Music was not a part of [Jagjit Singh’s household’s] daily life, at least not in the way it is today. ‘Radios were a luxury not everyone could afford,’ Jagjit Singh had said of his early years. ‘World War II was on, and I remember going for walks with my father to the park so that we could overhear the news on the radio from a nearby house.’
His first encounter with music must have been at the singing of the Gurbani. The ragas that accompanied the sacred words of the Gurus would have become familiar by repetition. Amar Singh (Jagjit Singh’s father) loved the sound of music, and decided that at least some of his children should learn it formally, for their own understanding of its intricacies and for the joys music could bring.
He chose Jagjit. The boy seemed to have a natural love for music. When the family moved to Sri Ganganagar, where Amar Singh originally hailed from, circumstances seemed to have changed for the better. Among the trappings of an easier life was the presence of a radio, as much to keep abreast of the news as to provide relief from the monotony of daily chores.
Jagjit, especially, was entranced by the songs that played on the radio from the films of the time. The twelve-year-old would listen intently and sing as he went about his share of household jobs, which included carrying water from the well, buying vegetables, or running errands.
His singing did not go unnoticed. It led to his first formal lesson. To his delight, he was taken to the blind singer, Pandit Chhaganlal Sharma, to learn classical music.
Jagjit proved a good pupil, listening with a keen ear, dedicating himself to absorbing all that his teacher taught him. Soon enough, there was little else he could learn from the Pandit. Once he had mastered the basics, Jagjit was taken to Ustad Jamal Khan, who would take the lessons forward, teaching him thumri and khayal. He could not have asked for a teacher with a more impressive lineage, for the Ustad claimed descent from the legendary Tansen himself.
Jagjit learnt from the venerable Ustad Jamal Khan of the Senia gharana what he treasured as his favourite bandishes. The Ustad also taught him dhrupads in Malkauns and Bilaskhani Todi. Jagjit did not realize the value of these lessons until later, when they helped him along in his musical journey.
Film songs and classical ragas, Mohammad Rafi’s songs, the Gurbani with its deep piousness—these would form the alphabet of Jagjit’s musical vocabulary. His love for music now ran deep, pulling him to listen, whenever he got the chance, to
eminent singers at concerts not just in his town but wherever there was a performance nearby. Sometimes he would get so immersed in a song, or in listening to the music playing somewhere, that he would forget the errand he had been sent on, and return only when the spell released him, often to face his father’s anger.
He was an obedient boy though, and never answered back, or even tried to explain himself. But the habit of drifting away into his musical world never left him.
Slowly, his voice too found itself, giving him a certain reputation as a singer of some accomplishment. Little wonder then, that in the processions that wound their way through the streets, and in the Gurdwara, Jagjit’s voice would often be chosen to lead one of the groups that sang the shabads.
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