Jagjit Singh, Our Saint of Endless Sorrows

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Jagjit Singh, Our Saint of Endless Sorrows

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

I

spent three years of my life watching the sun set on not just the day, but also my life, as I sat by the seaside, sipping on Jim Beam mixed with water, from a plastic bottle. My lone companion on these evenings would be a coconut tree at the promenade, that stood testimony to the cacophony of my heart, crashing into a million pieces as the waves met the rocks every evening.

The only thing that made it all bearable – and impossibly cinematic – was listening to Jagjit Singh ghazals.

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Yes, I dealt with heartbreak in the most Bollywood way possible. If it weren’t for the discovery of the warmth that his music brought to my heart, I sincerely believe I would have offed myself by now. Every time, I missed the home that wasn’t, I would find myself at my favourite spot on Carter Road, drowning my sorrows in the ghazal maestro’s voice. Often, I’d drink a quarter of whisky neat from the bottle, and call it a night only after I’d cried myself to sleep with my headphones still on, wallowing in the fresh pain of my very first real break-up, my marriage.

“Baat niklegi toh bahut door talak jaayegi,” would play on loop like a lullaby and give me hope in those trying times, Jagjit’s voice fleshing out the visual details of my sorrow. It was a strange feeling – his voice pacifying my anger, slowly casting its spell on me through the evening, and then eventually calming the storm within me.

I’d discovered Jagjit Singh rather late in life, when I was about 19, thanks to my then boyfriend, now separated husband, who had gifted me his album Life Story CD 1 when we’d just started dating. A small note inside it read, “‘Yeh daulat bhi le lo’ se shuru karna, dheere dheere puri album sunne ka mann karega (Start with ‘Yeh daulat bhi le lo’; you’ll want to listen to the whole album with time.)” At first, I listened to the song only in the hope of impressing my boyfriend, but only ended up being enchanted by his voice.

By the time I was married, I knew almost every anecdote Ghazaljeet Singh (as Gulzar once referred to him) shared about his life while singing in live concerts. Watching the concerts over a quarter of Old Monk had become the only saving grace of my already doomed marriage. Among other things, I gleaned from Jagjit’s own battles, his struggle, and how broken his own life was after the death of his son.

He rewrote the way traditional ghazals were written, composed, and sung, even in his movie ventures, not once compromising on the nuances of the poetry

All of this context completely changed the way I listened to his tunes. I made mental notes of the lovely stories he told; of his first big break with the bhajan “Laagi Ram bhajan ni lagni” in a Gujarati movie called Bahurupi; how it took him almost a decade to record “Baat niklegi” when HMV gave him his first LP deal. I learnt that even in the deep throes of sadness and in the most serious situation, Jagjit retained his sense of humour.

I didn’t know it then, but I would draw on this quiet strength later in life.

As someone who had grown up on a staple diet of boy bands (not very proud of this) – white folks who spoke the same language as we aspired to – Jagjit Singh offered an insight into a familiar, yet remote world. He made ghazals and Urdu poetry accessible to those of us who had never entered a mushaira, in the form of live concerts. He rewrote the way traditional ghazals were written, composed, and sung, even in his movie ventures, not once compromising on the nuances of the poetry. Even now I wonder if there is a love song greater than “Tumko dekha toh yeh khayal aaya,” which seeks solace even in the presence of the beloved?

But the greatest beauty of listening to Jagjit Singh, as with any great artist, is that it was easy to believe that he spoke to you, and only you. You could find a song that fit only your situation.  

“Main kaise kahoon jaaneman,” a not-so-popular movie song even now reminds me of the good times, the ones that were few and far between, that my husband and I shared. I still remember the day I walked out of my marital home. Headphones plugged in, I listened to, “Unko dekhe se jo aa jaati hai munh par raunak” on my way from Worli to Colaba on loop. I dropped my bags home and rushed to the seaside because only the waves and Jagjit Singh understood me. After my first evening of crying inconsolably, with a quarter of liquid courage, I went back home with renewed energy. On days when I felt like I had reached the point of no return, I listened to Jagjit give soul to Ghalib’s words in “Dil hi toh hai na sang-o-khisht”.

My heartache found new meaning and I reached out to myself in ways I never knew I could. If I were to compartmentalise my heart into different rooms, all the vacuum left behind by my last heartbreak would probably be filled by Jagjit Singh’s haunting voice. The voice that assured you, even when it broke your heart, that everything would be alright.

I moved on. I lit the pyre of my relationship. But Jagjit Singh still stays with me.

Break your heart once and let Jagjit Singh’s voice take over – it’s worth it.

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