Slender as a song

Oct 16, 2011, 08:06 IST | Paromita Vohra

For two years, when I was quite young, my father was posted outside the country.

For two years, when I was quite young, my father was posted outside the country. When we returned laden with cassettes of hard-to-get-in-India Western pop music, my older cousins were busy listening to two records of their own: Disco Deewane by the brother-sister duo Nazia and Zoheb Hassan and The Unforgettable by the husband-wife pair Jagjit and Chitra Singh.

Illustration/ Jishu Dev Malakar

We had grown up on stories of how our parents would listen to Begum Akhtar or Noor Jehan on Radio Pakistan if you lived somewhere near the border; or of how Biddu performed as the Lone Trojan in Bombay clubs. But by 1980, all we had was old Hindi film songs on the radio, and something called Sugam Sangeet which played a moth-balled medley of folk, ghazals and bhajans. Quite apart from the fact that all Bollywood music had going on was mard taange waala, few with aspirations to coolness would admit to listening to Hindi film music in those years anyway.

Until those two records there hadn't really been a significant contemporary music outside Hindi film music. While Nazia and Zoheb were identifiably our version of a Western pop group, Jagjit and Chitra Singh were intriguing. There were quite glamorous pictures of her with the tweezed eyebrows, tapered jeans, 1980s cap-sleeves and him, young, with the flowered shirts -- not your average image of the ghazal singer. And then, well, ghazals. Yet, somehow Jagjit and Chitra united the generations.

I was never a big Jagjit Singh fan, but it was hard to be really  immune to the tactile warmth and fluidity of his voice, the contrasting remoteness of hers. His voice brought a new quality of urbane romanticism to film songs, such as the ones he sang in Arth and Saath Saath. The best and most popular of his music -- Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho, Pyaar mujhse jo kiya tumne to kya paoogi, Baat niklegi to phir door talak jayegi -- evoked an intent and contemporary Indian romance that we hadn't heard since the music of Navketan films.

For me, Jagjit Singh represents our increasingly fragile relationship  with Urdu. Many North Indians in my father's generation studied Urdu, not Hindi, in school. Their relationship with the language and its poetry was easy and direct and their response to the music of Begum Akhtar or the Pakistani ghazal singers was heartfelt. We may not have paid much attention then, but at least we had a link with that musical and poetic heritage, and the possibility of discovering it for ourselves when we grew older.

Jagjit Singh's records provided that sort of link for many. They were a mixture of more canonical Urdu ghazals and a newer, simpler, Hindustani poetry. From listening to one, you could maybe, transition to another. Perhaps many who were young at the height of his success, would not have discovered Mirza Ghalib in any meaningful way if it hadn't been for Jagjit Singh's rendition of Ghalib's poetry for Gulzar's TV show.

Sadly, Jagjit Singh's best work was not built upon by him, or others, but stagnated to become a kind of Mughlai muzak in tandoori restaurants. So it is with Urdu, a language rich with words for the emotional texture of our lives. Today it exists in our popular culture not with a lively possibility, but more vestigially, as a kind of Urdufication, the costume of Urdu words like suroor and bewafa found in the banal songs of Himmesh Reshammiya or Altaf Raja.

The Ghazal King is dead. But someone new should walk in through the door he reopened, to keep the ghazal alive and fresh.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper.

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