Kolkata: Pandit Jasraj’s bond with Kolkata was a special one that began in 1946 when he started living in the city with his brother and then, worked as an artiste at All India Radio. While the news of his demise in New Jersey added to the lockdown gloom of disciples and music connoisseurs from Kolkata, it also brought back memories of his association with the city he called his second home, where he had spent 13 long years.
Even in January this year, ahead of his performance before his 90th birthday, Jasraj had talked about his times in Kolkata, when he spent 14 hours a day on riyaaz as a 20-year-old. “Kolkata amake onek diyechhe (Kolkata has given me a lot),” he would always say in fluent Bengali. “I owe a lot to this city. Here, it is easy to build relationships. In this city lived someone I used to call Ammaji. Her name was Som Tiwari. She was a disciple of my guru, (my ‘bade bhaisaab’ Pt Maniram). She sang well and loved my singing too. She would always encourage me and say: Tumhare gaane mein ek bichitr cheez hai jo auro mein nahin hai (there is something in your singing that isn’t there in others). She would insist that I continue with my riyaaz.”
He was hardly 20 then. Often he would go and practice with Tiwari. Any mention of Kolkata would invariably bring up the names of his friends, Dr Mukund Lath and Ujjwal Roy. Back then, he used to play the tabla but Roy would “fight with everyone” and insist that he didn’t do so. “He would even tell my guru: ‘Oke tabla bajate bolben na. Aap chahe toh kisi aur tablawala ko bula lijiye. Nahi toh main baja deta hun… (Don’t ask him to play the tabla. Please ask someone else. If not, I will play…) I was so fortunate to have got such people around me. They protected me and were like a banyan tree,” he would say.
It was at Tiwari’s house that Pt Vijay Kichlu had first met him. “Pt Jasraj belonged to Kolkata. He was a very good singer but back then, it seemed he was shy of singing in public. Slowly from being a tabla player, he turned into a vocalist. His influence was from Ustad Aamir Khan and his training from his brother. Yet, he created a niche for himself without following anyone blindly,” Kichlu said.
Pt Anindya Chatterjee, who had accompanied him in at least 15 concerts, described the legend whose rendition had a unique distinction of the Mewati gharana while reminding him of recitals of Pt Omkarnath Thakur and Ustad Aamir Khan.
During his various visits to the city for performances, Panditji’s car would sometimes cross Kabir Road flooding him with memories. His Kolkata address during his youth was 32 Kabir Road. Few steps away, on 27 Kabir Road, was the residence of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. Both would often bump into each other. Their meetings were storehouse of memories. But they weren’t necessarily only about music. “Once when I was out on a stroll, I saw Dada wearing a vest and washing his Land Cruiser. When he found that I was out on a stroll, he said that I should hop into his car. And in 12 minutes flat, he drove me to Chowringhee and back!” he would laugh and say. Much later in life, once both of them had even turned on their VCR to watch Madhuri Dixit dance to ‘Ek do teen’ in a loop for over an hour.
It was perhaps that camaraderie which had made him promptly agree to singing at the inaugural edition of Kolkata’s Swar Samrat Festival that is dedicated to Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. “He was 83 then and went up on stage at four in the morning and sang for two hours fifty minutes. Listening to him was hypnotic,” remembered Pt Tejendra Narayan Majumdar.
Kolkata has welcomed him with open arms every time he returned to perform. According to the maestro, this ability to appreciate art and artistes has been in Kolkata’s DNA for ages. His eyes would twinkle with delight while recalling how he had witnessed some 10,000-odd people standing outside the Basusree theatre to get a glimpse of Pt Ravi Shankar. “The organiser suggested he leave through the backdoor. However, Motilal Ranga and I, who were there with him in the greenroom, suggested that he go down. Ranga had picked Dada up and placed him on his head. There he sat in the lotus pose and soon he was transported from one person’s head to that of another while moving in front of Basusree in a circle.”
Once during a walk past the Sangu Valley restaurant in Hazra when he had overheard the conversation of a few young women over cups of tea. “One of them had said: ‘Bade Ghulam Ali r gaan shunlam (I listened to Bade Ghulam Ali saab’s rendition)’. Another lady cut her short saying: ‘Tui Bagher gaan shunechis? Bagher gaan shonar pore ar… (Have you listened to the Tiger? After having listened to the Tiger, you can’t… ‘ Do you know who this tiger they were referring to? Well, it was none other than Ustad Faiyaz Khan saab!”
Overhearing such conversations regarding music was inspiring for him too. “Kolkata is a city that talks music all the time. On another occasion, I was walking down Hindustan Park when I chanced upon a group of young boys playing gully cricket. The moment one hit the ball hard, an onlooker said: ‘Dekhechis ball ta kikore marlo? Jeno mone holo Bhimsein er taan! (Have you seen how he struck the ball? It seemed as effortless as a Bhimsein Joshi taan)’,” he would often recall.
During those days, not every youngster had the money to afford concert tickets. There have been so many occasions when he, along with my friends, would simply listen to live concerts amplified by the loudspeakers. He would stand in front of the loudspeakers positioned strategically on the streets and listen to the recitals till the wee hours of the morning. “Sometimes, I would wait outside the concerts hoping that some listener would leave midway and be sweet enough to hand over his ticket so that I could enter the auditorium and listen to the last half of the concert. During those days, I had just started singing for the radio and sometimes the gate keepers would recognize me and let me in.”
If that didn’t work, he would go to the bus depots and try to sneak inside an empty bus and spend the night there listening to a concert on the loudspeaker in the vicinity. Back then, buses used to be parked at night near the Basusree theatre. “On the concert days, I would go to the depot and sneak into one of the buses. If luck favoured me, the conductor would allow me to lie down on one of the seats while I listened to music. That saved any strain on my poor legs too! On other occasions, I would simply stop by some roadside tea-seller and order for innumerable cups of tea and listen to musical conversations.”
Every time he visited Kolkata, such stories would spontaneously tumble out of his bag. Perhaps, in another world, he is busy once again, narrating all these stories and more to an audience comprising doyens including Pt Bhimsein Joshi, Pt Ravi Shankar, Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ustad Vilayat Khan. The heavens are surely being regaled.