A classical or typical ghazal is all about longing and belonging; of tears, heartbreak, pain and rejection… though not of the Kolaveri brand!

But today the genre of the ghazal itself is weeping, for one of its rarest, most precious and most beloved soulmates. The voice of Mehdi Hassan, who took the ghazal to new classical heights, whose powerful and passionate, soulful and brilliant rendering of the ghazal remains unmatched and unparalleled, has fallen silent.

For somebody who was plain crazy… and crazy is a mild word here…. about Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals, the opportunity to listen to him performing live at a music concert in Chennai in April 1994 was gratefully seized. My husband and I booked our tickets for the show well in advance.

Closer to the concert, Habibullah Badshah, one of Chennai’s celebrated lawyers, who was part of the group that had organised Mehdi saab’s mehfil in Chennai, called to ask if I would be interested in interviewing him.

“Yes, yes, yes,” I said, all excited. “Then you might want to listen to him at the private mehfil we’ve organised at the Park Sheraton," he said.

Complete bliss

Even today, I vividly remember the magic spell the Shehensha of Ghazal cast on that little group in the hotel. He transformed all of us to a hitherto unexplored, untested world of bliss with his brilliant rendering of the timeless classics of the best of Urdu poets. I particularly recall from that evening swaying to two of his evergreen ghazals… “Yu zindagi ki raah mei, takra gaya koi; ek roshni andherey mei bikhra gaya koi. (In life’s journey I stumbled upon somebody who lighted up the darkness of my life); and the absolutely tender and romantic ghazal by Qateel Shifai, Zindagi mei toh sabhi pyar kiya kartey hei, mei to mar kar bhi meri jaan tujhe chahoonga (The living always get the blessing of love, but I will continue to love you even after death).

Well, who wouldn’t want to be loved like that… or at least yearn for the beloved to love one thus!

I then went to the music concert open to the public where Mehdi saab went out of his way to explain the nazaakat (nuances) of the finest Urdu poetry or the ghazals he was singing, careful to explain all the time : “This city understands music like none other, but I do know that you people are not too familiar with Urdu).

He was one ghazal singer for whom the raga, the dhun and the taal were extremely important; often during live performances, he would get frustrated and irritated with the accompanying musicians if they couldn’t get a beat right.

But two days of the Mehdi Hassan magic left me thirsting for more. I found out that the Prince of Arcot, Nawab Abdul Ali, a good friend, was organising a private concert of the great ghazal singer in his opulent palace - the Amir Mahal. When I sought an invite, he was most gracious but surprised too: “I never thought you are a ghazal fan; I stopped inviting you because you don’t come for most of our events, but you are most welcome”, was his response.

The voice of God

Another enchanting evening of Mehdi Hassan’s magic followed. After soaking up three evenings of divine music, I could fully comprehend what Lata Mangeshkar meant when she had said around that time: “Mehdi Sahab ke galey mei Bhagwan bolta hei. Meri subha unki ghazal se shuroo hoti hei aur meri shaam unkey awaaz se khtam hoti hei (God sings in his voice; my mornings begin with and my evenings end with Mehdi Hassan’s voice).

But sadly, that was the last time I heard him live.

According to Wikipedia, Mehdi Hassan was born on July 18 in 1927 in Luna, a village in Rajasthan, and learnt music from his father Ustad Azeem Khan. After partition, the family migrated to Pakistan and to make ends meet he started working in a bicycle shop in Lahore. But his passion for music continued and he would practice every day.

His lucky break came in 1957 when Radio Pakistan gave him an opportunity to sing, primarily as a thumri singer. But he was deeply interested in the ghazal, and soon got a break in Pakistani movies.

In my collection of Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals, I have three versions of my favourites such as Yun zindiga ki raah mei, first sung in a passable sing-song manner for a Pakistani film, the second as a more respectable ghazal and the third one in a sublime and unmatched classical style.

In my interview he told me that he hails from a family of traditional musicians, and his was the 16th generation in the Kalawant clan of musicians. He said his visit that year was an annual pilgrimage to India to pay homage to his ancestors who were buried in Rajasthan.

Barely a couple of ghazal singers have captured, as Mehdi Hassan has, the yearning and desire, the passion, the pain and the pathos, that are the defining emotions captured in the ghazals of masters such as Shifai, Faiz Ahmed Faiz (Gulo mei rang bharey), Mirza Ghalib (Dile nadaan tujhe hua kya hei), or Ahmed Faraz (Shola tha jal bujha hu, hawaye mujhe na doh, Mei kab ka ja chukka hu sadaye mujhe nado - Once a flame, I’ve been extinguished, don’t rekindle me; I left long ago, don’t call for me), or Saleem Kausar (Mei khayal hoon kisi aur ka).

And then, of course, there is one of my favourite most…the Bahadur Shah Zafar ghazal that Mehdi Hassan has elevated to the sublime – Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi toh na thi (I never found it as impossible to articulate my feelings as I do now). Its other couplets deserve a mention… Unki aankhon ne khuda jaaney kiya kya jadoo, ke tabiyat meri mayil kabhi aisi toh na thi (God knows what magic your eyes worked, I’ve never felt this way before). Le gaya chheen ke kaun aaj tera sabro qaraar, Beqarari tujhe ai dil kabhi aisi toh na thi) Who has snatched away you equanimity, you were never as agitated as this).

But as with many exceptional artistes Mehdi Hassan, too, fell upon bad times, and his family struggled to meet his medical costs following a stroke. I was most touched to get a mail from a fellow staffer in The Hindu group, after writing about Mehdi Hassan’s medical condition in Business Line a few years ago. It said: “I am a great fan of Mehdi saab and have many friends who would like to make a contribution for his medical treatment. Can you find out where and to whom can we send our contribution?”

It is passion and love for music fit for the gods, that transcends borders, that transcends the idiom of hate sought to be preached by those who have over long years questioned why India should allow Pakistani singers/artistes to perform on our soil while the Pakistani establishment encourages/sponsors terrorism on our soil. A poignant piece of news as he battled with his life in the ICU was people in his village of Luna, Rajasthan, praying for him, with a local priest leading the prayers!

As this ghazal maestro passes on into a hopefully gentler world without borders, all that my heart asks for is…. Ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhane ke liye aa, Aa phir se mujhe (humein) chhod ke jaaney ke liye aa… (Be it only for causing sorrow and pain to the heart, but come once again, if for nothing else, to leave us and depart.)


(This article was published on June 13, 2012)
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