Jagjit Singh, born Jagmohan Singh (8 February 1941 – 10 October 2011), was a prominent Indian Ghazal singer, songwriter and musician. Known as the “Ghazal King”, he gained acclaim together with his wife, another renowned Indian ghazal singer Chitra Singh in the 1970s and 1980s. Their combination album comprising music from the films, Arth and Saath Saath is the HMV’s largest selling combination album of all time. Sajda (An Offering, 1991), Jagjit Singh’s magnum opus double album with Lata Mangeshkar holds the same record in non-film category. He sang in numerous languages. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the government of India in 2003. In February 2014, Government of India released a postal stamp in his honour.
Singh is credited for the revival and popularity of ghazal, an Indian classical art form, by choosing poetry that was relevant to the masses and composing them in a way that laid more emphasis on the meaning of words and melody evoked by them. In terms of Indian Classical music, his style of composing and Gayaki (singing) is considered as Bol-pradhan, one that lays emphasis on words. He highlighted this in his music for films such as Prem Geet (1981), Arth and Saath Saath (1982), and TV serials Mirza Ghalib (1988) and Kahkashan (1991). Jagjit Singh is considered to be the most successful ghazal singer and composer of all time in terms of critical acclaim and commercial success. With a career spanning five decades and a repertoire comprising over 80 albums, the range and breadth of his work has been regarded as genre-defining. He is the only composer and singer to have composed and recorded songs written by former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee — also a critically acclaimed poet — in two albums, Nayi Disha (1999) and Samvedna (2002).
Singh’s 1987 album, Beyond Time, was the first digitally recorded release in India. He was regarded as one of India’s most influential artists. With sitar legend Ravi Shankar and other leading figures of Indian classical music and literature, Singh voiced his concerns over politicisation of arts and culture in India and lack of support experienced by the practitioners of India’s traditional art forms, particularly folk artists and musicians. He lent active support to several philanthropic endeavors such as the library at St. Mary’s School, Mumbai, Bombay Hospital, CRY, Save the Children and ALMA.
Jagjit Singh was born on 8 February 1941 in Sri Ganganagar, Bikaner princely state (now in Rajasthan), India. His birth name was Jagmohan but this was changed to Jagjit after his parents sought the advice of a member of the Sikh Namdhari sect His parents were Sikh — Amar Singh and Bachan Kaur — and had several other children, with sources variously reporting the number between six and eleven.
Educated initially at Khalsa High School and Sri Ganganagar Government College, Singh obtained an arts degree from DAV College at Jalandhar and then a post-graduate degree in history from Kurukshetra University in Haryana. Throughout this time, and as a consequence of a natural talent that was spotted by his father, Singh learned music in Gurdwaras (Sikh temples) and from musicians such as Pandit Chaganlal Sharma and Ustad Jamaal Khan, both of whom were trained in classical Indian music. He performed on radio and on stage, as well as composing some material, although he subsequently claimed that his father, who was a government employee, had hoped that he would become an engineer.On another occasion his memory was that his father aspired for him to become a bureaucrat and that his siblings were encouraged musically.
In March 1965, and without the knowledge of his family, Singh moved to Mumbai, where there were many opportunities for music artists because of the Bollywood film industry. He obtained work initially as a singer of advertising jingles and later progressed to playback singing. In the same year he persuaded the record company HMV to produce an EP; he also altered his Sikh image by abandoning his turban, shaving and cutting his hair. His first film role was in Dharati Na Chhoru, a Gujarati production by Suresh Amin.
Singh was still struggling to make a living in 1967 when he met the Bengali-born Chitra Dutta. She divorced her husband and married Singh in December 1969. Following the birth of their son, Vivek, the couple performed as a singing duo but it was not until the 1976 release of the album The Unforgettable that they found significant, and surprising, success. In the interval, the primary difficulty for them had been that the ghazal music genre was dominated by Muslim artists and especially those from Pakistan.
