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How Jagjit Singh’s generosity changed an orphan's life – Birth anniversary special

The singer donated half his earnings from a concert in Portland, Oregon, in 1998 to an India-born child whose adoptive parents were struggling to make ends meet.

Rita Soman (left) with Jagjit Singh in 1994

Mayur Lookhar

In a country obsessed with film music, classical and ghazal artistes have always had to rely mainly on stage shows for sustenance. And with these genres having only limited audiences in India, artistes have often had to perform abroad for decent returns. The late ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh also performed around the globe, charming the Indian diaspora.

On his 76th birth anniversary (8 February), Cinestaan.com spoke to an individual who had the honour of hosting Singh and organizing his concerts in Portland, Oregon, USA. Rita Soman, a CADC (Certified Addictions and Drug Counsellor) addictions treatment specialist and PSYCH-K instructor, twice hosted Singh and organized concerts featuring him in Portland.

“I met Jagjit about four times," Soman said. "I was the promoter of his inaugural concert in Portland. I was president of the Indian Cultural Association then. I reckon his first visit was in 1994.”

Recalling her maiden interaction with the renowned singer, Soman said, “My husband and I had gone to the airport to receive him. The first thing that struck you about the man was that he just didn’t behave like a star. He was very funny, jovial. It didn’t feel as if we were meeting someone for the first time. I remember how once while driving to the mountains I was singing his ghazals in karaoke, and he patted my back saying shabaash.”

Singh gelled instantly with his hosts who made sure the singer was comfortable during his stay. There was one occasion though which could have turned things a little sour. 

Jagjit Singh (centre) with Rita Soman (second from left) and her family

Talking about the incident, Soman said, "I gave up smoking 30 years back. Once, Jagjit started smoking in our house. I politely told him I had given up smoking and how it stills affected me when someone smoked around me. My father, who was present, apologized to him explaining the reason for my conduct. Any other star would have probably felt offended, but Jagjit Singh said sorry and told my father he would no longer smoke in front of his daughter.”

Soman said she owes Singh a debt of gratitude for shaping her career. "Before the inaugural concert, I was to give a speech introducing him to the audience," she said. "I had never done public speaking. So I was a nervous wreck not knowing how to go about it. Jagjit helped me in my practice, he even helped me write the speech. His encouragement released all anxieties. It was my first foray into public speaking. Had Jagjit not helped me that day, I don’t know whether I would have gone on to have a career in counselling.”

The Somans took great care of their guest, cooking food of his choice – basic dal (lentils) and bhindi (okra). Singh hated samosas, the staple Indian tea-time snack, as he was offered the same thing wherever he went. He was paid around US $4,000 (about Rs1,25,000 at the prevailing exchange rate) for the concert.

The ghazal maestro returned to Portland again in 1998. That was when his charitable gesture won everyone over.

“It was in 1998 that I got the chance to promote his concert in Portland again," said Soman. "This time we paid him about US $8,500 [about Rs3,50,000 at the prevailing exchange rate]. He had lost his son [Vivek Singh, who was only a teenaged collegian] in an accident [in Mumbai]. So he would get emotional when he had children around. During his second concert, Singh came across a tale of an Indian orphan who was adopted by American citizens. His adoptive parents could not afford his care. When Jagjit heard about this boy, he donated US $4000 [almost Rs1,60,000] for his welfare. All were touched by this gesture.”

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Singh’s generosity led others to come forward and help the boy. “We managed to raise around $6,000 for the child," Soman said. "Later, we helped the boy find new hosts in Los Angeles – an Indian family. Today, he is happily married with a kid. Till date, he respects what Jagjit and we did for him.”

A week later, Singh invited the Somans to his concert in Seattle, Washington. “My husband and I were surprised that he invited us for his Seattle concert," Soman said. "After all, that was being handled by a different promoter. Jagjit though arranged for VIP passes and made us sit in the front row. After the concert, he introduced us to his other guests.

"One of the remarkable things was how inebriated members of the audience would request him to sing like other singers. If I recall well, someone asked him to perform like [the popular Punjabi folk and pop singer] Gurdas Maan. To my surprise, he gave the audience what they wanted. He always knew how to keep his audience spellbound. After the concert, he, too, drank and chatted with the audience."

The second Portland concert was the last one Soman organised for Jagjit Singh. "Jagjit had paved the way for me to invite other artistes from India," she said. "We were organizing with other artistes, too, and though we were keen to have him again, we could not afford him anymore. His coterie, not him, started demanding US $50,000. There was no way we could have paid that much because, unlike other parts of the US, Portland did not have a huge Indian population then."

That wasn’t the end of the Soman-Singh friendship, however. In 2001, Singh invited them for a concert in Delhi. "When he learnt we were in town, Jagjit arranged special VIP passes for us," Rita Soman said. "Apart from my husband, we had taken along my sister and brother-in-law. We did not realize that we were seated next to big politicians. That was disclosed to us later. We were very touched by this gesture. Later, he proudly introduced me as the promoter for his concerts in Portland."

The Somans and Jagjit Singh never met after the Delhi concert. Like his family and legion of admirers, Rita Soman, too, was devastated by his demise. "His death came as a rude shock," she said. "I don’t think he had any history of ailments, but he just passed away one day. He was a great soul who created positive vibrations among millions of fans with his divine voice."