Ever since his first album The Unforgettables was released in 1976, Jagjit Singh became a soother of frayed nerves, a rebuilder of broken homes, a fallback for the jilted, and a solace for those agitated by the multiple ironies of the human condition. His compositions broke music industry records and penetrated listeners’ hearts.
Jagjit often responded to his legions of ardent fans by carving new chapters in his astonishingly productive career. When the ghazal-loving public asked for less philosophical and more romantic output, or less arcane Urdu poetry and more everyday Urdu lyrics, Jagjit heard them and moulded his oeuvre accordingly.
There are phases in which he leaned towards one type of ghazal rendition, only to move on to a new terrain with altered emphases. The Jagjit of the 1980s and the Jagjit of the last decade were radically different, not only in the ageing of his vintage voice, but also in topical choice and innovation.
Best remembered as the reviver of the ghazal from declining mass popularity, Jagjit was a believer in substance rather than form. He never hesitated to experiment with western instruments. A ghazal maestro clad in white pumps and jeans sounds incongruous. But Jagjit pulled it off with élan and dignity.
He was always a jovial Punjabi whose penchant for humour and ability to weave it into his music endeared him to even those uninitiated into Indian classical and semi-classical music. A Sikh who rose from humble origins and dazzled pundits and plebians alike, his creative interpretation of specific words and phrases came straight from the soil of Punjab. While his contribution to preserving Urdu verse is obvious, Jagjit was also a peerless exponent of Punjabi as a sweet and hummable language, not the rough-hewn tongue it is notorious for.
Jagjit epitomised values of decency and humanity. In his later compositions, he chose poetry that poured scorn on the constraints of modernity. He did expose the false morality of the 'waaiz' (preacher) and the 'sheikh' (cleric) in keeping with traditional ghazal ideology. But he also sang couplets on everyday realities of inflation and lying politicians. He pithily captured inter-personal and social dilemmas, packaging them into finished gems of music. The 'dard' (pain) and 'gham' (pathos) that sprung from his personal losses were transposed onto the wider world's travails.
Alas, there will be no more soul-tugging concerts or new albums from Jagjit Singh, but what he has left is enough. As long as the languages he beautified through music survive, he will remain literally Jagjit, the winner of the world.
Sreeram Chaulia is vice-dean, Jindal School of International Affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal