Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The golden voice

Pandit Jasraj enthralls Kochi with a scintillating performance

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1980, Pandit Jasraj was invited to sing in front of the great philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurthi at Rishi Valley at Madanapalle, Andhra Pradesh. Just before the concert, one of Krishnamurti's associates, Achyut Patwardhan, told Jasraj that the philosopher had listened for only an hour at a performance by sitarist Ravi Shankar, 50 minutes for the late singer M.S. Subbalakshmi and for other artistes, he would spend just half an hour. "So, please restrict your singing to just one hour," said Patwardhan.

The concert began at 4 p.m. "At 4.50 p.m. I stopped," says Jasraj, 77. "I did not want Krishnamurti to break my heart by walking out in the middle of my singing. But he said, 'Please go on singing.'" Jasraj sang till 5.20 p.m. The 85-year old Krishnamuthi looked at his watch and said, "Now is the time for my evening walk. But you should carry on."

Thereafter, there was a break for coffee. At 5.40 p.m. Jasraj began another session. Ten minutes later, there was a nudge from the harmonium player. When Jasraj looked towards the audience, he could see Krishanmurthi standing at the far end, his arm around a pillar.

"I sang for one hour," says Jasraj. "Then Krishnamurti came and sat in front of me and said, 'Sing something in Sanskrit.' I thought, 'Now, I have got him.' So, I began Raag Darbari and followed that with other ragas. In the end, I sang till 8.40 p.m. After the concert, when I bowed to touch his feet, he said, ‘No, your place is here,’ and pointed at his heart and hugged me."

Jasraj breaks into a child-like smile and says, "This was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life." He looks relaxed, wrapped in a brown shawl and white slippers, sitting on a sofa in the air-conditioned suite of the Travancore Court. The maestro is in town as the main attraction for the Idea Jalsa concert being held under the aegis of the Indian Music Academy.

The concert is to take place the next evening, so does he feel nervous, even though he has done hundreds of concerts in his career?

"Every concert is an examination," he says. "So, I do feel nervous. We musicians always say we are making a hawa mahal. That is, we are constructing a building in the air. So, we don't know how the audience will react on any given day."

Is audience reaction so important?

"I am, sometimes, confused by the audience reaction," he says. "Some days, when I feel I have sung well, somebody will come up and say, "Panditji, what happened to you today?" Sometimes, when I have not sung well, a man will have tears in his eyes, and say, 'Panditji, you took us to another level.' So, it is a mystery to me.”

The next evening, at the TDM hall, there is a standing ovation as he arrives on the stage, resplendent in a saffron kurta and dhoti, a brown waist coat and shawl, gold necklaces around his neck, and multi-coloured rings on nearly every finger. All this is topped by flowing white hair and a sweet smile. He is accompanied by singers Ankita Joshi and Madhuvanti Narayan and on the tabla by Vijay Ghate and Mukund Petkar on the harmonium.

Earlier, Carnatic vocalist, Abhishek Raghuraman, 22, the grandson of mridangam master, Palghat R. Raghu, had stunned the audience with some superlative singing. Jasraj raises the lad’s arm and says, “People ask me what is the future of classical music and this is my answer: ‘Here he is’.”

Soon, it is Jasraj’s turn. He takes a while to warm up, with the Miya Malhar raga, but once he hits his stride, with the Mishra Kaphi raga, the power of the voice hits you in the chest, slices through flesh and bone, and penetrates the soul. "Whenever I sing, I feel that I am not there," he says. "Something is coming through me, but I don't know what it is."

Although he takes frequent sips of water, and his body trembles, as he takes the high notes, the concert is a success. And right from the first note, there is a look of awe and rapt attention on the part of the other singers and the accompanists and, of course, the audience at this foremost proponent of the Mewati gharana.

Born in Hissar, Haryana, to a musical family, Jasraj’s father died when he was three years old. He received his singing training from his elder brother, Pandit Maniramji. To earn a livelihood, Maniramji took Jasraj as a tabla player for various recitals. But at 14, unhappy over the treatment of an accompanying artist, Jasraj left to fulfill his dream of becoming a singer. Today, he is regarded as a legend, having had one of the most glorious careers in Indian classical music. In 1999, Jasraj won the country’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, apart from numerous other awards.

Back at the TDM hall, Durga Jasraj gives an example of the power of her father's singing. They had gone to Pakistan, on the invitation of the government, to give a performance. During the show, Jasraj sang the ‘Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya’ bhajan and the people stood up and shouted, "Allah exists!"

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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