A tribute to the greatest gazal singer of our time.
The first I heard about Mehdi Hassan, who I call an amazing ghazal traash (sculptor of ghazals), was in 1966 when a friend brought me a reel-to-reel tape of a Pakistani Radio recording of something he said would spellbind me. He insisted that he had never heard such a voice, such meticulous Urdu pronunciation and articulation of ghazals by famous Urdu poets.
Knowing our shared taste for ghazals, I didn’t doubt him. But the problem was that as student I did not have a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Once I found one, I was enthralled to discover the recording of an upcoming Pakistani ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan singing his famous ghazal, “Gulon mein rang bhare.” I loved it. Thus far the only ghazals I had heard were all sung by Begum Akhtar, such as “Aye muhabbat tere anjaam pe rona aya.”
It so happened, the next time I heard Mehdi Hassan was after I had arrived in Washington as a student in the 1970s. I think, it was his first live concert in the U.S. and I was excited that I would get to see him sing live on stage, almost roobaroo (face to face).
And for more than two hours he showed us how a ghazal should be sung, how it can be composed in an Indian raga to make it immortal, and how and when, which part of the verse should be highlighted. Basically, what I felt was that only Mehdi Hassan could bring the real meaning and spirit of ghazals alive and convey to you with great ease what the shayar (the poet) really wants to say. It could be “Yeh dhuan kahan se uthta hai” or “Yeh rakh akhir dil na banjaye” or “Ranjish hi sahi.”
And much later after another concert in the US capital, when I interviewed him on behalf of Voice of America, he confirmed everything I had thought about him and his magic. He said he chose to compose them into ragas because a raga, be it Bhairavi or Darbari, always sounds fresh and once a ghazal is composed in that raga, the ghazal will always remain popular and never die. And he said he always tries to find out the bhava or the emotional premise of a particular ghazal and then chooses a raga that can pry the poet’s feelings out so it touches the hearts of audiences. All his ghazals were composed in a way that even today magically highlight the poet’s feelings.
That is why, unlike others, I don’t call him the King of Ghazals, as people have often described the late Jagjit Singh, another stalwart. I love Jagjit’s gayaki also, but for me with his heavy voice and subtle nuances, Jagjit was a well-trained horse racing on a well defined track, while Mehdi Hassan was like a wild deer running freely, hither and thither, in green pastures sometimes, in dense jungles at others, but always coming back to the basic raga and or as they say in Hindi, the sum. I find Mehdi Hassan even two notches above Ghulam Ali, whom I also admire fondly.
So instead of King of Ghazals, I like to call Mehdi Hassan a ghazal traash, who with his gayaki and purely magical voice chisels an imaginary and abstract statue of sounds — the ghazal. The notes are so entrancing that it is difficult sometimes to separate his lower notes from those of the harmonium.
I always feel he is like a sang traash, who first chooses, say a sad romantic ghazal by Ahmed Faraz, and then selects a raga to accompany its mood, and then with his skillful husky voice and true notes, he gives the ghazal its real shape, sculpting it in some places and chiseling it in others, to bring to us the real emotional premise of the poet, the true spirit in which it was written.
He established a new era in the ghazal gayaki. The styles of the ghazal gayaki will be always known as “the pre-Mehdi Hassan era” and “the post Mehdi Hassan era.” And little wonder that in this “post Mehdi Hassan era,” we see so many male ghazal singers trying to follow his style.
I can never forget how my little son and daughter, sitting in my lap in my family room in Virginia, used to listen to Mehdi Hassan, even though they did not understand the language. But the result is heartwarming. My son Brittan often questions me about the different ragas and their moods and wants me to leave for him my huge collection of Mehdi Hassan ghazals once I depart this world. And my daughter Samiha loves Indian classical music, and the other day, called from Durham to ask me what the Urdu word suroor means.
My last roobaroo mulakat (face to face meeting) with the maestro was in Washington on a beautiful summer evening at a live concert arranged by the Smithsonian Institute on the lawns of one of their museums. I can never forget when my ghazal god, limped from his chair, and with great difficulty and with the help of his sons, slowly climbed the 10 or so stairs to reach the podium. I was sitting on the lawns below among some 150 fans. We were concerned that the maestro was physically faltering and wondered whether he would be able to sing as usual. But when he began singing in his even deeper and huskier voice, we were reassured that the shola (fire) is still not extinct after all.
And now that he is gone and his voice fills the stillness of my small living room in New Delhi, I wonder if ever there will be another Mehdi Hassan. As his voice consumes the silence of the room around me, singing “Shola tha jal bujha hoon, hawaein mujhe na do, mein kab ka ja chuka hoon, sadayeien mujhe na do,” (The fire is extinguished; don’t try to reignite me. I am long gone; beckon not now for my return) I feel tears quietly rolling down my cheeks.
For ghazal lovers everywhere, Mehdi Hazan’s embers will never die.