indian cinema heritage foundation

Jagjit Singh

  • Real Name: Jagmohan Singh Dhiman
  • Born: February 8, 1941 (Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, India)
  • Died: October 10, 2011 (Mumbai, Maharashtra, India)
  • Parents: Amar Singh Dhiman
  • Spouse: Chitra Singh
  • Children: Vivek Singh

Ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh was at the forefront of the 1980s ghazal wave, but the noted singer, composer and musician also made remarkable contributions to film music and devotional music. His rich voice, imbued with its own identity and personality, effortlessly entranced listeners. Some of his most memorable songs include Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho, Hosh walon ko, Woh kagaz ki kashti, Patthar ke khuda, Sarakti jaye hai, Us mod se shuroo, Tum ko dekha toh yeh khayal aaya, Mere dil mein tu hi tu hai, and Chithi na koi sandesh, among many others. After Pandit Ravi Shankar, he is acknowledged as one of independent India's most important, recognised and best-selling artistes, with his popular soundtracks and scores for film and television, as well as his musical interpretation of the works of poets. With more than 40 private albums to his credit, as well as film songs, his voice has enchanted an entire generation of music lovers. In contrast to the image of ghazals and ghazal-singers, he was known to sing peppy Punjabi tappe (folk style from Punjab) numbers, and also joke and interact with his audience in between ghazals during his music concerts. He was conferred the Sahitya Academy Award in 1998, for popularising the work of poet Mirza Ghalib with his score and soundtrack for the eponymous TV series.

He was honoured with the Padma Bhushan, a high-level civilian award by the Indian government, in 2003. 

Born Jagmohan Singh Dhiman on 8 February 1941 in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, he was the third among a family of 11 siblings. He was renamed Jagjit by his father, Amar Singh Dhiman, a government employee, on the advice of his guru. He performed in public for the first time when he was in standard nine, at a kavi sammelan, choosing a philosophical and haunting poem for the occasion. Training under Pandit Chhaganlal Sharma followed by Ustad Jamal Khan of the Sainia gharana for six years, he learned the Khayal, Thumri and Dhrupad forms. Earning an arts degree from DAV College in Jalandhar, he pursued his post-graduate studies at Kurukshetra University in Haryana. Interestingly, he was a brilliant hockey player and was part of his college team. However, when he realise music was his true calling, he chose to concentrate on music alone. 

He reportedly chose DAV College, Jalandhar as the institution waived hostel and tuition fees for talented musician students. Jalandhar's All India Radio (A.I.R.) station, which also carried programmes in classical singing, graded him a 'B' class artiste and granted him six live music segments a year for small payments. While in Jalandhar, he would also compose a welcome song for the visiting president of India, Rajendra Prasad.

In 1961, he arrived in Bombay, keen to find a break in film playback singing. It was to be a difficult struggle… He contacted actor Om Prakash, who received him warmly and introduced him to the famous music directors of the time like Madan Mohan and Shankar-Jaikishan. While Jaikishan apparently liked his voice, he could not offer him a big break. He endured severe financial hardship, before he managed to record two ghazals for an EP (Extended Play, a 1960s gramophone record format) with HMV. To make ends meet, he performed at small mehfils (musical gatherings) and house concerts, also singing at film parties in the hope of getting noticed by a music director. However, there was little hope for a newcomer in the playback scenario at the time. He did not find acceptance in the cliquish and competitive industry, which saw him turn his attention towards the genre of ghazal music instead. 

Ghazal, at the time, was languishing as a dying and forgotten form, while the language of Urdu itself was in decline in India. Focusing on the ghazal, Jagjit Singh would go on to help revive its richness and popularity across the country and abroad. He gradually came into his own as a composer as well, composed music for radio jingles, ad films, documentaries. It was in the course of one such jingle recording that he met Chitra, a singer, who was at the end of a bad marriage. They tied the knot in 1970. 

Coming into his own as a composer of merit in 1975, he was assigned the composing of his first-ever LP (long-play) album by HMV. Titled The Unforgettables, it featured Jagjit-Chitra ghazals that were a marked departure from the orthodox ghazals of yore. Blending modern instruments with the traditional sounds of the sarangi and table, the album brought him and Chitra to national attention. It also enabled their purchase of a modest flat in Bombay.

Making inroads into playback singing, among the early films he rendered songs for include Aavishkar (1974), Tumhara Kalloo (1975), Teri Meri Ik Jindri (1975), and Main Aur Meri Tanhai (1980). He made his mark when he agreed to sing Javed Akhtar's poetry for a low-budget film, Saath Saath (1982), without monetary considerations. He rendered songs such as Tumko dekha toh yeh khayal aaya and Yeh tera ghar yeh mera ghar which became immensely popular as well as Pyar mujhse jo kiya, and Yeh bata de. The same year, his popularity soared further with Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth (1982), with his rendering of his poignant compositions Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho, Jhuki jhuki si nazar, Koi yeh kaise bataye, and Tere khushboo mein base. Saath Saath and Arth would rank amongst HMV's highest selling combination cassettes ever. Other films for which he rendered playback include Aaj (1987), Mississippi Masala (1991), Tum Bin (2001), Joggers Park (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), and Midnight’s Children (2012).

His talent as music composer is evident in his work for films such as Arth, Aashiana (1986), Shaheed Uddham Singh (2000), among others. His compositions for Gulzar’s epic TV series Mirza Ghalib (1988) especially are considered a fitting tribute to Ghalib, the greatest 19th century poet of undivided India.

In 1987, he became the first Indian musician to record the first purely digital CD album, titled Beyond Time. It is considered a milestone for Singh and Chitra and for the genre of ghazal, as a whole. 

In 1990, the Singhs lost their 18-year-old only son, Vivek, in a motor accident. Post this blow, Singh veered increasingly towards spirituality and philosophy, his further mellowed voice singing metaphysical verses and also classical bhajans (Hindu devotional songs). 

Commemorating his turning 70 in February 2011, Jagjit Singh committed 70 concerts in different parts of the world. Touring the UK, Singapore, and Mauritius, he was due to perform with Ghulam Ali in Mumbai.

However, he passed away following a cerebral haemorrhage on 10 October 2011. He was posthumously awarded the Rajasthan Ratna in 2013, the highest civilian award by the state government of Rajasthan. In 2014, the government released a set of two postal stamps in his honour. 

A biography of Singh - Beyond Time was released in 2012. It was based on approximately 40 hours of interviews with the ghazal maestro. A biopic documentary directed by Brahmanand S Singh titled Kaagaz Ki Kashti depicted Singh’s life journey, tracing his struggle and stardom, the scope and limitations in the music scenario of the time, as well as the love and loss in his personal life. 

Jagjit Singh is unforgettable for bringing ghazals into the drawing rooms of the middle-class, with his choice of words and lyrics.


Image from: Cinemazi archive