With tapes and CDs becoming passê and Youtube and World Music having claimed our lives, it is hard to imagine a time when pirated music cassettes from Pakistan were like manna from heaven for lovers of the Urdu ghazal. And if the tape was of the shahenshah of ghazal gayaki (singing), the inimitable Mehdi Hassan, it was clearly a case of sone pe suhaga (icing on the cake). All through the 1970s and 80s, right up till the turn of the century when ill-health made it impossible for him to stir abroad, his trips to India drew rapturous audiences and his adaygi (style of presentation) inspired a generation of singers on both sides of the border.
With a characteristic, almost idiosyncratic style of singing with the breaking up of the first verse of a sher (verse), the matla (the first couplet of a ghazal), into several short phrases which would be repeated hypnotically over and over), a richly timbered voice and an instinctive understanding of the ghazal, Mehdi Hassan could transpose his listeners to a state when sound and meaning become one, a state of near-ecstasy, a state the Sufis have called sama. Despite his popularity, not much is known in India about the man who owned the golden voice. A coffee-table book on the maestro, entitled Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music (Liberty Books, Karachi) by veteran Pakistan journalist, Asif Noorani, contains several delightful nuggets of information. For instance, not many would know that despite being born into a family of musicians in his ancestral village of Luna in Rajasthan and taking his early taleem (training) from his father and uncle, Mehdi Hassan also learnt a mechanic's trade. In the early years following independence and his move to Pakistan, when recordings were hard to come by, he took up odd jobs repairing bicycles and assembling tractor engines. In fact, in an interview to Raza Ali Abidi, he claimed to have assembled about 300 to 400 diesel engines in the state of Bahawalpur while also taking time out to do his daily riyaz (practice). Sultan Arshad, the manager of PIA in Bombay, narrates an interesting incident in the book: Just before a performance at his home, the liftman accidentally dropped Mehdi Hassan's harmonium. The host was crestfallen, the audience dumbstruck but the great artiste, drawing on his early years of assembling machine parts, put it back together in no time.
Many commentators have noted Mehdi Hassan's instinctive knowledge of Urdu poetry in general and the peculiarities of the ghazal in particular. With no formal education, he relied on trying to understand the wazan (weight) of the ghazal;when he understood where the weight rested, he knew how to sing it so each fragment, each phrase, each pause become redolent with meaning. Perhaps that explains the haunting quality of his Faiz ghazals, such as Gulon mein rang bhare... (recorded in 1962) or Mir Taqi Mir's Yeh dhuan sa kahan se uthta hai (his own perennial favourite). In fact, such was the popularity of Gulon mein rang bhare... that Faiz is reported to have said: "Woh ghazal to ab unki ho gayi (That ghazal has become his)"!
While the Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Ahmed Faraz's ghazals in Mehdi Hassan's repertoire never fail to delight Indian audiences, the kalaam (poetry) of relatively lesser-known poets open the door to new voices and startlingly new poetic vocabularies;what is more, these poets would have remained unknown to many lovers of Urdu poetry had it not been for Mehdi Hassan's rendering. How many of us in India would know the kalaam of poets such as Masroor Anwar, Anwar Mirzapuri, Talib Baghpati, Farhat Shahzad or Saleem Jilani were it not for the maestro's golden voice? Unfortunately, we still don't know all of Mehdi Hassan's vast and varied oeuvre. Some early recordings are believed to be the most popular and - erroneously - taken as the best and therefore most representative. In this category would fall ghazals and nazms such as: Ranjish hi sahi, dil hi dukhane ke liye aa, Mujhe tum nazar se gira to rahe ho, Main nazar se pi raha hoon, Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain, Yeh dhuan kahan se uththa hai, Shola tha jal bujha hoon, Pyar bhare do sharmile nain, Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thee.
Unfortunately, we do not know much about the songs he had sung for the Pakistan film industry as a playback singer, or those he recorded for the radio, let alone his Persian recordings. This, perhaps, has something to do with the largely one-way traffic between India and Pakistan as far as the film industry of the two countries is concerned. But in the popular music category, and especially the ghazal, the Pakistani singers have always scored over their Indian counterparts. However, the immense popularity of certain ghazals in comparison to others is possibly due to the limitations of cross-border traffic. Even to this day, when limited trade has commenced between the two neighbours, when sugar and chemicals go from India and textiles and onyx come from Pakistan, books and music do not seem to fall within the parameters of free trade.
Mehdi Hassan suffered a debilitating stroke in 2001 which left his right side paralysed. Echoing the concern of thousands of Indian fans, the Indian Prime Minister, A B Vajpayee, wrote: 'Your music, like the music of all the great artistes of India and Pakistan, reminds us of the many common bonds of culture and spirituality that unite our two countries. ' In the years that followed, battling ill-health and financial constraints he, however, showed no diminishing of the two traits those close to him had most admired: simplicity and modesty. In the last years of his life as his circumstances grew more straightened and the voice that had gladdened millions grew silent, offers of help poured in from across the globe. When the end came and the call from the kooh-enida (the Mount of Summons) was heard, the Shahanshah of Ghazal went quietly into the night. May his soul rest in peace. May he receive the gifts of maghfirat and rehmat (mercy). May he continue to sing, enthralling the angels with his golden voice. And may he continue to live her hearts and teach us, afresh, new meanings in the old ghazals he sang so well.
This appeared in The Crest, Times of India, 16 June 2012