Pandit Jasraj, who passed away in New Jersey aged 90, was one of the last great Hindustani classical vocalists. Birbal My Brother, a nondescript film released in 1975, has a jugalbandhi of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Jasraj. For years, admirers have argued over who fared better in this rare Malkauns: Joshi, the Kirana gharana legend or Jasraj, the Mewati gharana master who was eight years junior to Joshi? There is no conclusive answer because both the musicians refused to confine themselves in their gharanas and included what they liked in other schools to embellish their own personal styles.
Like Joshi, Jasraj too didn’t consider music an elite art. He added elements of the thumri to the khayal, giving the latter more malleability and making it more audience-friendly. This would have been considered blasphemous half a century ago, when the khayal was serious business and the bandish would be sung with a certain indifference. He brought haveli sangeet to the stage and introduced Jasrangi — the male-female duet in different ragas — in concert platforms. He also added bhajans to his repertoire, which enabled him to reach a wider audience.
His initial training was in tabla. But when a senior musician questioned his knowledge of music by saying he only “pounded dead flesh”, a hurt Jasraj decided to master vocal music. And master he did. The audience loved him. How could he, drawn to music in his childhood by the voice of the great Begum Akhtar, not be sensitive to his audience? He was friendly with them, never high strung and impatient, unlike many of his illustrious contemporaries. He would oblige their farmaish and sing popular pieces such as Mata Kalika and Mero Allah Meherbaan. His singing evoked the feeling of being in a place of worship, a space with a heightened level of energy, where God sat with us and listened to the music in admiration.