Mehdi Hasan filled different vacuums in India and Pakistanby Saeed Naqvi
MEHDI Hasan once said he aspired to do for Urdu ghazal what his relative Ustad Amir Khan did for Hindustani classical singing.
Amir Khan controlled and stabilised the note on which, with effortless deliberation, he built the architecture of a raga.
With similar control on the note, Mehdi Hasan proceeded to sketch the raga, not build it, so that he could superimpose its outlines on the mood of each ghazal.
Ahmad Faraz’s lyrical ghazal (unlike, say, Ghalib’s intellectually taxing verse) Ranjish hi sahi has been given a hauntingly original tune by Mehdi Hasan in raga Yaman Kalyan. It will never be just a passing tune. Phool hi phool khil uthey has been adorned with Megh, Kedar and Bahar, something of an overkill, but pleasing, because the notes match the words.
Casting the ghazal consistently in the mould of classical ragas is a singular contribution of Mehdi Hasan.
Amir Khan would never have dreamt of such large audiences. But this limitation on the size of audiences is an unintended consequence of the choice a classical musician makes in any society. Yehudi Menuhin would never have aspired to fill football stadia. Even so, let it be said that Amir Khan in his day, like Ulhas Kushalkar, for instance, today, could fill the National Centre for Performing Arts at Nariman Point in Mumbai — and elsewhere.
The extraordinary popularity of Mehdi Hasan and the genre he mastered is also an interesting sociological study. It filled a need in India for one set of reasons and in Pakistan for quite another.
The ‘dhishum-dhishum’ cinema of the 1980s, dominated by Amitabh Bachchan, took the lyric out of Bollywood song. The Indian sensibility, reared for centuries on the rural, pastoral lyric, felt an aesthetic vacuum. The prospect of hum, tum ek kamrey mein band hon becoming a staple was forbidding. This space was filled up by the Urdu ghazal. The market found the commodity.
In Pakistan music was being muzzled by the votaries of Islamisation. Abdul Karim Khan’s youngest daughter, Roshanara Begum, migrated to Pakistan and proceeded to fade out in the absence of sponsors or an audience. Her sister Hirabai Barodekar thrived in India.
The bogus conflict created by the clergy between music and shariah in Pakistan snuffed out pure classical music. This in its turn created the space for the ghazal which Mehdi Hasan cleverly tied to classical music. Singing Urdu ghazal was kosher for the mullah; music otherwise was not!
Of course, Mehdi Hasan cannot claim monopoly over ghazal singing. So many in previous generations have bummed Ghalib sung by KL Saigal. It is a flawed understanding of the history of music that, somehow, ghazal has a long tradition of being a musical art form. Yes, simple, low brow versifiers did set words to accompany the seductive dance rhythms of the ‘nautch’ girl at the ‘Mujra’.
Kamla Jharia’s two ghazals mark an emancipation from the ‘nautch’ parlour. A little later, Malika Pukhraj left her stamp with ghazals like Be zubani zubaan na ho jaaye or Taskeen ko hum na royein and, of course, Hafeez Jullundhari’s nazm Abhi to main jawaan hoon, all sung with unsurpassed vigour and verve.
One of the reasons for the tardy progress of the ghazal to the concert stage has been an occasional ego conflict between the singer and the poet. Except for a remarkable ghazal of Mir Taqi Mir’s Dil ki baat kahi naheen jaati, which she sang, full throated, like a thrush, when she was a young Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, Begum Akhtar (the transformation occurred when she married a minor aristocrat) seldom sang great poetry.
Only when she was roped in by Shiela Bhatia and SM Mehdi to provide music for a play on Ghalib did she add the great poet to her repertoire.
Those eager to know more about Mehdi Hasan should also visit the haveli of the thakurs of Bisau, 40 kilometres from Jhunjhunu where his father Azim Khan and uncle Ismail Khan sang.
As a 20-year old he migrated leaving his thatch-roofed house in Luna, Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan. Today, after news of his death, a memorial is being planned in his place of birth. Yes, he crossed the border in 1947 but then, on the wings of his art, he transcended all boundaries, committing to posterity the best in poetry and song, visiting everyone everywhere.
Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist and distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
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