In a Q&A, the daughter of the late vocalist Pt Jasraj, talks about a new cultural foundation she has set up to honour and take forward the legacy of the celebrated music genius
She is an actor, singer, music producer and promoter, and the daughter of Pandit Jasraj. On the late vocalist’s 92nd birth anniversary, Durga Jasraj, along with co-founder Neeraj Jaitly, launched the Pandit Jasraj Cultural Foundation to honour and take forward the legacy of celebrated music genius. Inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 28, 2022, the attempt, she says, is to work on the “preservation and promotion of traditional music, artistes’ welfare, education and sustainable livelihood”. Edited excerpts from a conversation between Namrata Kohli from Business Standard and Durga Jasraj and Neeraj Jaitly, founder of Pandit Jasraj Cultural Foundation:
One of the most important parts about learning music is initiation. For you, music must be a part of your upbringing and literally in your genes. For a layperson, how and where should one get started with music?
Jasraj: For me, listening is the biggest and the foremost guru. The most important thing is your exposure to music. If you wake up to listen to your nani dadi singing bhajans or father playing sitar in the morning before going to work, then automatically you will get drawn towards music. If you have been listening to Hanuman Chalisa since childhood, then even after 25 years when you listen to the same Hanuman Chalisa, tears will roll down your cheeks, because it will bring back that era. Music has amazing muscle memory and you will start humming it as a natural instinct.
If your exposure begins at home, then that is simply great. Else everyone has access to YouTube, offline (live) and online concerts. As a matter of policy, in our organisation “Art and Artistes”, I never ever stopped people from getting their kids to concerts. It’s fine if they cry a bit, but I always tell them in the beginning if they disturb, then one of the parents must walk off with the child. But as long as they are okay, they can remain in the auditorium or in the amphitheatre. Let them sleep, just be around because you don’t know what they are imbibing. This is called sanskaar. We have to give importance to sanskaar, which will not come by sending your kids to some New York university. Only your home environment will teach you this.
Kids normally start off by dabbling. For instance, they don’t start playing tabla because they love the thirkat sound but because the fun is in the banging, and with that noise, there is a burst of happiness. It is an expression. One should not pressurise children to learn something, and expose them to different art forms instead. Automatically they will start getting attracted to a particular instrument, artist or style of music. That will be their individual journey and they will not even know they have embarked on it.
Music has so many benefits. But do the benefits come even with passive listening or does one need to actively sing or play a musical instrument?
Music has immense benefits. The newspapers report how cows in Denmark for whom music is played, are giving more milk. While we don’t even doubt that, we forget that Krishna played bansuri for his cows and our katha actually starts from there. Music therapy enhances not only the quantity of milk but even its quality.
So, whether you’re listening or actively singing, music is food for your soul. It elevates you, and it is the most beautiful stress buster. This has been medically proven. Bapu ji’s (Pandit Jasraj)’s music has been used in so many hospitals by doctors across the world as an alternative therapy–-it has given people better quality of life, if not completely eliminated their illnesses or diseases. The benefits are difficult to quantify.
Even if you listen to a Bollywood track such as ‘Ankh mare’ you may want to get up and start dancing and there is joy. You feel happy for the moment. Even that kind of music has something to offer. But if you are evolved and listen to Bapu ji’s Om Namo Bhagwate Vasudevaya you will start crying, because after a point you feel the presence of God. Music has a tremendous impact on your mind, body and soul but it is a two-way traffic. Music cannot just keep on giving if you are not ready to receive it. You have to be in receiver mode. And your antenna should be up.
Which genres of music does the foundation aim to promote?
The foundation will work towards promoting different genres of Hindustani music such as Hindustani classical music, Carnatic classical music, Sufi, ghazal, bhajan, qawwali, folk, kirtan etc.
There are many who are good practitioners but they need the right platform. So, there isn’t a particular genre of music that one wishes to promote. Also, it’s not just about vocalists but even promotion of instrumentalists, percussionists and some rare instrument practitioners.
We are living in times when people prefer ballad over kathak, western music and Bollywood over classical. And yet there are people who are ardent admirers of Indian classical traditional music. How do you perceive the potential and future of Indian classical music?
I am glad you gave the example of kathak, because unfortunately, we lost one of the greatest all-time legends of our country, Pandit Birju Maharaj ji. But when you talk about kathak, it is like your mother tongue. You and I may go back home and speak in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Kannada or Tamil, but outside we communicate in English, as you and I are doing right now. For me, kathak is like your mother tongue and ballad is like the art form you try to communicate. You may presume that ballad is more popular, but for all you know, it could be more niche because there can’t be a film like an Umrao Jaan or a Bajirao Mastani or any of the classics without kathak. Kathak is far more mass driven than any other dance form, and in the south it is the Bharatnatyam. These are the kind classics which form the foundation of your performing art. If you are born in India, you either learn a kathak if you are a North Indian and you will learn a Bharatnatyam if you are a South Indian. There are others of course like a Kuchipudi, a Manipuri and so on and so forth. But these two dance forms are the mool aadhar. I heard Katrina Kaif saying the other day that she and Priyanka have been friends for ages because both started their acting careers together when they used to go to learn kathak together. It is that formative. It is like going to the nursery and saying ‘A for Apple’.
What is your primary focus going to be in the Cultural Foundation?
We have rolled out four programmes. One is about promoting different genres of music, the second is about nurturing the next generation of musicians (be it singers, instrumentalists, percussionists, from all across genres of Indian music). The third is about skill development and employment for both musicians and our website will evolve into a portal where people can go register to teach music. Not everybody can be a successful performing artist. Therefore, there are different kinds of jobs, sources of livelihood that people can become successful at like teaching, giving lecture demonstrations. If we find these people jobs, and they are paid for their services with CSR funds, it brings credibility back to our music. It’s like self-respect–only if you respect yourself and your culture, will others respect it. You will never find a dusty, untuned piano lying somewhere in a corner. We will be working with instrument makers of tanpura, harmonium, tabla, veena, violin, and mridangam. These are basic instruments but rarely do you see them in pristine condition, but they need to be tuned and looked after. Only if it sounds good will you get attracted to it. One needs to give importance to those instruments and change attitudes. But I am not blaming anybody in India because music is slightly evolved and it’s not food, shelter, medicine and clothes. You can start looking at culture when your belly is full, have clothes on body and a house for shelter. Music is food for the soul when you need to connect with God and come in little later stages of the evolution of society.
What is your take on the classical music scene in the country? Has it percolated down to the masses in the way it should?
Jaitly: When we broadcasted 104 episodes of Idea Jalsa, a musical programme on Doordarshan and Zee TV at 10:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning with 18 slot promotions over 104 weeks, we achieved 210 million viewers as per TAM data in that period. It was such a big thing for Zee TV that its MD Puneet Goenka actually called up a press conference to talk about the fact that traditional Indian music is extremely popular within India.
Then on our own Facebook page and YouTube channel, we are clocking an average of 80 million impressions a month, as per latest 2021 data. Seventy four per cent of those consuming this are below the age of 35. With these kinds of healthy volumes, there is certainly a story in favour of traditional Indian music.
Technology has entered the world of music in a big way globally. Where are we in India? Does offline work better than online?
Jaitly: Instead of a choice, it is more of a complimentary feature. An in-person concert or an on-ground concert will never lose its charm. Experiencing the environment of that music concert is never going to be replaced by anything. But in case you are travelling that day and are not able to attend a great concert happening in your city, then your digital presence will help you to enjoy it to some extent at least.