The remarkable thing about Mehdi Hassan was that he fashioned along with Begum Akhtar a style of singing that did not exist before them. The ghazal as a song was not part of our culture before the 20th century.
It was part of the canon of poetry which was recited and read, but not sung. The classical training of both these singers brought music to the words of the great Urdu poets.
The 1950s, not that long ago, is when the ghazal came into popular music. Its decline came only three decades later.
For this entire period, across the subcontinent, in Pakistan, in India and in the nations where Pakistanis and Indians live together, Mehdi Hassan was the undisputed king of ghazal singers. Many good singers came after him, for instance Jagjit Singh and Ghulam Ali.
|Mehdi Hassan with actor Dilip Kumar (L)
|Volunteers carry the body of legendary classical singer Mehdi Hassan at a hospital in Karachi
But for most the idea of the ghazal was linked to Hassan. He was adored in Gujarat, and often sang in Surat’s Gandhi Smruti Bhavan, where I first heard him in 1981. I was too young to notice his singing but still remember what a regal figure he was on stage.
My mother always loved the way he looked, and if you see his early photographs you will know why. He had a rough-hewn but intelligent face. The word I’m looking for is leonine. His expression was of a man lost elsewhere, thinking about the words being carried by his voice.
And what a voice it was.
He had the ability to deliver emotion, a rare talent and one that separates the very good singers of our music from the great ones. In keeping with the style of ghazals, this emotion that his voice carried was masculine but melancholic. Of all ghazal singers, his voice suited it best. It was convincing.
Technically, he was sound along with the other great Pakistani singer of ghazals, Ghulam Ali. Both of them were inclined towards classical Hindustani music and most of their compositions were in pure raag form.
Unlike Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh, however, Hassan’s best numbers were from the classical canon of Urdu poetry. Ghazals like Patta patta, by Mir, or Aye kuch abr, by Faiz. My favourite was the haunting Dekh to dil ke jaan say uthta hai, yeh dhuan sa kahan say uthta hai? It was made superb both by the quality of Mir’s writing and the gravelly sombre tone in which Hassan renders it. I cannot listen to it without being deeply moved.
Mehdi Hassan was a kind man, and forgiving. In the last of his singing years, this must have been about 15 years ago, a man from Calcutta booked Hassan for a concert. However he was unable to execute the show for some reason and did not inform Hassan till he came over, wasting his time and causing him loss.
If Hassan was overly angered by this he did not reveal it, and simply shrugged off a newspaper reporter’s inquiry. This sort of thing happened sometimes, he said, but he did not judge all Indians by such incidents. He would again trust the next man who invited him. But these invites had begun to taper off.
By the early 1990s, in both India and Pakistan the ghazal slipped as a form of popular music. It has now become esoteric, liked by only a few who are older. This is a great shame.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in 1997. In 15 years, there has been nobody who has come close to replacing him and who can be surprised by that?
Now another very great man is gone from our midst, the likes of whom we will not see again in our generation.
The Voice that was
► Singer Talat Aziz, Trained under Hassan
I feel a personal sense of loss. I was his ‘shagird’. He was a star. I don’t have words to describe his loss. He was a great asset to the world of ghazal. Though he was not singing for quite sometime, but he will still be missed.
► Abida Parveen, Sufi singer
I remember him saying I can see ‘sur’. We should celebrate him across India and Pakistan because he was an asset to both the countries. He was legendary. Such people come only once in a while.
► Adnan Sami, Singer
He has been an inspiration to anyone who has anything to do with music. He created an institution called Mehdi Hassan... I am still absorbing the news. It’s difficult to digest that he has passed away.
► Chitra Singh, wife of late Jagjit Singh
It is a great loss. Everyone learnt from his music, technique and style of singing. I had the opportunity to meet him and he was always encouraging. He had been unwell since quite sometime.
► Pyarelal, Veteran musician
He was not only a great singer but also a very good human being. I remember in the ‘80s we did a concert at my place and it was a big hit. He will always remain alive in our hearts.
► Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Grammy Award winner
An era of ghazal singing has come to an end. His ghazals were not complicated and could be understood by a layman. His command over Urdu made his singing more endearing. He was the uncrowned king of ghazal.
Lata Mangeshkar Bids Adieu To Mehdi Hassan
Jo baat unki awaaz mein tthi woh kisiki awaaz mein nahin tthi. He was blessed by God. And it pained me to see him suffer so much in the last 10 years. Only God knows what he was suffering for. He had a very unique vocal identity. Many tried to sing ghazals like him. But Mehdi Saab was Mehdi Saab. I recorded a song with him under very peculiar circumstances. We were supposed to sing a duet Tera milna bahut achcha lagta hai with him.
Due to his ill health he couldn’t come to India and I couldn’t go to Pakistan. So we recorded the duet about milna bahut... (how much we like meeting) without meeting. Such is the irony of life. It was his composition and we should’ve sung it together. He later said that he had only one regret as a musician, that he couldn’t sing with me. I remember by the time we sent the tape of our duet to him he was unable to understand fully what was going on around him.
His final years were not happy. You see, when you are younger you often fail to plan for your later years. Mehdi Saab spent so much money on his family. He had 13 children and I’ve heard the entire family, including his married daughters with their husbands and children lived together in that house he had built. I met him for the first time in Canada some 40 years ago.
I had gone to Kingston and we drove all the way to Ottawa for his concert. To my utter surprise as soon I entered the auditorium he stopped his performance and got up with all his musicians to welcome me. He later came to meet me in Kingston. When he performed in Mumbai for the first time I was there at the concert. I spoke at the concert. The last time I met him was some years ago.
He had already suffered a paralytic stroke and he was on a wheelchair. When he was wheeled into my home my sister-in-law Bharti (Hridaynath Mangeshkar’s wife) broke down. We were all his fans. When he saw me he broke down and cried. I think he was saddened by the fact that he met me in such a condition.
He loved my Marathi song Mehndi cha panaware composed by my brother Hridaynath. He was ill for 9-10 years. He didn’t deserve to suffer so much.”