Pandit Jasraj is one of the greatest living singers in the Indian classical tradition. At 88 years old, he’s received just about every honor imaginable, and through performance and recording has easily established himself as one of the most important classical singers of the last 100 years. Still, he’s not exactly a household name in the United States.
But at the Kresge Auditorium at MIT on Saturday night you could catch a glimpse of the sense of reverence and even awe he evokes in his fans, who refer to him as “Panditji.” “Pandit,” is actually an honorific, meaning “master.”
The maestro is far more comfortable talking in Hindi, which also tends to reveal his playful wit — he’s always getting smiles and laughs from his Indian audiences — but was willing to indulge me in some conversation over breakfast a couple of days before the concert. He tells me how, growing up in a musical family, he learned to sing at the same time he learned to walk and talk.
“My father used to teach me when I was only 3 years old,” he said. But his father passed away barely a year later, and Jasraj’s elder brother took over his education — and everything else. “He'd become my father, my mother, my everything, my guru.”
The young Jasraj turned his focus from singing to mastering the tablas (Indian hand drums), but not out of a passion for the instrument. “I started tabla because [of] need. We lost my father, so our family became very poor.” They needed to perform for a living, and that was a lot easier without having to pay an “outsider” to play drums.
Jasraj says his experience playing percussion helped him in immeasurable ways as a singer. Indian classical music features very complex combined rhythms, often in irregular permutations, that the soloist must understand intimately. When you see Indian soloists jamming together in sync, it’s rather like watching a couple swing-dancing on a tightrope, if that were possible. Jasraj says his experience as a young tabla player made him internalize those rhythms, so that now as a singer, “I don’t have to count. It comes in my mind. It comes in my heart. It comes in my body.”
The uncanny way Jasraj is able to sync up with other musicians in live performance reflects not just the disciplines of the tradition, but a philosophy: The maestro has made collaboration central to his work. He actually created a new genre in classical music, which has come to be known as jasrangi. It’s a type of duet, in which a male singer and a female singer sing different songs in the same key, simultaneously. He says that often in traditional male-female duets, “one person suffers, I found,” because the register of a particular song (how high or low the notes go) will favor either a male or a female voice.
But an explanation, in English no less, cannot suffice. While we’re talking over his tea, Jasraj whips out an iPhone, and pulls up a drone in the appropriate key. Tripti Mukherjee — another esteemed Hindustani vocalist who happens to be sitting with us — does the same with her iPhone, and they break out into a jasrangi right there. It’s glorious, and a wonderful preview of the concert, which featured some extraordinary duets from the two.
Mukherjee has been a student of Pandit Jasraj since 1976. Though she has herself been a master musician for decades, she still considers him her guru. Their lifelong relationship reveals another aspect of Jasraj’s philosophy about sharing his art: He has been a guru to many and established music schools across the world. He says that teaching and directly passing down knowledge are most essential to Indian classical music, which is not written down. It’s as if the orchestral scores of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven only existed in the brains of those who had studied with them and their descendants.
In Indian classical music, Jasraj says too many of “the old masters have taken that music with them. It’s not a good thing. I don’t want to take with me whatever God has given me, or my guru has given me. I want to keep it here, through this, through her, through you.”