Zippy at 90
Indian classical music guru Pandit Jasraj, who turned 90 last week, shares the secret to keeping pace in a hectic world with a meticulous diet
He's a recipient of the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan, has inspired countless aspiring musicians to follow in his hallowed footsteps and even has a planet named after him. But if there's one word that can accurately describe the legendary vocalist Pandit Jasraj, it would be 'unstoppable'. The maestro who recently celebrated his 90th birthday is currently in Pune, having completed a whirlwind multi-city tour of commemorative concerts and celebrations. Ask him about the font of his incredible energy and joie-de-vivre, and pat comes the answer, "Music." Prod a little deeper and you'll soon realise that there's also an incredible lifestyle of discipline and meticulousness that enables him to do what he does, so well. His daughter, Durga Jasraj, shares that for as long as she can remember, Panditji has oriented his entire life with the single goal of ensuring that his audience leaves the venue completely satisfied with his performance. She says, "For him, health is an enabler to his art. It lets him consistently put forth his best as an artist. In fact, I remember Ashaji [Bhonsle] remarking that unlike most gavaiyyas who are also khavaiyyas [gourmands], Panditji is very frugal in terms of his dietary habits."
Pandit Jasraj at the fitness centre
Panditji is a strict vegetarian. He avoids eggs and is partial to a very few, simple vegetable dishes, namely aloo mutter paneer, aubergine, bottle gourd, mushroom and green vegetables. Durga adds that his caretaker, who accompanies him on tours, will cook his preferred meals for him every day, even in five-star hotel kitchens. "In fact, many hotels will give us brand new utensils because he is quite sensitive about smell, or sterilise their own before sharing them with us. Much of this happens behind the scenes, often without his knowledge. But it is essential for him to be able to eat simple, nutritious food no matter where he is," she says. He begins his day with a hearty breakfast of fresh fruit, nut butters, walnuts and almonds, and multigrain toast. Occasionally, this is complemented by a small bowl of muesli. Lunch and dinner typically feature soup, multigrain or quinoa rotis and a vegetable preparation. He only eats low-sodium salt and avoids rice, eating it as infrequently as a few times a year.
The maestro with daughter Durga
His diet is carefully prepared in consultation with his doctors in the US. Durga shares that he consults them before every meal, to make sure he is only giving his body what it needs at that very moment. "No matter how late the hour, he will wait for that text from his doctor to proceed with his meal or tailor it as per the doctor's recommendations. Even the medication that he takes for blood pressure and diabetes is carefully regulated. He has his blood pressure, weight and blood sugar tested every morning and the dosages are fine-tuned accordingly," she says. Even his consumption of water is carefully monitored. He makes sure not to drink too much or too little — air travel can lead to fluids accumulating in the body, which can elevate his blood pressure. If he has consumed even a single additional glass of water, he will compensate by drinking less soup that day, for instance. Durga adds, "His secret to knowing what works best for his body is to listen to how it is reacting. Each time a new food is introduced; he will take time to understand the effect it has on his body and voice. The slightest discomfort to either will have him seeking alternatives."
A culture of discipline
For Panditji, regular exercise — both for the voice and body — is important. In addition to teaching, he combines devotion with music, spending up to 90 minutes singing during his daily prayers. He uses this time to understand how his voice is responding to his inputs. This ritual, accordingly, helps him plan upcoming concerts or performances. Similarly, he is as meticulous about his physical fitness, having employed the services of a personal trainer in the 1970s, when the concept was unheard of, in India. To this day, he exercises regularly at a physiotherapy-cum-fitness centre near his home. "I've never heard him complain about his exercise. He enthusiastically does what is prescribed to him," shares Durga.
A minor planet has been named in honour of Pandit Jasraj
This same zeal also extends to his performance as an artiste. "Babuji never makes concessions for his age. He is as demanding of himself at 90 as he was 40 years ago. Even on stage, each victory will push him to go a little further, until the magic of Pandit Jasraj truly emerges. When I ask him how he is able to do this every single time he performs, he always tells me that the secret is to listen to yourself and understand how you can push yourself to do better. To this day, when people listen to Panditji, they come away in awe of the divinity in his art. What they must also understand is that for the divine to enter your body and voice, you must have a strong foundation of discipline. And this discipline is not a daily but rather a minute-by-minute affair."
Panditji tells us that his favourite pastimes include playing cards and listening to various genres of music, from contemporary African to Bollywood melodies. He also spends time tutoring his grandson, 19-year-old vocalist Swar Sharma, often relying on Skype for music lessons. Clearly, he believes in living every moment to its fullest.
All for laughs
Pandit Jasraj with Lata Mangeshkar
"What most people don't know about Babuji is that he has a tremendous sense of humour," says Durga. "He thrives in the camaraderie of people who can tell and appreciate good jokes. In fact, when he gets together with Lataji (Mangeshkar), the laughter is incessant — she is a great joke-teller, while his wit is sharp and spontaneous."
In fact, even while on stage, he will pause midway through a performance to share a funny observation, chuckle and then continue!
"Unlike many other artistes, Babuji tires with too much parochial or intellectual grandstanding. He prefers to live each moment to its fullest. While ageing gracefully is important, with accomplishment also comes the burden of your own expectations from yourself, which are often sky-high. Humour plays a big role in balancing things out," she adds.
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