The Unforgettable, which was the couple’s first LP, was an unconventional recording and it turned them into stars. The song “Baat Niklaygi” from the album achieved great popularity for the Singhs. The Independent described it in 2011 as “ground-breaking … it became a transformative, before-and-after milestone in the history of Indian popular and ghazals music. It remains that.” Using modern arrangements, it consists of ten tracks that include two on which they sang as a duo and the remainder equally split between Jagjit and Chitra singing the lead. The Independent further noted that “This format of solo and duet performances from the first commercially successful husband-and-wife team in Indian popular music proved astonishingly successful.” Jagjit explained that “I was determined to polish up the genre and make it more acceptable to modern tastes, so chose simple poems and set them to simple tunes. I also introduced western instrumentation to make them livelier.” Thereafter, the couple worked both on solo and joint musical projects and performed concerts worldwide. There was success from involvement with the film industry and they amassed considerable wealth, while Jagjit became known as “the Ghazal king”.
Jagjit Singh’s work in film encompassed playback singing for productions such as Arth, Saath Saath and Premgeet. He composed all of the songs for the latter, as well as for the TV serial Mirza Ghalib that was based on the life of the eponymous poet, Mirza Ghalib.
His Punjabi Tappe with Chitra, recorded in BBC studios 1979 for the show ‘Naya Zindagi Naya Jeevan’ is still popularly played in the Indian weddings. Popular actors like Moushmi Chatterjee attended the concert as audience.Among their subsequent duo recordings of the 1970s were Shiv Kumar Batalvi – Birha da Sultan (1978), Live in Concert at Wembley (1979) and Come Alive (1979). Of those released in the 1980s, Ecstasies (1984) has been described as “one of their finest”. The joint projects ceased in 1990 when their 18-year-old son, Vivek, was killed in a road accident. Chitra felt unable to sing following these events. Monica, Chitra’s daughter from her first marriage, committed suicide in 2009.
Although Jagjit continued to work and to have success after Chitra withdrew from public life he, too, was affected by the death of Vivek. The Guardian notes that he “suffered from deep depression and his anguish was often evident in his live performances.” Aside from occupying himself with solo projects, which he performed in several languages, he collaborated with Lata Mangeshkar on an album titled Sajda, an Urdu word meaning “prostration”.
On 10 May 2007, in the presence of numerous political and diplomatic luminaries at an event held in the Central Hall of the Parliament of India, Jagjit Singh rendered Bahadur Shah Zafar’s famous ghazal Lagta nahin hai dil mera to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Google India honoured Jagjit Singh with a doodle on his 72nd birthday on 8 February 2013.
The couple took several innovative steps which not only promoted their career but also changed the character and perception of Ghazal singing radically. The effect of their innovations was three-fold: firstly, it brought the Ghazal to common people; secondly, it freed the Ghazal from the perception that it was a “Muslim” art-form and made it both available to and accepted by Hindu and Sikh audiences; thirdly, it introducing the Ghazal genre of singing to language-groups such as Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi.
Ghazal singing had until then been confined to “mehfils” (Soirees ) performed for small, elite audiences and usually held at the residence of a wealthy host. The couple were among the first set of professional singers to perform before large audiences of ticket-purchasing middle-class audiences. This not only increased their popularity but also vastly boosted the sale of their albums.
The duo also sang songs in the Hindi, Punjabi and Bengali languages, apart from the Urdu and Persian languages to which Ghazal-singing had been confined until then. This was another revolutionary step, which brought Ghazals into the ambit of the common people of India. A third step which promoted their singing career was the fact that they moved beyond strict Ghazal singing into the field of Hindu devotional music. They released albums of devotional hymns and songs, including Krishna, Chirag, Hey Ram and various Shabad kirtans of the Sikh faith (to which Jagjit belonged). Krishna is one of the largest-selling titles in the devotional music category in India.
Singh toured the UK in 2011 and was due to perform with Ghulam Ali in Mumbai but suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on 23 September 2011. He was in a coma for over two weeks and died on 10 October 2011 at Lilavati Hospital, in Mumbai. He was cremated the following day at Chandanwadi Crematorium in Mumbai.
A number of tributes have been paid to Singh after his death, and some tried to cash in on his popularity, which was criticised by his wife.