This Classical Music Legend Is Breaking the Mold by Preserving His Work
Pandit Jasraj, 90, is defying India’s oral traditions by creating a digital record of his sublime vocal compositions.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this 90-year-old legend still has the ability to surprise.
Pandit Jasraj doesn’t act like someone who’s had a minor planet named after him. The legendary 90-year-old Hindustani classical vocalist, whose namesake can be found between Mars and Jupiter — he’s the first Indian artist so honored, joining a galaxy of stalwarts like Mozart, Beethoven and Pavarotti — is open and easygoing as he shows me around his award-packed home in Mumbai.
Jasraj has awoken at a leisurely hour following a lengthy round of concerts; he still tours the world extensively. Throughout the afternoon he displays a sense of mischief, humility and simplicity born of profundity. He credits a lack of ego to his wife, Madhura, an esteemed writer and filmmaker in her own right. “One day I told her how great I am, and she replied, ‘Are you all right? Please come back to Earth!’” he laughs.
Yet in addition to the planet, a constellation and a piece of the moon, Jasraj has decided to etch his name into the history books with a move revolutionary in its simplicity: writing down what he does.
In an exclusive chat with OZY, the master musician lays the foundation for his next project. Jasgranth, spearheaded by his daughter Durga, will be the first-ever holistic compilation of an Indian classical musician’s entire body of work, including the documentation of Jasraj’s compositions and teachings. It stands out because the Indian classical music tradition is passed down orally from teacher to student, without written text or notations. “Indian classical music has been thought to be complicated,” says Durga, an artist who has performed with her father for years. “We have to make it more accessible.”
The aim of Jasgranth is to inspire the next generation of vocalists. “What is of immense value is the ways in which [such] archiving can inspire new kinds of engagement with music research and writing, not to mention their value in artistic productions,” says Lakshmi Subramanian, one of the foremost historians of the music and performing arts of 20th-century India. However, she emphasizes the importance of this archive being public and available to a variety of stakeholders so that musicians can use it for practice and scholars for research.
His spiritual understanding has brought him both fans and death threats.
Covering works spanning several languages and dialects, from Hindi and Marwari to Urdu, Arabic and Braj, the digital series will explore how they came into being, as well as explain how to learn a composition and then perform it. There will be translations of the songs too, because a lot of Western students lack understanding of their true essence.
Under his father’s tutelage, Jasraj started singing at age 4 and has more than 1,000 performances across 200 cities to his credit. Apart from singing, he also trained in the tabla, which he renounced to devote his time fully to vocals. In addition to composing and teaching classical music, he has set up numerous schools and festivals globally, and brought rare ragas (patterns of notes) and semiclassical genres such as haveli sangeet to the stage. He created the Jasrangi, a male-female duet of two different ragas intertwined with each other. He has even transcended the fourth octave in performance at the pilgrimage site of Badrinath: “I forgot which note I was on,” he remembers of the “divine” experience.
Despite his achievements, Jasraj seems to live only for music. While socializing gets tiring for him, he says, he is willing to travel to the ends of the Earth to sing. He’s a huge fan of Bollywood songs and speaks just as comfortably about Indian classical music as he does about jazz. Music is his channel to worship the divine. “You can’t reach any level [of expertise] without trusting God,” says Jasraj.
His spiritual understanding has brought him both fans and death threats: Some of his fellow Hindus don’t like him singing to the Muslim God, and some Muslims consider it sacrilegious. “I have feared for his life,” Durga says. After he finished performing his morning raga called “Mero Allah Meherbaan” (My Allah Is Kind) in Pakistan, “there was pin-drop silence for a long while,” Jasraj says. The standing ovation that followed was deafening; people ran up to him and said this is what Muslim worship is. “Music is to spread love and brotherhood,” he says. Politics are irrelevant to him, although before India’s 2019 elections, Jasraj was among 900 artists to issue a statement urging people to vote for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
And he’s always seeking to push the boundaries of classical music. Jasraj has composed in buses, while taking his kids for walks in the park or to the rhythms of a moving train, says Madhura. She then turns to him and asks playfully why he doesn’t sing “Maan Ja Mere Piya” (Give In, My Love) to her anymore. Jasraj looks at me mischievously and quips, “That was before we married. I don’t need to anymore!”
As the afternoon wears on, he recounts several milestones and experiences that have shaped his journey — the friends in Calcutta who left behind money to buy vegetables for the young couple before Jasraj made it big, the Stuttgart concert where the audience kept shouting for more even though Ravi Shankar was supposed to perform next, the performance in Mumbai after which he locked himself in his green room and sobbed copiously in a spiritual trance. “People have always protected me,” he says.
But if there’s a career he would have chosen apart from music, it would be cricket. Sports metaphors do leap up in conversation; for example, one of his favorite activities is to jam with his students, the classical way. Jasraj compares it to playing field hockey, where the give and take of notes, rhythm or words is like dribbling the ball expertly en route to a score.
We’ll never know what kind of cricketer Jasraj would have been, but he has certainly attained the transcendence every artist seeks through their life’s work — and he shows no hint of retirement, as he’s eager to sing as long as God lets him. “Now I feel no tension,” he says, “because I know I am nothing.”