Krupasindhu Muduli, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

For someone who wields such cultural power, the soft-spoken Anup Jalota appears to have stumbled into his overwhelming success by accident. Clearly Jalota’s soft voice and gentle looks belie his drive and passion to carve out an ever-increasing pie for bhajans (devotional songs) in the music market. Jalota is one of the most celebrated non-film artists in Indian music; his 100 platinum discs have long surpassed Elvis Presley’s record of 45 gold and platinum discs.

Anup Jalota was in the U.S recently. Here are some glimpses into this artist’s mind as he spoke with India Currents.

The son of singer Purshottam Das Jalota, Anup Jalota grew up in a musically minded family. Jalota has very fond memories of his childhood days, of practicing with his father and wanting to emulate him. His first stage performance was at the age of seven when his father, Purshottam Das Jalota asked him to sing on stage before an audience of 10,000.

“As I grew older I realized that it would be very hard to become like him. It took a long struggle to perfect my art and then to find the right platform to display my music,” says Jalota.

Jalota came to Bombay in 1974 and joined the All India Radio Chorus Group on a salary of 350 rupees. Ghazals were becoming increasing popular at that time. He continued to sing ghazals and film producer and actor Manoj Kumar gave him his first break as a playback singer in his film Shirdi Ke Sai Baba. Playback singing wore out Jalota. “I did it just for the experience,” he says. After his first concert abroad Music India, then known as Polydor, signed him for some albums. His first album, “Shamakhana” was a sellout. Other albums “Moods,” “Farmaish,” followed in quick succession.

Jalota bemusedly refers to his first concert abroad (in England in the ’80s), “I did not know that there were so many Indians outside of India. It was a pleasant surprise.” But he undoubtedly has a special place in his heart for America. “It is a treat to perform in the U.S.” Jalota is all praise for the NRIs here. “America has so much to offer. People here have recreated Little India’s in every city. They are very interested in devotional music. After every concert people come to me and ask me how they can ensure that their children learn such music. They truly want to preserve their sanskars and heritage.”

His latest work is an 18-cassette album titled Geeta . Released through Venus Music, the album carries the shlokas from the Bhagvad Geeta with music by Triveni-Bhavani. The world-renowned bhajan singer has been working on the project for the last three and a half years recording on an average 7-10 shlokas at every recording session with the final tally adding up to 700 shlokas. Ensuring that each word in Sanskrit was clearly enunciated was an additional challenge. Although draining, this project has been a personal high for Jalota, who hopes that people will cherish this work for posterity and also that he has done his bit for the spiritual growth of the society. Jalota has a great fascination for Sanskrit and has read it since childhood. “It is a truly beautiful language,” he quips.

In his formative years Jalota would practice for 7-8 hours a day. Now that his voice is trained, he puts in 2-3 hours each day religiously. “Riyaz or practice is a part of life now,” he states matter of factly. The singer mentions some of his favorite poets: Tulsidas, Surdas, Meerabai, Mirza Galib, Zafar, Mazrooh Sultanpuri, Indeevar, Kaifi Azmi and Javed Aktar and then adds almost as an afterthought, “There are so many good poets in the world, that I do not try to write poetry and just focus on my music.” Jalota has also composed music for a couple of films.His essence for creating music is simple, “You have to live with a song for a few days, and then the tune will come out by itself.”
Jalota played a significant role in revitalizing the devotional music and is referred to as Bhajan Samrat (Emperor of Bhajans). Jalota’s unique USP has given him great fame and a lot of it can be attributed to his having carefully nurtured a persona of a devotional singer. Jalota’s disdain for playback singing is thinly-veiled “I never really aspired to become one. I find that one becomes like a puppet singing in the studio. In contrast singing in front of audiences makes me feel free and energized.”

So strong is his identification with the Bhajan genre that people have criticized him for drinking, listening to pop music, and enjoying the good life. But the truth is, as Jalota himself said in an earlier interview, “I am no saint!” Jalota’s personal musical preferences are eclectic. He listens to Phil Collins, Beatles, classical, Yehudi Mehunin, George Harrison, and Michael Jackson. He feels that Indian artists should observe their work and try and present their work like them. “We lack in organization and presentation,” he observes. Sometimes his other influences show up in his work when he incorporates western musical sounds in the background.

Jalota is secure in his success and does not feel the marketing pressure to cope with the MTV generation. “My music does not need any advertisement. This genre does not need music videos, and …” he pauses and adds grandly “ … our work does not get thrown in the garbage!”

Jalota is right in his assessment that devotional music cassettes are seen as family buys and are collector’s items passed on from one generation to another. This insight has helped him harness this particular market and see unprecedented success.

Jalota underplays the importance of only hard work for aspirants. Talent or its lack thereof, should be the determining factor in making choices. “If you are special you will reach the top. Hard work is important, but before that every student should ask for the guidance of an experienced teacher to help him/her estimate his/her caliber. So many youths waste their life because they are not particularly talented and misguided.” Jalota’s favorites amongst the present generation include Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik and Shreya Ghosal (Devdas).

Jalota laments the lack of creativity in today’s Hindi film music, “There was a time when just by listening to a song, one could tell whose work it was, for e.g. Madan Mohan, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Jaydev etc. But it is become increasing harder to distinguish music thus, as all music directors have rather strong western influences and copy each other’s styles.” He also worries about the future of the Indian music industry, which has been badly hit by piracy and by the web. “One CD can hold 200 songs, you can download all possible songs from the web … When music companies come out with jazzed up remixes people do not buy the original song. All this is very lamentable.” Jalota gives an example to further prove his point. “The music of the film Devdas was sold for over 8 crore Rs. The music company mistakenly calculated that the music of the film would be lapped up by the masses. Eventually the music sold only 25 lakh copies which was worth one crore thereby incurring a huge loss. Thus film music and its marketability can be notoriously unpredictable.”

He expresses his happiness on the unique position his particular brand of music occupies. “Devotional music can never go out of style, as long as there are festivals like Ramnavami, Shivaratri, Janamashtami. I feel very lucky that people listen to my music early in the morning, before starting their day. When people tell me that my music gives pleasure to their souls, I feel very honored.” Jalota is often called upon by people in power like Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, party leaders like Sonia Gandhi, L.K. Advani to give performances. “I simply perform there. It is not as though I have political ambitions that I am trying to leverage through my music.” Jalota performs in the U.S. frequently and has an upcoming concert in November that will feature a unique combination of artists: Ghulam Ali, Pankaj Udhas and himself.

Still, Jalota wearily talks about the flip side of fame. “It keeps one very busy and stressed. It leaves one with little time; and since I end up devoting all my spare time to my family to compensate for the time that I spend away from them, I find that I have no time for myself!”

I quiz him about the secret of his ever-smiling disposition. “I am never angry. My face exudes peace because what I have inside is peace. I am happy from within.” Jalota then goes on to talk about the rich inner life of musicians, “We are in 15 new cities every months and are never lonely as we always have our music with us. I feel truly grateful. I cannot ask for anything more.”

Radhika Sharma is a freelance writer based in Milpitas, CA.