Saturday, July 27, 2002

The glorious sun of music
Vimla Patil

Pandit Jasraj was awarded the Padma Vibhushan this year
Pandit Jasraj was awarded the Padma Vibhushan this year

PANDIT JASRAJ, also respectfully known as Sangeet Martand or ‘the glorious sun of music’, sits with relaxed ease in his favourite chair. As he rests in a crumpled lungi and jhabba in his home, a little girl called Ankita sits by his feet, listening to every word uttered by this maestro. Ankita, barely eight years of age, is a dedicated disciple of Panditji. "She’s going to be a great singer one day," he says, patting her head. Cups of spiced tea arrive, the electronic tanpura begins its soothing drone and Panditji’s life story begins to unfold in snatches of words and notes of divine music.

Pandit Jasraj was born in Hyderabad in a family, which originated from the Mewat region of Rajasthan. "This is why we are said to belong to the Mewati gharana," he says.

Somehow, my father Pandit Motiramji and uncle Pandit Jyotiramji received training in Ghagge Khan gharana and became well-known artistes who sang in the courts of many riyasats of the British era. My father finally settled down in Hyderabad where I was born and raised. Unfortunately, before my father could start training me seriously, he died suddenly one morning at 11 am. After my father’s death, poverty entered our home with very silent but scary footsteps. We children tried to earn some money, but very often, there was not even food to eat.


My brother, Pandit Maniramji, started singing at small mehfils and earned Rs 100 to Rs 140 per month. My brother Pandit Pratap Narain began to teach me tabla. I began to accompany my elder brother for his performances and this saved us Rs 5 to Rs 7, which was the rate for a tabalchi. I also played the tabla with other musicians. I played in All India Radio programmes as well as stage concerts. Sulakshna Pandit, Vijeyeta Pandit, and music directors Jatin-Lalit are the children of Pandit Pratap Narain.

"In the mid-1940s my brother and I were invited to Lahore to teach at Saraswati Music College, run by my brother’s close friend. Many performing artistes came to Lahore those days. On one occasion, when my brother was performing in Lahore, I went to inspect the stage and found that the tabla player’s place was in the pit in front of the stage. I protested and felt humiliated to hear that tabla players were not fit to sit with the main artiste. I felt so insulted that in 1945, I gave up playing the tabla completely. Even now, I can play the tabla, but my fingers do not have the necessary strength. Had I known that tabla-playing would achieve the respect it has today, I would never have given up the art.

"I became a disciple of my brother and was trained in vocal music. I sang my first solo concert in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1952. That is where I met Ramdasji, the pakhawaj player, who was involved in the music of V.Shantaram’s film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje. He invited me to Mumbai and that is the first time I met Madhura, V.Shantaram’s daughter and now my wife. We were married 40 years ago on March 19, 1962.

"My brother and guru, Pandit Maniramji died in 1985. By then I had been awarded the Padma Shri in 1975. Our children were growing up and we were settled in Mumbai. I was awarded the Padma Bhushan in the late eighties. In my life, I have had a strange link with Nepal. My first performance was held there. I met Ramdasji, the man who introduced me to Madhura, in Nepal. I heard about my Padma Shri when I was there. I performed some of my best mehfils there and last December, as I spoke to my friend who is the erstwhile Ambassador of India to Nepal, I received the news that I was being given the Padma Vibhushan in January 2002."

Panditji’s music began to spread in India and the world like an all-pervasive fragrance. He sang in every city and taught students in the USA, UK and other countries. An auditorium in New York was named after him. Scholarships and awards were set in his name in Hyderabad, Pune and other educational centres. By the nineties, his music acquired three distinct dimensions. Chalit music or regular classical music as it is sung today was one part. Haveli music or music from the temples of Krishna and the Pushtimargi Vallabhacharya Path was the second and presentation of Sanskrit compositions in classical ragas was the third.

"My disciples and I have made scores of cassettes of devotional music, including Sanskrit compositions. These have met a hungry market because everyone is looking for a spiritual haven in today’s stressful life."

The most touching aspect of Panditji’s life concerns little Ankita, who sits by his feet, worshipping him with her eyes. "She barged into the backstage room after one of my performances,’ he reminisces, "and asked me forthrightly whether I would teach her. I asked her to return with her parents, and she came with her uncle and her baggage. ‘I’m not going any where now’, she declared. When I asked what made her think I’d keep her in my home, she simply replied that my voice made her feel that way." Ankita, a thin, small-framed girl, now lives with Panditji’s family and learns music from him every day.

Are there any unfulfilled dreams? "Even dreams which I never saw have come true," he says, in awe of his own life. "I am proud that I have given India a team of great disciples. Sanjeev Abhyankar, Ratan Mohan Sharma, Suman, Shruti and many others are wonderful artistes and they promise divine music for at least fifty more years. I’m happy for them and at 72, I look forward to doing my best in the future!"