The demise of Mehdi Hassan: The day the music diedby Omar Khasru
A FEW excerpted stanzas from the exceptional 1971 musical composition, American Pie, are as follows:
… Something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
And the three men I admire most —
the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost —
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
This was singer Don McLean’s signature song and magnum opus. It recounted the death of promising and gifted young singers and musicians, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Perry Richardson, in a late night plane crash on February 3, 1959 in an Iowa cornfield in the US Midwest. Buddy Holly was only 22 years old.
Buddy Holly teamed up with Perry Richardson (‘Chantilly Lace’ fame) and Richie Valens (‘La Bamba’) to avert looming bankruptcy. His career spanned merely a year and a half with just one number one single, yet had tremendous influence on rock ‘n’ roll. He popularised the two-guitar, one bass, one drum combination that many prominent acts, including the Beatles, later adopted.
Speaking of the Beatles, in the chilly evening of December 8, 1980, David Chapman, a deranged gunman, shot and killed ex-Beatle John Lennon. The musician par excellence, social commentator and iconoclastic activist, pop icon, and arguably the predominant member of the pioneering band, was walking into his New York City apartment building. Coincidentally I was in NYC then.
The December 22, 1980 Time magazine cover on departed Lennon proclaimed, ‘The day the music died!’ On the 10th anniversary of his murder, family and friends recalled his life and death in a People magazine article, likewise titled, ‘The day the music died’. On the 30th anniversary of the unfortunate incident, Indianapolis Post, a distinguished news daily, published an article in memoriam on December 7, 2010, captioned, ‘John Lennon: The day the music died?’
If the music metaphorically died after the Iowa plane crash that killed the triumvirate of gifted young musicians and later when John Lennon was shot dead, a part of it certainly and symbolically died with the demise of the legendary and celebrated Shahensha-e-Ghazal (ghazal king), Mehdi Hassan.
Mehdi Hassan, proficient singer and composer, who was born on July 18, 1927, died on June 3, 2012 in a Karachi hospital after protracted illness. The 84-year-old Indian-born singer and ghazal maestro, who captivated millions of fans with his divine voice and multitude of memorable songs, died of multiple organ failure. He ‘passed away at 12:22pm after a long battle against different ailments,’ his son Arif Hassan said.
‘My father had been ill for the past 12 years and had multiple… ailments,’ Arif stated. Hundreds of fans gathered at the hospital, hearing of Mehdi Hassan’s demise. His end came eight months after the death of fêted and skilled Indian ghazal singer Jagjit Singh, who was influenced by Mehdi Hassan.
Mehdi Hassan was a devoted cultural bridge between India and Pakistan. Till the very end, he yearned for his country of birth, India. He had last performed there in 2000 and had planned to visit in 2008 but the trip was cancelled due to the Mumbai attack, perpetrated allegedly by Pakistani trained terrorists.
In 2010 he again wanted to visit India. But owing to poor health, this trip was also called off. Despite ill health, he had a keen desire to sing with melody queen Lata Mangeshkar. In 2010 Sarhadein, an album, which included the only duet song ever by Mehdi Hassan and Lata, was released.
The two consummate singers had collaborated for the gripping and stunning number, ‘Tera Milana’. Mehdi Hassan composed the song and recorded his part in Pakistan in 2009. Later, Lata heard the track and recorded her part in India in 2010. The tracks were later morphed together for a duet.
In her condolence message, Lata lamented, ‘A singer like him is born once in a millennium. It is my bad luck that I could not sing with him when he was healthy. Now I can only regret. With his demise the music fraternity has lost a great and legendary singer.’
Due to Indo-Pakistan conflicts and his ill health, the possibility for the two mutually admiring iconic and accomplished vocalists to create magical, mystical and mesmerising music together was an intricate and arduous proposition. That remote possibility has become utterly unattainable now that the living legend is no longer living. That explains the helpless and anguished heartache and despair on the part of Lata.
News of his death triggered similar outpouring of grief in Pakistan and India as well as here in Bangladesh. The singer had millions of fans in the subcontinent. Tributes and condolences poured in from all over.
Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh expressed deep sorrow and said that Mehdi Hassan had ‘brought the sub-continental Sufi sensibilities to life through his songs.’ Pakistan premier Yousuf Raza Gilani described the dearly departed singer as ‘an icon who mesmerised music lovers not only in Pakistan but also in the subcontinent for many decades.’
The Pakistani singer had legions of fans in Bangladesh as well. He sang a few famous Bangla songs. The Bangladesh prime minister and the leader of the opposition, who seldom agree on anything or anyone, let alone a Pakistani, both paid rich tributes and were effusive in their praise of the deceased vocalist.
