Mehdi Hasan: Master of ghazal

Print edition : July 13, 2012


Mehdi Hasan (1927-2012), the king of the light classical, was equally loved in Pakistan and India.

Mehdi Hasan, the most charismatic light classical singer of the subcontinent, passed away at the Agha Khan Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 13. He would have been 85 on July 13.

No other male singer in his genre had the malleability of voice or the control over pitch he was famous for. These qualities stayed with him even in old age. He was forced to sing, record and tour until his mid-seventies. Twice married, he had nine sons and five daughters. Being the head of a large family, he had to work continuously to keep them in comfort. He last came to India 12 years ago and was on a wheelchair, after having suffered a stroke. Memories of his earlier, utterly tuneful that is, sureela music made listeners even more reverential of the heroic artist they saw before their eyes.

Mehdi Hasan was born in Luna, a village in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan in undivided India, to a family of singers who sang in the Hindustani style. By the age of eight, under the guidance of his father Ustad Azeem Khan and uncle Ustad Ismail Khan, Mehdi Hasan was already singing before the Maharaja of Baroda. Later in life as a celebrity, in an interview for Radio Pakistan, Mehdi Hasan remembered singing for the Maharaja of Gwalior at Indore.

Following Partition in 1947, 19-year-old Mehdi Hasan migrated with his devastated family to Chichawatni, a village in West Punjab, which lay in Pakistan. A life of poverty had begun. He did not give up his riyaaz; he practised with great dedication, although he went to work as an automobile mechanic in a garage and eventually became the owner of such an establishment. In 1948, through his financial travails, he auditioned for Radio Pakistan as a thumri singer. He began to sing in films and very soon made his mark as a singer with a polished voice and an unbeatable technique.

His rendering of a ghazal by the great revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Gulon Mein Rang Bhare ..., for the 1964 film Farangi launched him into stardom. He soon found himself ploughing a lonely furrow as there was no male light classical singer of his stature in Pakistan or India. The only other male singer in Pakistan who could keep him company was Tufail Niazi, who was classically trained in pre-Partition Kapurthala, in India, but was very successfully pursuing a career as a folk singer. The presence of a major talent like Tufail Niazi, albeit from a different genre of vocal music, perhaps made Mehdi Hasan feel less lonely musically. One, of course, must not forget his very talented composer brother, Pandit Ghulam Qadir. Mehdi Hasan did promote a then fledgling singer called Ghulam Ali, who later rose to fame and fortune and was the pupil of the incomparable male thumri singer Ustad Barkat Ali Khan (1902-1962), the younger brother of the khayal singer, the mercurial genius, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan (1900-1966).

There are ghazals he sang and recorded often over the years because they were immensely popular. He had only to sing the first three words of Ahmad Farazs Ranjish Hi Sahi... for the audience to break into spontaneous applause. There is a video of his concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, at the peak of his popularity, where he begins with the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafars ghazal, Baat Karni ... and the audience applauds even as he is half way through the first line or misra. In the early 1970s, he sang Mir Taqi Mirs immortal Dekh Toh Dil Ki Jaan Se Uthta Heye... with all the vocal embellishments and had the audience eating out of his hand.

Despite a large daily consumption of king-size cigarettes, his voice remained sweet and mellow and in full control. He could render murkis and certain kinds of short taans from khayal singing effortlessly and made them a part of his ghazal vocabulary. In an interview given to a Hindi publication during one of his early visits, he said of the benefits of his training under his father and uncle: Awaaz baithey bhi hue ho to bhi besuri nahi hogi (even if he had a cold, he would not go out of tune). Even as his health began to fail him and his voice grew feebler, he never ever went out of tune. One may attribute this to the grace of Allah and Goddess Saraswati.

Mehdi Hasan: No other male singer in his genre had the malleability of voice or the control over pitch he was famous for. These qualities stayed with him even in old age. Even as his health began to fail and his voice grew feebler, he never ever went out of tune.-

It is necessary to pause and try and understand the phenomenon called Mehdi Hasan. What made him what he became? He had realised quite early in his career that his voice was suited to light classical music, that is, thumri, dadra and ghazal. Thumri and dadra were best suited to the intimate mehfils hosted by aristocratic connoisseurs, whose numbers were dwindling by the year; the reason for it was not just politics and history but also the intervention of Old Man Time. He took his natural grasp of taal (beat) and laya (tempo) in hand and harnessed it to his rendering of the ghazal for the concert stage. He realised that his treatment of a ghazal on such an occasion would have to be expansive. He would have to create the atmosphere of a mehfil. The techniques of bol bannana or making the same set of words yield a new meaning on repetition learnt from his training in thumri came in handy when Mehdi Hasan sang at a concert or made recordings based on these performances. He was, along with that great star of qawwali singing, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the highest selling vocalist from the subcontinent.

