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Jagjit Singh - King of Ghazal-Pop

Obituary by Yogendra
(November 2011)

Since the 1980s, the singer Jagjit Singh was considered the uncrowned "King of Ghazal" by many, because of his velvety voice, his unconventional, innovative style, his enormous popularity and his impressive commercial success. In September, he suffered a massive stroke and was in a coma in a hospital in Mumbai. On October 10th, he passed away, aged 70.

Jagjit Singh was born in Rajasthan in 1941, the son of a civil servant, in a Sikh family. He first studied history in Haryana and went to Mumbai in 1961 to make a career as a singer. His breakthrough came in 1976 with his first album "The Unforgettables". It was produced together with his wife Chitra, a Bengali singer, with whom he recorded numerous other albums later on. A duet between man and woman was a sensational innovation at the time and made the two well-known stars almost instantly. Their unconventional approach, play with emotions and easily accessible music transformed ghazal from an elite semi-classical art form to upscale pop music for everyone. The great popularity of his style enabled Jagjit Singh to tour worldwide, publish more than 80 albums and contribute to numerous successful Bollywood movie soundtracks. In 2003 he received the Padma Bhushan, India's third highest civilian medal, for his contributions to culture and music.

The form of the ghazal has probably first been developed in Arabic. It is essential that the first two half verses rhyme and that each and every second following half verse also ends with the same rhyme. Most important topic is the pain of love as well as the beauty of love, despite this pain. The great Persian poets Rumi, Saadi and Hafiz refined the ghazal into a highly complex system of form and meaningingful connotations since the 13th century. The original erotic content of the texts was filled with mystical and religious symbolism, so that secular eroticism and mystical love of God flowed seamlessly into one another.

In South Asia, the ghazal was mainly cultivated in Urdu and became a tradition of scillfully performed singing, based closely on the rules of raga and tala of classical North Indian music. Being a subtly refined courtly art, the presentation and enjoyment of ghazals demanded both high literary culture and a deep musical understanding. Begum Akhtar (1914 - 1974) was an outstanding representative of this tradition in the 20th Century. After independence and partition of the subcontinent ghazal flourished mainly in Pakistan. The leading performers were Mehdi Hassan (born 1927) and Ghulam Ali (born 1940). Their interpretations of ghazal were connected to the classical raga tradition and appealed mainly to a more educated audience.

Jagjit Singh's special achievement was to leave the established ghazal conventions behind and practically reinvent the genre anew. As a composer, he reduced the musical complexity and put the emphasis on understandable content. He preferred texts, which are meaningful to the common man on the street. In the duets with his wife Chitra, he made the heartbreaking pain and the bitter-sweet longing of unrequited love immediately palpable for everyone. And the introduction of simple harmonies and the guitar as an extra accompaniment (in addition to tabla and harmonium) underlined the emotional content of his ghazals even further at another level. At the same time he made use of cutting edge technology whenever it suited his purpose. E.g. he was one of the first Indian musician ever to work with multi-track recordings in the 1980s. With his flattering velvety voice, his plain lyrics and his suggestive emotional arrangements, Jagjit Singh reached hitherto unheard of sales figures and set a new standard for every success-oriented ghazal singer. For his fans, he is therefore the undisputed king of ghazal. Indian classical music lovers, however, will more likely remember him as the inventor of ghazal-pop.