Jagjit Singh is unique among ghazal singers, indeed a Shakespeare among them. I have written this sentence in the present tense for such a man never dies. He understood the value of words in all their dimensions; their musical use, their connotative sense, and finer nuances. He knew to what extent a word could be stretched or bent without allowing it jar or get distorted.
He could feel the poetry of the lines someone else wrote and transform it into soul-wrenching music that seemed to trickle out of his own suffering. The ghazal is an art form that puts the melancholic, the lost, and the defeated above most other states of being. His voice was always expressive of these states but sometimes he would surprise his audience with a joke in the middle of his sad renderings. His renderings showed how closely tears and laughter are aligned. This is true of some masters like Shakespeare who created for performances that needed both the tear and the laughter to keep every kind of play-goer going. Jagjit Singh was a performer par excellence.
Singh was unusual, as the masters, generally are. In him was a masculine voice that could represent the dejected romantic male but it could mellow down to scintillate a woman’s heart. His voice was not caged in gender even though it voiced the feeling of the male who could give up his life for a smile or a look. His ghazals have the power to haunt with a harmoniously-disturbing nostalgia. If there was ever a meeting point of dejection and melody, it was here. The pain that follows rejection in love is rarely better strewn in singing than in the voice of Jagjit Singh.
What Jagjit did only very few can do. He brought together tradition and modernity, East and West, hope and despair balancing them both beautifully. There have been great ghazal singers like Begham Akhtar, Ghulam Ali, and Mehendi Hassan but these singers remained cordoned off in tradition and therefore didn’t reach out to audiences as large as Jagjit did. As his name suggests, he was a winner of the world. He had the boldness to go beyond the tradition that the ghazal form demands.
I cannot end this piece without mentioning the immense courage this man possessed. There are several great singers but few who can manage to wrench an audience with their voices almost anywhere in the world. There are few, like him, who don’t only sing brilliantly but take their troupes along and get respect for them as well. How many South Asian singers can get the response he got in London, New York, and Sydney? He was a singer, organizer, lover of poetry, appreciator of poetry. He was that star that comes once after several generations and is to remain in the galaxy of the masters forever. In him the plaintive, the nostalgic, and thought-provoking blended as if they were naturally allied.