By Ishtiaq Ahmed
On Wednesday when I got up in the morning and began to get organised to write my weekly column, the idea I had in mind was to return to the Lahore-Bombay film industry theme that was suspended some time ago. I was hoping to follow a chronological order of presentation, but an email from the Urdu writer Arif Waqar announcing the sad demise of ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan (July 18, 1927-June 13, 2012) meant that the revival of the series now begins from this immediate event. It is just as well as it demonstrates the bottom line underpinning the series: that culture unites while politics divides.
Who can deny that a very rich and glorious shared culture formed over several centuries links the people of India and Pakistan, politics, wars, religions notwithstanding? In the 20th century, the Urdu ghazal (a poetic lament rhythmically probing multiple feelings in autonomous verses) and northern Indian classical raga music, in its lighter form, became the core ingredients of that cultural confluence as it moved out of courtesans’ quarters into regular society. Begum Akhtar, Malika Pukhraj and other great singers became its celebrated exponents. The legendary K L Saigal embellished it with his own inimitable qualities and mastery. In Pakistan, Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano continued that tradition, while Talat Mahmood established a more popular interpretation of ghazal singing in the Indian film industry. After him, the mantle of ghazal-singing passed on to Mehdi Hassan, who established a wholly new genre of ghazal-singing.
The most cherished compliments are always those given by peers of impeccable stature, and Mehdi Hassan received them in abundant measure. When Madam Noor Jahan heard his song Ye dhuoan kahan se uthta hai, she was so completely entranced that she wanted to meet at once the man whose voice had created such magic. The doyen of Indian female singers, Lata Mangeshkar, probably gave him the most deserving compliment when she remarked, “God speaks through the throat of Mehdi Hassan.”
When, after the 1971 war, tensions between India and Pakistan somewhat diminished, Mehdi Hassan was immediately invited to India. His performances in live concerts during several Indian tours made him a living legend, and he became the cultural ambassador of not two estranged states, but of the people of the two countries. Among his most ardent fans was the former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Mehdi Hassan received excellent medical treatment in India when he was seriously sick. In both India and Pakistan, a number of singers adopted Mehdi Hassan’s style of singing. The late Jagjit Singh, Hariharan and Pervez Mehdi come to mind immediately.
Therefore, the news of Mehdi Hassan’s death brought forth an outpouring of grief from both sides of the India-Pakistan border. All leading Pakistani and Indian newspapers spoke with one voice when they eulogised Mehdi Hassan in their obituaries. The Indian Zee News observed, “The voice of God transcends into heaven.”
Mehdi Hassan was born in village Luna, Rajasthan, India, into a family of noted classical singers going back 16 generations. Such a pedigree meant that foundational training and education at his disposal were enviable. Yet making a name for himself was an uphill task. The family had migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and faced all the hardships that such drastic relocation entails. For years, ‘music connoisseurs’ deemed his voice fit only for radio performances and not films. However, Radio Pakistan’s Salim Gilani gave him the backing he needed. His interpretation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Gulon main rang bharey baad-e-nau bahar challe in the joyful Raag Jhinjhoti changed sceptical opinion quickly. His rendering of Ahmed Faraz’s Ranjish hee sahi, dil hee dukhane ke lye aa in the proverbially melancholic Raag Amen/Yaman Kalyan elevated romantic people into ecstatic sublimation.
My absolutely favourite ghazals sung by Mehdi Hassan have been Ahmed Faraz’s Shola thaa jal uthahon, hawain mujhe na do, in Raag Kirvani, a raga whose pathos and hurt most appropriately expressed Faraz’s feelings; Hafiz Hoshiarpuri’s Mohabat karne waley kum naa hongey in the romantic Raag Khamaj is supreme beauty; Qateel Shifai’s greatest ghazal, Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain in the romantic Raag Bhimpilasi, immortalised both the poet and the singer; and of course, Parveen Shakir’s Ku baku phail gai baat shanasai kee in the majestic Raag Darbari was the ultimate demonstration of Mehdi Hassan’s talent. It is in their extended versions performed in private and television concerts that Mehdi Hassan could display his unique skills in elaborating the raga finesses and his perfect diction to create immortal beauty.
My admiration for Mehdi Hassan extended beyond his extraordinary merits as a singer to include his uncanny habit of uttering controversial statements. I remember him saying that the partition of India was a great conspiracy. Such a blunt opinion was quite unpalatable in Pakistan. I believe he was harassed for quite some time. However, he remained steadfast to the idea of friendship and amity between the peoples of Pakistan and India. Ultimately, that vision will prevail but his contributions in paving the way have to be remembered and acknowledged. A day shall come when leading Indian singers can give concerts in Pakistan as well. Up until now, it has been only one-way traffic.
There was a downside to Mehdi Hassan’s blunt manners, however; at times, he could be extremely derisive of fellow singers. However, we human beings have our strengths and weaknesses and that is what makes each individual unique. Mehdi Hassan’s strength was undoubtedly his trendsetting light classical rendition of ghazals.
The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South AsianStudies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Daily Times, 17 June 2012