Doyen of Hindustani classical music (1930 – 2020)

Pandit Jasraj was a legendary classical vocalist, belonging to the Mewati gharana. His legacy of 75 years includes memorable performances of Hindustani classical and semi-classical vocal music, classical and devotional music, albums and film soundtracks, innovations in various genres.

Born in a musical middle class Brahmin family in Haryana, he was the youngest of three sons. His father, Pandit Motiram who initiated him into music died when Jasraj was only three. His elder brother, Pandit Pratap Narayan taught him to play the tabla and, when barely seven, he was known as an able accompanist in the classical circuit. At 14 however, he renounced the tabla, and began training as a classical vocalist, doing riyaaz close to 14 hours daily, initially with Pandit Maniram, his eldest brother, and later with Jaiwant Singh Waghela, a vocalist and beenkar, and Gulam Qadir Khan of Mewati gharana, as also under Swami Vallabhdas Damulji of the Agra gharana, but he considered vocalist Begum Akhtar as his inspiration.

The family then shifted in 1946 to Calcutta, a hub of immense artistic activity where Jasraj, beginning as a classical music artiste on radio for several years, later became a stage performer. In 1952, the 22-year-old performed his first stage concert as a vocalist in the court of King Tribhuvan Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal in Kathmandu and was stunned when the King rewarded him 5,000 mohurs!

In 1962, Pt. Jasraj married Madhura, the daughter of film director V. Shantaram and later settled in Mumbai in 1963, and continued on for the next 50-plus years to a prolific international performing, recording and teaching career. Pt. Jasraj was known for his unconventional mixing of khayal with elements of bhakti rasa, employing harkats and murkis that were traditionally used in light classical music, adding elements of lighter styles, including the thumri.

He popularised semi-classical musical styles like Haveli Sangeet, a form of temple devotional music dedicated to the Lord Krishna. He also created a unique form of jugalbandi called Jasrangi,  in which a male and a female singer sing different ragas in their respective scales to merge their individual displays into one unified performance. His concerts were like seeing a force of nature in action, awe inspiring and mesmerizing. He had a unique voice that was sweet and pleasant to the ears.

He went on to sing classical and semi-classical compositions for film soundtracks, such as the song, Vandana Karo, composed in raag Ahir Bhairav by composer Vasant Desai, for the film Ladki Sahyadri Ki (1966); a duet with vocalist Bhimsen Joshi for the soundtrack of the film Birbal My Brother (1975), and a ballad, Vaada Tumse Hai Vaada for a horror film titled 1920 (2008) directed by Vikram Bhatt. His rendition of raag Ahir Bhairav was used in Ang Lee’s global hit of 2012, Life Of Pi.

Pt. Jasraj established schools for Indian classical music in Mumbai, Kerala and also in the US and Canada. He would spend six months of each year abroad at either his home in New Jersey, teaching or touring. At age 90, he was perhaps the sole vocalist of his generation who continued to teach his students with a remarkably robust, age-defying voice over Skype and Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was the recipient of the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Maharashtra Gaurav Puraskar and Marwar Sangeet Ratna, along with several lifetime achievement awards. A minor planet has been named after him by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

He passed away in New Jersey on 7 August 2020, following a cardiac arrest. His body repatriated to Mumbai, was cremated with state honors, including a 21-gun salute. He is survived by his wife Madhura, his son, Shaarang Dev Pandit, daughter Durga Jasraj, both musicians. Panditji has moved on to the next dimension, but his music will live on.

A. Radhakrishnan

A. Radhakrishnan is a Pune based freelance writer, poet and short story writer.