Pandit Martand Jasraj was deeply embedded in India’s national psyche and was an inimitable part of its cultural ethos. This void is irreplaceable. In my life, even more so. I do not recall of any auspicious occasion, from my house-warming to the marriage of my son, which were not blessed by his magical voice.
He was the last of the great quartet in our classical vocal tradition comprising Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, an exponent of the Kirana Gharana; Kishori Amonkar, an exponent of the Jaipur Gharana; Girija Devi, an exponent of the Seniya and Banaras gharanas; and Pandit Jasraj, an exponent of the Mewati Gharana. Given my passion for Indian music, I was privileged to share a personal bond with all of them. However, there are some characteristics which were exclusive to him.
His magnanimity, indulgence and equanimity were unique to him. On no occasion did I find him irritated, complaining of either an inattentive audience or any transient illness. On one occasion, when I remarked about his viral fever, he jocularly answered that the presence of such distinguished music lovers and our enthusiasm had made his discomfort vanish.
Born in Hisar, Panditji traversed a long distance in his life from various traditions, imbibing the essentials of different styles of singing. I have heard some recitals of him being taught by his elder brother, Pandit Maniram, and it is amazing to hear the re-orchestration of the best guru-shishya tradition.
As an exponent of the Mewati Gharana, he sought to blend various musical styles, not confined to ghayal alone. In this sense, he had a futuristic vision. He recognised that the classical tradition, without losing its purity of form and content, must evolve. That is why, while learning from the Mewati Gharana, he improvised on his musical styles, particularly kirtan.
He also innovated the well-known Jasrangi, which involved both the female artist and himself performing collectively for wider community acceptance. After all, the Om Namo Bhagwate Vasudevaya Namaha, which he sang on many occasions, comes with a supreme sense of spirituality unique to Jasraj and which invoked instant community participation. In imbibing the classical tradition, he constantly sought to improvise and improve on it.
On a special occasion, on May 8, 1998, it was a hot and humid afternoon. He decided to sing a raga Dhulia Malhar, which he explained at length was a precursor of the rains and where the rain particles are often mixed with dust particles to produce intense dust storms preceding the rainfall.
As he continued his singing on that hot afternoon, clouds appeared from nowhere. It started drizzling, which cooled the atmosphere greatly. The magical appearance of the clouds and the rains from nowhere reminded everyone present there of the legendary Tansen. It was said that Tansen could summon the rains while singing Malhar and light up the lamps during Deepak.
Undoubtedly, Pandit Jasraj, whom we all experienced in that evening, was the 21st century Tansen in drawing legendary powers to invoke the gods and spirituality so much needed by humans.
In a sense, it is somewhat ironical that a man born in Hisar, travelling through the entire orbit of the musical traditions of India, and from Hyderabad, then to Sanand, then as the supreme national star, would have passed away in New Jersey. My only comfort in this time of grief is that he left us doing what he best loved — educating and teaching students on the great Indian cultural tradition of classical music, of which he was the noblest interpreter.
Following his calling of globalising the Indian classical music tradition, he founded schools in Atlanta, Tampa, Vancouver, Toronto, New York, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Mumbai and Kerala.
Durga Jasraj, his loving daughter, who was trained assiduously by her father, looked after him to the very end. He had greatly encouraged her in promoting the Tiranga in close cooperation with the notable poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar.
For me, this sudden shock is all the more poignant because I had often spoken to him during his stay in New Jersey and he constantly assured me of his well-being and how much he was looking forward to singing for avid music lovers after his early return to India. Alas, this will remain our unfulfilled dream.
On his passing, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi said, “The unfortunate demise of Pandit Jasraj Ji leaves a deep void in the Indian cultural sphere. Not only were his renditions outstanding, he also made a mark as an exceptional mentor to several other vocalists.”
Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with whom I worked, greatly loved and admired the music of Pandit Jasraj. He had described him as “Rasraj”, the king of rasas.
In 2019, the International Astronomical Union even named a minor planet orbiting between Mars and Jupiter as “Jasraj” after him, enchanting the Gods as part of our planetary constellation.
The great legacy of the spirituality, which Indian classical music represents, must be nurtured. Pandit Jasraj had a lasting lesson for all of us that traditions must remain contemporary and relevant to the life of a common person.
Mainstreaming Indian classical music with community participation was his lasting contribution. May the Tiranga fly high.
NK Singh is the chairperson of the 15th Finance Commission and a former Member of Parliament
The views expressed are personal