One may digress for a moment to compare the styles of the two singers. Mehdi Hasans style was cool, collected and elegant, with just a touch of the foppish. Although hugely popular with a large cross-section of people who bought his albums, his concert fans at home and abroad were largely middle- and upper middle-class people. Nusrat Fateh Ali, both because of his nature and personality, was a gregarious, technically tremendously gifted qawwal, who remained a peoples artist till the end. It is also important to say that it is absurd to expect a peacock (Mehdi Hasan) to behave like a falcon (Nusrat Fateh Ali). In each case, the choice of a musical idiom the ghazal in the case of the dandy Mehdi Hasan and the qawwali for the overtly energetic folk hero Nusrat Fateh Ali can also be seen as the representation of a nations musical ideas at a given point in time.

Opinions split

If there were millions who worshipped Mehdi Hasan for his decorative, filigreed treatment of the ghazal, there were others who thought his singing, for all its tremendous technical accomplishments, was essentially decadent. His critics averred that he brought the techniques of bol bannana from thumri and incorporated them into ghazal singing but it did nothing to bring out the hidden nuances in the sher or couplet; they instead showed in how many different ways he could render the same line or misra, or even the beginnings of a misra, using mouth-watering taans and murkis.

In other words, they say his achievements were both technical and decorative but not of enduring artistic value. The examples they give in support of their case is that of Kundan Lal Saigal (1904-1947), the devotee of Salman Pir, a mystic of the Malavi sect, who initiated him into the secrets of z ikr and riyaaz, and Begum Akhtar (1914-1974), also known as Akhtari Bai Faizabadi in the first half of her career. Saigals rendering of a ghazal came straight to the heart of the matter and revealed its hidden philosophical depths. In his three-minute 78-RPM recordings he got to the point in the shortest possible time, and not for technical reasons alone. Begum Akhtar was a different kettle of fish. She knew the value of the decorative in her mehfil singing but would never sacrifice her intuitive perceptions of a couplet in a ghazal for the sake of a clever taan or murki; if she used them, it would be to bring out the meaning of a sher. The sonorous-voiced Iqbal Bano, in her majestic style, sculpted out the meaning of a given couplet and/or discovered the soul of the ghazal or nazm directly.

Mehdi Hasan fans would suggest that if you are looking for the intellectual pleasure to be derived from a great poets kalaam or poetry, proceed to the Urdu department of the nearest university. Do not expect, they would insist, to get cerebral nourishment from Mehdi Hasan; you can, however, soothe your nerves by a most tuneful flow of swaras, regardless of which poets ghazal he is singing. It is true that when his tendencies to over-embellish were under check, he was a marvellous singer. Take, for instance, that under-four-minute rendering of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalibs ghazal Phir Mujhe Deeda-e-Tar Yaad Aaya... during the poets death centenary year in 1969. This black-and-white PTV recording shows him at his best: utterly sureela, using difficult taans and the occasional sustained note with discretion and serving the purpose of this ghazal with total devotion.

There are, possibly, several reasons for Mehdi Hasan singing the way he did for over four decades. The titanic financial struggle he had to undergo on migrating to Pakistan, like many Mohajirs, put paid to his aspirations of becoming a classical singer, although he belonged to a gharana of distinguished Hindustani vocalists. He had to first work as a bicycle mechanic, before graduating to cars and tractors, for his daily bread.

The rigorous practice in different ragas continued, as did the art of thumri singing. He made his debut in films as a ghazal singer and quickly carved out his niche. He felt he could put his knowledge of khayal and thumri singing to fruitful use as a ghazal singer. As long as the taans, murkis and the khara swars or sustained noted were used judiciously in bringing out the meaning of a sher, the purpose was admirably served, when they were used as decoration it was just a display of technical mastery and nothing else.

His love of ragas was palpable in ghazals like Qateel Shifais Zindagi Mein To Sabhi Pyar Kiya Karte Hain (Bhimpalas); Faiz Ahmad Faizs Gulon Mein Rang Bhare (Jhinjhoti); Parveen Shakirs Ku Baku Phail Gayee Baat Shanasaiyee Kee (Darbari); Ahmad Farazs Shola Tha Jal Utha Hoon (Kirwani) and Ranjish Hi Sahi (Yaman); and Sahir Hoshiarpuris Mohabbat Karne Wale... (Khamaj). The raga-based ghazal was Mehdi Hasans forte.

Advancing age and indifferent health made him gradually change his technique. The tempo or laya of ghazals dropped, the fabled long, long breath was slowly disappearing, but through sheer mastery of technique and, towards the end, sheer memory of it he managed to remind listeners about what a fantastic performer he had once been, and that he was still good enough to command their attention. He was ably assisted in this enterprise by a highly resourceful tabla player, Ustad Taari Khan, who managed to sustain the listeners interest even when he sang in ati vilambit laya, or very slow tempo.

Keeping a very large family in reasonable comfort over a long time was a huge task. In a way his situation was similar to that of the shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan who had to work even at 90 in order to support a clan of eighty people in Varanasi. He had won accolades all over the world and had been courted by the rich, the famous and the powerful. In Pakistan and India he was a musical icon. Even those who were wary of Hindustani music took great pleasure in listening to the ragas when used as vehicles of expression in his ghazals.

An enduring image of Mehdi Hasan, in this writers mind, is that of a wiry, strong man in his thirties, with a pencil-thin moustache and a glint in his eye, very sure of his musical destiny.

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