Pandit Jasraj – The Life and Times

Imagine Mia Tansen singing in the court of Akbar, the raga Mia ki Malhar and suddenly it starts raining on a sweltering hot Delhi evening. This invoking of rains by the sheer power of music, is one of the most famous legends of North Indian classical music. Have we ever doubted the veracity of this legend? Do such legends stand ground in this 21st century world of reasons? Well, I am not sure about Mia Tansen, but recently I came to know about such legends involving another legendary singer, Pandit Jasraj.

In the year 1996, it was an early morning concert on the grounds of Sankat Mochan Temple, Varanasi. Panditji was immersed in the serene morning raga of Todi, which evokes a rasa or emotion of mourning that soothes the deer deep inside a forest. Out of nowhere, a deer came up to the stage and decided to listen to Panditji’s Todi till the end! Another legend is also associated with Panditji. It was the summer of 1998; he was singing at an outdoor gathering at the house of a senior bureaucrat in Delhi. Performing for more than two hours, Panditji decided to sing Dhulia Malhar raga, the one which evokes the emotion of onset of monsoon, when the air gets filled with fine dust. In the words of his daughter, Durga Jasraj, who was accompanying him on the tanpura, “As he sang, the climate began to visibly change. It got so windy that the backdrop and marigold garlands hung around were ripped off and sent flying. The dust storm turned into a downpour, and all the dignitaries ran for cover. When it wouldn’t subside, the concert was shifted to a room inside”.

These incidents or coincident did happen, but their interpretation is up to us. The devotees will term it as the act of divinity while others may term as act of destiny. But Panditji was such a man who could touch divinity through his voice. We lost this man at the age of 90 in this nightmarish year of 2020.

In the year 1930, Jasraj was born in the small village of Pili Mandori, in Hisar district of Haryana to Pandit Motiram and Krishna Bai. His family was all about classical music, his father, Pandit Motiram was a classical singer himself, his eldest brother Pandit Maniram was a vocalist, his elder brother Pandit Pratap Narayan was an accomplished tabla player and was the father of music composer duo Jatin-Lalit, singer actress Sulakshana Pandit and actress Vijeta Pandit.

Never was Jasraj interested in textual learning imparted in schools. Jasraj and music found each other at a very tender age of his. It was a roadside tea shop, which used to play songs of the legendary Begum Akhtar ji on an old gramophone. And, Jasraj used to loiter around the shop just to hear her voice, and in those moments, he decided that he would sing for the rest of his life. His formal training started under the tutelage of Pandit Maniram, his eldest brother in vocals, while his Tabla lessons began under his elder brother, Pandit Pratap Narayan, at the age of 7. He used to accompany Pandit Pratap Narayan in concerts but reluctant to be the accompanying artiste for life, he gave up on Tabla and dedicated himself wholeheartedly to singing. Thus, started a journey of one-pointed devotion which took him from Jasraj to Surraj. His devotion for his craft brought him to Sanand, where he was initiated into the Mewati gharana of Indian Classical music. Here two persons were influential in shaping his musical journey. Maharaj Jayant Singh Vaghela, the Thakur Sahib of Sanand, himself a vocalist and beenkar (beena player) patronised him and also taught him many intricacies of Hindustani classical music, and there was Ustad Ghulam Kadr Khan, who formally trained him in the Mewati gharana of Hindustani Classical music. Swami Vallabhdas Damulji of Agra gharana also contributed to his musical journey. Those were his days of craziness, he was practicing for close to 14 hours a day, going places. His destiny took him to the then classical music hub of the country, Calcutta in 1946. He started performing for the All India Radio. At the age of 22, he gave his first public performance at a musical conference in Nepal. The king of Nepal, Tribhuvan Bir Vikram Shah felicitated him with 5000 mohurs and his place as a classical vocal artiste was sealed.

As Jasraj gave himself to music, so did music. It was his love for music which gave him the woman whom he loved the most in life, his wife. In 1954, he was still struggling to make ends meet as a performer in All India Radio, Kolkata and he went to Mumbai for performing at a classical music concert where he first met Madhura Shantaram, a trained classical music singer herself and the daughter of the legendary director, V Shantaram. Madhura used to come back stage and appreciate his music. As she used to describe how she liked the finer intricacies of Jasraj’s music, she used to twirl her locks of hair in between her fingers. As destiny would have it, those twirling ended up in getting their fate twirled up for the rest of their lives in a partnership of equals, with the blessings of two children, Shaarang Dev Pandit and Durga Jasraj.

Jasraj was a singer who could touch divinity with his voice. His tryst with divinity began early, with a miracle. His guru and eldest brother, Pandit Maniram lost his voice, and Maharaj Jayant Singh Vaghela upon knowing this, made his brother sing Raga Desha at the Kali temple and promised that his voice would return. And you guessed it right, it did return as if Pandit Maniram never lost his voice! Jasraj, in spite of being strongly rooted in Mewati gharana of singing, started infusing devotional music with elements of Bhakti in his classical renditions. The well-established devotional genre of Haveli sangeet got a fresh lease of life with the touch of his voice. Jasraj created a novel form of jugalbandi called Jasrangi that is styled on the ancient system of moorchhana, between a male and a female vocalist, who each sing different ragas at the same time. His voice could reach three distinct octaves and resembled closest to divinity as one could feel.

A human being is remembered not in achievements but in the number of lives touched and transformed. Apart from being a singer of the highest calibre, he was a teacher and Guru to the truest sense of the term. With schools of Indian Classical Music established at various cities of the world, he taught and transformed so many. Some of his notable students are Saptarshi Chakraborty, Sanjeev Abhyankar, violinist Kala Ramnath, Sandeep Ranade, shehnai player Lokesh Anand, Tripti Mukherjee, Suman Ghosh, flautist Shashank Subramanyam, Anuradha Paudwal, Sadhana Sargam, and Ramesh Narayan. He was also the founder of schools for Indian classical music in Atlanta, Tampa, Vancouver, Toronto, New York, New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Mumbai, and Kerala. Jasraj would spend six months of each year in the United States and Canada at either his home in New Jersey, teaching, or touring. At age 90, he was teaching some of his international students through Skype.

Jasraj’s fertile voice bloomed into mellifluous songs and whose recognition came in the form of awards galore. Among the most notable of his awards are Padma Shri, Sangeet Natak Akademi awards, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and numerous others. But perhaps the most interesting award or recognition, which maybe no musician can lay claim to, is naming of Asteroid 300128 as Pandit Jasraj by astronomer at Mount Lemmon Survey in 2006. It literally and figuratively stands testimony to his out of the world talents.

What are we humans but mere strings in the fabric of infinite space-time! There are but a few strings which can resonate in the rhythm of the divine, of the eternal. Pandit Jasraj was one such string in the space-time fabric. To him music was a river which delivered him to the infinite ocean of divinity, and he was like a captain of the boat which also took all its listeners together for a tour of the divine. The captain of this boat to divinity got immersed in the ocean forever leaving back for us the vibrations he created for, resonating in the numerous songs recorded. The journey from 28th of January 1930 to 17th of August 2020 came to a full circle, turning Jasraj into Surraj!

-Aishik Bhattacharya (Opinion Writer at Indian Folk and Research Scholar at IACS, Kolkata)

Picture Credits:


-Pandit Jasraj, Wikipedia

-Pandit Jasraj, Master Indian Vocalist, Is Dead at 90, The New York Times

-The master’s voice, Harmony celebrate age

-Pandit Jasraj: tributes paid to ‘incomparable genius’ of Indian classical music, The Guardian

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