the ghazal

Flying solo with Chitra Singh

She is best known for her duets with her husband Jagjit Singh, but the ghazal singer carved out a spot for herself.

In 1990, Vivek Singh, the son of ghazal singers Chitra Singh and Jagjit Singh, died in a road accident in Mumbai. The same year, Chitra Singh recorded a ghazal, Mere Dukh Ki Koi Dawa Na Karo (Do not try to heal me) for the album Someone Somewhere. The song took on an even more solemn meaning in the wake of the tragedy. The voice seemed to have been submerged in sorrow, making the ghazal even more special.

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Chitra Singh’s high-pitched vocals are not typically suited for ghazal singing, which is usually sung in mellow tones. Singh, born as Chitra Shome in a Bengali family, has had no formal training. When she met Jagjit Singh in 1967, she refused to sing an advertising jingle with him. She recalled in a Filmfare interview, “I told the music director that his voice was heavy and that I wouldn’t be able to sing with him.” She took the microphone reluctantly. The duo clicked, in the studio and outside it.

A jingle was one thing and a ghazal something else altogether. “My toughest job was getting the Urdu right,” Chitra Singh said in an interview in 2012. “I am a Bengali, Hindi itself was difficult. So I had to work really hard under Jagjitji’s tutelage.” She began singing with Jagjit Singh and the duo were termed the “ghazal couple”. They complemented each other’s voices. His deep bass gurgled like a river, hers ethereal like mist dancing over it.

The Unforgettables (1976), also their highest selling album at a time when there was no market for non-film albums, firmly planted the duo on the music map. The album is notable for one exceptional ghazal, Raat Bhi Neend Bhi, based on a Firaq Gorakhpuri poem. Chitra Singh did not like the initial composition. Jagjit Singh changed the tune and it became one of her most recognised solos in an album over which her husband towers with Baat Niklegi Toh Phir Door Talak Jayegi and Sarakti Jaaye Hai Rukh Se.

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Chitra Singh believes that she emerged out from under her husband’s shadow with her rendition of the Mirza Ghalib poem Dil –E –Nadaan in the television serial Mirza Ghalib (1988). Other gems include Har Ek Baat Pe Kehte Ho, Yeh Na Thi Hamari Qismat, Dil Hi Toh Hai, Ishq Mujhko Nahin and Kisi Ko De Ke Dil – all of which she sang under his musical baton. She sang softly and elegantly, tuning her voice to suit the royal court setting of the serial.

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The duo recorded dozens of albums in Hindi and Punjabi and also cut devotional albums. Chitra Singh sang in Bengali as well as for Hindi films such as Saath Saath (1982) and Arth (1982).

Yun Zindagi Ki Raah Mein, sung for composer Kuldeep Singh, proved that Singh was not in an exclusive partnership with her husband. It remains one of her most admired tracks.

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The Singhs contributed significantly to the democratisation of the ghazal, spreading its popularity through albums and ticketed events. They chose verses that were simple yet profound in meaning, and combined modern instrumentation with raga-based compositions.

Will Singh, who became a near recluse after the death of her son in 1990, sing again? She has stared tragedy in the face over and over again: Monica Dutta, her daughter from her previous marriage, committed suicide in 2009, while Jagjit Singh passed on in 2011. “It’s the biggest tragedy that I cannot sing,” she said in 2007. “One day I feel I’m doing well, the other day I’m back to square one. If I cannot match my calibre I’ll let myself down.”

The ghazal Tu Nahi Toh Zindagi Mein Aur Kya Reh Jaayega (What will remain if you are not there?) is a doleful reminder that fans will just have to press rewind and play.

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