Music was worship for Pandit Jasraj

Shriya Mohan | Updated on August 20, 2020

Still listening: Despite his expertise in pure classical music, he had a natural inclination for chants and bhajans that culminated in euphoric frenzy   -  THE HINDU

Pandit Jasraj’s divine fervour moved gods and mortals

* What set him apart was really the power of his divine bhakti, which was the fulcrum of his music. It transmitted itself into the hearts of those who absorbed its stirring power.

It was particularly sultry that night. Pandit Jasraj took the stage in the open-air setting, and started to sing the opening notes of raag Dhulia Malhar, among the first set of pre-monsoon Malhars, known to evoke images of dust storms and the sweet fragrance of wet earth.

As he began singing, the sky transformed, bringing in dark clouds seemingly out of nowhere. The audience watched and listened awestruck as Jasraj’s voice soared, in harmony with the thunderclaps and showers. It was as if he were Tansen.

“It is due to the invocatory element of Indian music, particularly the rendering by Pt Jasraj, that Gods and nature responded...,” then revenue secretary NK Singh — at whose New Delhi residence the Hindustani classical vocalist was singing that night of May 8, 1998 — wrote at the back of a two-CD set he later released of Jasraj’s live performance.

For Jasraj’s fans and followers the world over, his death on Monday marks the end of an epoch. It wasn’t just the 90-year-old vocalist’s decades-long mastery over Hindustani musical technique — the impeccably crafted meeds, gamakhs and murkhis he treated his listeners to — all rooted firmly in his Mewati Gharana and yet that branched out beyond. It wasn’t just that he could sing across three-and-a-half octaves without a warm up. And it wasn’t just that he trained three generations of musicians, some over Zoom from New Jersey until even a few days before his death, or that he founded classical music schools across the world from Kerala to Vancouver.

What set him apart was really the power of his divine bhakti, which was the fulcrum of his music. It transmitted itself into the hearts of those who absorbed its stirring power.

Jasraj had always worshipped Krishna and Kali. Elaborate poojas were once a part of his daily routine. In a rare interview to television journalist Karan Thapar, Jasraj, then 73, said that as a young man, he once had a dream in which he saw Lord Krishna sitting royally on a throne. He himself was there in his court, which was full of people — ranging from Lord Mountbatten to Jasraj’s own gurus, all standing with their heads bowed in respect.

Lord Krishna pointed to Jasraj and said, “Why must you offer prayers to me? Pooja is for the rest of them. Let music be your only worship. It is what reaches me the fastest.” And ever since, he told Thapar, he decided to make his voice and all the notes emanating from it an offering, a prayer.

Born in Haryana’s Hisar to a family steeped in music for four generations, Jasraj — one of three siblings — was four when he lost his father, Pandit Motiram. He and his brothers had to earn to keep the family afloat. He picked up the tabla and by the time he was a young boy, he had mastered it.

But the mistreatment of accompanists and the humiliation he was subjected to prompted him to take up vocal music. Once, at Kolkata’s Kalighat temple, he vowed that he would not cut his hair until the goddess made him an established vocalist. He let his hair grow for four straight years, until he got to sing at his first reputed concert as a young teenager.

“I have a fine tuning with god,” he had said to Thapar, moving his slender fingers as if he were tightening the pegs of the tanpura. It is the reason why, despite his prowess over classical raags, he had a natural inclination for chants and bhajans with simple repetitive phrases that began at a slow pace and ended in euphoric frenzy, transporting audiences into his realm of sublime bhakti.

His Om namo bhagawate vasudevaya, Mata kalika, Mero Allah meharbaan, Ganga stotram, Madhurashtakam and dozens of his Shiva Stuti bhajans were as popular as his masterful deliveries of raag Bhairav, Maarwa and Shankara, and the various moods of Malhar, Bhimpalasi, Darbari Kanhada, Durga and countless more. On his official website, his fans insist that his raag Nat Narayan benefits those with mental illnesses, his Gorakh Kalyan has lowered blood pressures and his Jaunpuri is the go-to cure for a headache. And Panditji, as he was lovingly called, gave every bit unto his audience, healing them with his voice.

Twenty-six years ago, Kedar Khandekar’s grandmother made Jasraj an unusual request. Kedar, 6, born with cerebral palsy, lived in New Delhi. Nothing brought more life into his eyes than Jasraj’s music. She wrote a letter to Jasraj, who lived in Mumbai, requesting him to visit them and to sing for Kedar. Nobody expected that it would come true. But a few days later, media reports testify, the doorbell rang and much to everybody’s surprise, it was Jasraj. He was in the capital for a concert. He sang for the boy and little Kedar’s eyes danced that day.

Everybody who has come in contact with the music of Jasraj has a story. When I sat down to write this article in the wee hours of the morning, I decided to play his Dhulia Malhar. It was a perfectly clear sky and I wanted to see what would happen. “Panditji, will your recording be enough to make it rain?” I asked him.

Sure enough, it started raining — a drizzle that gathered into a torrent. Jasraj, wherever he is, is still taking our song requests.

Shriya Mohan

Published on August 20, 2020

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