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Music: Twin Peaks of an Artist

March 2007
Music: Twin Peaks of an Artist

He has managed to alternate smoothly between two of the most popular — and very different — genres of Indian music throughout his career. And he continues to be successful in both.

Anup Jalota is known not only for the devotional fervor that he brings to Bhajans, but also for the soulfulness that is the hallmark of his Ghazals.

Jalota recently performed in Atlanta's Global Mall during a concert organized by the Robin Raina Foundation. The elegantly presented concert showed that he still hasn't lost his touch. The audience was a reflection of his following.

"Wherever I go I am reminded of a mini India – every state here has an India ? And this is the magic of the U.S.," Jalota said. "I was just here a couple of months ago in Atlanta with Talat Aziz and Ghulam Ali (also a RRF presentation) and feels like I have just traveled back from Mumbai to Pune. I feel thrilled today because the event is so well organized. Such shows are done few and far between, and they radiate a passion and interest for the music. There is so much love offered to me that I seldom feel like I have left home, left India."

Jalota still remembers one of his first visits to America in 1977 when he was an upcoming artist. There were few who knew him or his music and not many who showed up for his shows. But times have changed and so has Jalota's connection with the diaspora in the United States. "I have the audience coming back to my concerts though they may have just heard me a few months ago, like today in Atlanta. It feels great to know that the audiences have placed my music on such a pedestal that people keep coming back for more."

Jalota has a connection with the community not just as a performer, but as a teacher. I still remember when our extended family lived in one building and Anup Jalota would visit my cousins to train them in music.

When I remind him of those times, he adds, "My accompanying musicians are U.S. residents. Their parents provided the backup for my father and so this relationship continues in the second generation."

But Jalota makes a distinction between audiences in India and here. "The audiences here need their artist. If the person they have been listening to comes here to perform, they are happy just seeing the performer ‘live.' Like when I come to a show, about 50 percent of the task is accomplished by just getting on the stage."

Having sung in six languages, recorded more than 1,200 Bhajans, Ghazals and Geets, Jalota knows the pulse of the listeners. And some of what he knows is sobering for Ghazal lovers. He thinks that Ghazal singing is no longer commercially viable for artists, especially those who are just starting off. has performed over 4000 live concerts spread over 100 cities on all five continents and in a little over twenty-four years has released more than 150 albums.

"Ghazals are waning in popularity," he said. "If one is an established performer like Ghulam Ali, Pankaj Udhas or myself, then people will come to listen. But if there is a new artist, they do not wish to experiment. If a new artist wishes to stick with singing Gahzals for a living then he or she is making a mistake. One should make a career as a singer who sings everything."

He gives an example of his son, 11-year-old Aryaman. "Though he is learning music, he would not prefer to go to a Ghazal concert on his own – he would much rather listen to a pop show or watch Sonu Nigam or a fusion show, but not Ghazals."

His disillusionment with changing audience tastes cannot overshadow the success he has found in these two semiclassical genres. In 1988, he surpassed Elvis Presley's record of 45 gold and platinum discs with 58 discs of his own. Doing in five years what had taken the American legend 27 years to achieve. And his authority as semiclassical artist is unquestioned.

It probably comes from working on very different musical traditions. One is based on devotional poems, a certain set of ragas and different religious roots. The other is based on everyday emotions, Urdu poetry that stresses on lyrical value and mood-based ragas.

So how does he manage to switch musical gears with such ease? That is probably something he is asked by everyone.

"I feel like these things developed over time very slowly," Jalota said. "This was not an overnight deal where I thought I want to sing Bhajans and I began. I started performing shows and the feedback received encouraged me further. Bhajan singing was bringing immense satisfaction to me so it started growing on me first before my singing could grow on the listeners. It has now reached such a crescendo that every two months I record a Bhajan album."

His inspiration for singing Bhajans comes from a universal need for spiritual satisfaction, which is not constrained by a specific religion. Though most of his devotional songs are Bhajans, a mostly Hindu tradition, Jalota is at ease when he sings the Shabad for Guru Nanak, Jain devotional songs and the Muslim spiritual Natia Kalam.

"After all – all roads lead to the Supreme so what difference does it make what path you choose?" he said. "Star Plus (Indian satellite channel) used to run a TV program featuring me called ‘Dharm aur hum' in which I used to sing all the above stated devotional renditions – the program lasted for a full five years. My focused effort is towards presenting unity in religion through my music and my singing, and if you say it comes across with equal passion then I have met my goal."

Ghazals, the other half of Anup Jalota the artist, may not be as commercially viable, but it is still a passion for him. Jalota continues to compose them based on contemporary Urdu shayars (poets). The reason again being trying to sustain audience interest.

"Their words are simple – people understand them easily," he said. As it is, understanding Urdu shayari in Ghazals is not easy to begin with. So why further complicate it? Raaz Ilhabadi, Kaisar Uljafrey, Betaab Lakhnavi, Rahi Kanpuri, Nida Fazli saab are amongst those that are easily understood."

And at the concert for the Robin Raina Foundation, Jalota made sure that whatever he performed was uncomplicated, yet magical, for his audience.

By Viren Mayani

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