Jagjit Singh: Singer hailed as the maestro of Indian ghazal

Jagjit Singh, a musical pioneer, grew to become widely lauded as India's most exemplary ghazal maestro. In the subcontinent ghazal is a literary song form set to light classical melodies or ragas, frequently viewed as a Pakistani preserve and associated with Urdu. Like qawwali, the Sufi-derived devotional song form, pre-Partition, the region's cultural porosity blurred rigid lines with major exponents on either side of the border. Singh further blurred matters by producing a body of work in concert, on recordings, for film and television, part of which crossed faith and cultural divides, part of which derived from harnessing his compositions to the words of contemporary lyricists like Firoq Gorakhpuri or Gulzar, or Hindu bhakti (or saint-poets) such as Surdas and Meerabhai.

One of three brothers and four sisters, Jagjit Singh was born in 1941 into a Sikh family in Sri Ganganagar, the northernmost city of post-Partition Rajasthan. His parents initially called him Jagmohan until taking guidance from a Sikh Namdhari sect elder to rename their son. He studied music not only in a gurdwara (Sikh temple), but also took tutelage from classical music teachers. He also soaked up recordings by such vocal livewires within their separate, strict classical traditions as Abdul Karim Khan, Amir Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali Khan – then, as now, de rigueur experiences for any serious musician, student or listener.

Since 1875 Jalandhar has been home to the Harballabh Sangeet Sammelan music festival, the subcontinent's longest continuously run annual music festival, and the principal of Jalandhar's DAV College waived tuition and accommodation fees for music students with exceptional talents. Singh completed an arts degree there and to went on to obtain a postgraduate degree in history in Kurukshetra in the next-door state of Haryana.

In 1965 he moved to Bombay, hoping to get his feet on the first rungs of amusical career in what, thanks to the Bombay film industry, was the home of Indian popular music. He found work singing jingles and progressed toplayback singing, along the way meeting his wife Chitra, a Bengali-born singer. The partnership produced the ground-breaking album The Unforgettables (1977).

With its modern orchestrations – "His catchy rhythms and soulful music are a treat, sometimes serene, sometimes frivolous and always thoroughly enjoyable," gushed the liner notes – it became a transformative, before-and-after milestone in the history of Indian popular and ghazal music. It remains that. He set all 10 pieces to music, four of which Chitra or he sang lead on, with the last two duets.

This format of solo and duet performances from the first commerciallysuccessful husband-and-wife teamin Indian popular music proved astonishingly successful. Duo albums such as Shiv Kumar Batalvi – Birha daSultan (1978), Live in Concert at Wembley (1979) and, a double LP from an unspecified venue, Come Alive (1979) kept coming. One of the finest, Ecstasies (1984), captured their duality; its front cover had them in traditional garb of sorts; the rear image was bang-on 1984 with denim.

In 1990, their 18-year-old son Vivek died in a traffic accident; Chitra withdrew from further public or recording performance. Thereafter he continued mostly alone, though he did record the album Sadja ("prostration") with Lata Mangeshkar. Nevertheless, he tenderly observed, "Chitra has been the balancing factor both on and off stage."

In person he was softly spoken and charming, with an unforced air of cultivation, secure enough, by virtue of his considerable achievements, to retain a modesty and humility often lacking in subsequent generations of musicians. In 2003 the Indian government awarded him the Padma Bhushan, ranked third among the nation's four civilian honours. He is survived by his wife. Their son and his stepdaughter Monica from his wife's first marriage predeceased him.

Ken Hunt

Jagjit Singh, singer, composer and film-music director: born Sri Ganganagar, Bikaner State (now Ganganagar District), Rajasthan, India 8 February 1941; married 1969 Chitra Dutta (one son, deceased, and one stepdaughter, deceased); died Mumbai 10 October 2011.

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