To this, Chawla replied, “Jasraj, you just beat on dead leather!” implying that I was just a tabla player—how should I know about singing? I was so hurt!

So what gave you the confidence to know that the raga was indeed sung beautifully and not incorrectly? After all, you were not trained in vocals.

Oh, but don’t forget I came from a long lineage of vocalists! Vocals were in my blood. My dad, my granddad, my elder brother, they were all amongst the best of the times. Sangeet was inside me.]

Soon after this hurtful experience, I was to perform with my brother for a big Janmaashtami concert. When I went to check on the arrangements for the stage, I didn’t see a place for the tabla player. When I asked, they pointed to the valley on the backside of the stage as the place for the harmonium and tabla players. I insisted that the musicians are always seated along with the singer. The stagehand replied, “What audacity to think that you guys can sit with the raagi (singer)!” I was young and emotional, and this hurt to no end. I refused to perform, and sat outside and cried. They called another tabla player from the school to fill in for me. The next morning baday bhaisaab woke me up at 4 o’clock saying he was going to start my training in singing. Since I was still very much in agony, I protested that just because I was a tabla player all along, he did not care to teach me singing, but now just to stop my crying, he may teach me for a day. Only when I was convinced he had noticed my newfound love for vocals did I agree. And that’s how I became a vocalist from a tabla player.

But if those times were like today, when tabla players are seen with so much respect, then maybe you would be talking to tabla master Pandit Jasraj.

That would have been a huge loss to the vocal world.

How do you know it is not a huge loss to the tabla world? I was a very good tabla player.

Do you appreciate and enjoy opera singing? Can you comment on Luciano Pavarotti’s famed tone and range, and his reputation as the “King of high C’s”?

In his realm, he was a mighty outstanding artist (“bahut zabardast kalakar”). I don’t know much about opera, but no doubt, he was a wonderful musician. And his breath control was marvelous.

Opera seems to have a certain universality about it. When one listens to opera, even without understanding a word, it is possible to get swayed by its spell. Indian classical, on the other end, seems to lack such universality. Like an acquired taste, it seems initially inaccessible to all but those who are familiar to it. Please comment.

In the olden days, musicians in our lands were very much respected and encouraged by the rulers, the government. Till the time of Tansen (one of the navratnas—nine jewels—of the court of Emperor Akbar) this was so. Akbar was fully behind Tansen and Indian music was at its peak. After that, we don’t know where [this regard for music] vanished in India. Western governments, on the other hand, have always given music a high regard and support. So how we see any music today has a lot to do with how it has been encouraged.

Now about acquired taste, this is not coffee! If you just sit with silence and reverence, you will see any good music will explode within you. Have you noticed the silence and respect at an opera concert? In contrast, our audiences, even at classical concerts are casual and carefree. When one person talks, it breaks the link for four around him. Even when they are appreciating it with “wah, wah,” they don’t realize it breaks our concentration; it doesn’t let us enter our zone. It’s a different thing that we are all now used to such an [unruly] audience.

Otherwise Indian music is one with unmatched spiritual sanctity. To the untrained ear, fed on pop music, even opera may sound like torture. Indian music is both spiritual and scientific. It is India’s priceless gem. Now, I will grant that symphony music—Beethoven, Mozart—is similarly unmatched in the world. India has no answer for it. But vocals is a whole different thing. Indian vocals can stand up to any in the world.

We recently saw the massive worldwide adoration for Michael Jackson at the time of his demise. His music seems like a polar opposite of your deeply classical style. Do you consider such pop music as having any place in your world?

His music? I would rather not say anything—the man is just recently deceased.

For your leisurely enjoyment, what music do you like to listen to? Which are your favorite artists?

All Bhartiya (Indian) music. India is a very lucky country that we have not one but two very large schools of music—Hindustani and Carnatic. They are both very scientific, scriptural, and accomplished. [Favorite artists] are Subbulakshmi, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saab, Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, Ustaad Amir Khan Saab.

How about contemporary musicians such as A. R. Rahman?

It is not my type of music, but he is a very good musician, no doubt.

Why are new ragas not created?

Raag is a very mighty [thing]. It has its principles, laws, and barriers. When you respect those barriers, new ragas are not possible. Our shastriya sangeet (classical music) is so complete that there is no room. That’s because our forebears made sure that its foundations are so thoroughly complete. Let’s say if I start out wanting to make a new raga, then either it will be contained in the Carnatic traditions, or it will be in our traditions, or the only other possibility is to break the barriers. And by breaking barriers you can’t make a raga.

You don’t find this to be rigid? What about expressing your creativity?

Listen, there is no rigidity! The way I sing a [raga] Darbari will be different from another, and another, and another. Each and every artist sings a Darbari in his own uniqueness?and yet it remains a Darbari. Such a concept does not even exist in Western music. Once Beethoven composed something, that’s it. He will sing it the same, and another and another—all of them are bound by the composition. The composition does not allow for moods or personal touches. On the other hand, if your wife showers all her love on you, gives you a big smile and makes chai and things for you, the Darbari you will sing will become a romantic Darbari. But if you have fought with her, the Darbari you will sing will become a tense one. There is so much versatility in ragas that not only can it change from person to person, but also from mood to mood—and yet the knowledgeable will be able to pinpoint it as the same raga no matter who is singing it and in what mood.

What do you think of the spate of TV shows surrounding pop singing? It seems like these “talent search” type competitions are gaining a lot of following, with so much drama built in.

These are trends. See, in our country there is this thing called “fusion” that has become so huge. If I just say I am going to do a fusion concert with so and so, then the whole country will show up! It’s just something that’s stuck in people’s mind, “Fusion! Fusion!” And all it is doing is creating confusion. Now, these TV shows about pop music, film music, all these “Star Voice of India”—they end up benefiting us a lot. How so? Well, our audience [for classical music] has multiplied fivefold due to these kinds of shows. When anyone starts on the A, B, C, D path, there is always the desire to reach Z. Now we are already sitting on Z!

Many Americans have started learning Indian classical music, especially instrumental music on the sitar, sarod, and tabla. Do you think Indian classical vocal music can also appeal to them? How would you encourage Americans to learn Indian classical vocal music?

The first thing is that their voice culture is very different. Most [​Westerners] are not grown up to understand vocal music. In opera you need three tenors to reach all octaves. But our training makes one man capable of the full range. For singing, first of all you need the [proper] voice. It is said in our traditions that your ears should have eyes: Karnachakshu. “Karna” means ears, “chakshu” means eyes. When your ears develop eyes, only then your throat can sing the Sa. That is why singing can be the most difficult thing.

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