Sheikh Hasina expressed her grief in a statement, ‘I am deeply saddened. His death has created an irrevocable vacuum in the music world.’ Khaleda Zia in a condolence message said, ‘A pall of gloom has descended on the subcontinent, including Pakistan, with the demise of the legendary ghazal maestro.’
Mehdi Hassan was born into a family of traditional and professional musicians at Luna village in the Indian state of Rajasthan in 1927. He claimed to be the 16th generation of musicians belonging to Kalewant clan of melodic tradition and heredity.
Mehdi Hssan’s life and times, including early musical career, was no bed of roses. The man with the golden voice had to go through many trials, travails and tribulations. His family lived in relative poverty and financial hardship.
The career growth of the renowned singer may be tagged in stages as that of challenge, struggle, resolve, diligence, devotion, dignity and lofty achievements, eventually leading to exalted name and glorious fame. The world of music and the musical community were all the richer for it.
His early grooming was at the hands of his father, Ustad Azeem Khan, and uncle Ustad Ismail Khan. Dhrupad, an austere and ancient musical mode, was their specialty and they instilled it in the young Mehdi Hassan. He displayed rare penchant and immense passion for music at an early age. In his teens he was recognised as a rising talent and was in demand at various musical events.
In 1947, with the partition of British India and creation of two nations, Mehdi Hassan and his family migrated to Pakistan and initially settled in the Punjabi village of Chichawatni. The newly independent country was in teething pain and turmoil with no opportunity for a young migrant musician to perform and thrive.
To make ends meet, Mehdi Hassan started working in a bicycle shop and later became a mechanic to fix cars and diesel tractors. Despite the adversity, heavy workload and difficult tasks, his fervour for music persisted. He routinely practised after hard days’ work and persevered with vocal exercises at night.
The struggle abetted somewhat when Mehdi Hassan was offered the opening to sing on Radio Pakistan in 1952. His success was meteoric and he soon earned the recognition within the musical fraternity. He became associated with literary and musical elite. His voice as a playback singer was subsequently featured in many Pakistani films.
Mehdi Hassan realised that that the Pakistani crowd had an appetite for ghazal. He diligently and painstakingly studied Urdu poetry. With the knowledge of ragas and percussions, he had the added advantage as a composer to convert verses into melodies. Leading poets and song writers were happy to let him sing their verses.
Through sheer skill and expertise and the divine voice, he became the Indian subcontinent’s outstanding exponent of ghazal, a form of Urdu lyric and verse, set to appropriate raga melodies. The songs are filled with pathos, yearning, loss, injustice, unrequited love and bliss. Mehdi Hassan evoked these with rare insight. It is reported that he sang more than 50,000 ghazals in his lifetime, aptly earning the moniker ‘emperor of ghazal’.
When his singing acumen was recognised and his fame spread far and wide, Mehdi Hassan toured the world to packed auditoriums full of adoring followers and fans. He enthralled many with his golden voice, incomparable music and unforgettable melodies. His popularity in India was immense. He was held in awe and respect in Bangladesh as well.
I remember a live concert in 1970 in Dhaka that was broadcast over the local government radio station. He received repeated thunderous applause, accolades and appreciation by his spell binding performance. His fervent and avid fans listened to him with rapt attention and admiration late into the night, enjoyed every moment of it and cherished the splendour of the angelic voice.
His one visit to Nepal was particularly memorable. While singing at the palace of the then King Birendra, he was so exhausted that his concentration faltered for a moment and he wavered. The king, a devoted admirer, stood up and continued with the ghazal as best he could. Hassan acknowledged the king’s gracious assistance and then rendered the verse as only he could.
Following his illness in the late 1980s, Mehdi Hassan cut back on his live performance and stopped playback singing. Later due to severity of his illness, he stopped singing altogether. He had been in and out of hospital over the last three years with multiple illnesses. And now he may be performing with his old zest for the pleasure of the virtuous audience, a rare treat even in heaven.
Mehdi Hassan leaves behind a legacy and a treasure trove of enchanting melodies that will last for ages and generations. The English translation of a part of one of his famous ghazals reads as follows:
If we now part, we might find each other in dreams
like dry flowers pressed against the pages of books.
Those consequences that have torn us apart today
Remarkable perhaps tomorrow, the world may call those fate
Close your eyes and use your fancy imagination. You can almost hear him sing with his heavenly lilting voice and melodious tune. The pure and perfect, and unique Mehdi Hassan voice makes it easily comparable in quality, significance, melody and tune with the enduring and riveting Don McLean song, American Pie.
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