Mehdi Hassan was a thinking singer. Undaunted with the decline of film music, he used his moorings in classical music and experiences with film composers to develop his music that had nothing to do with films. It is this dimension that separates him from his contemporaries.
Mehdi Hassan (sometimes rendered “Hasan”) had a flair for poetry and served his soul, singing Talat Mahmood’s ghazals in private functions. In fact, it was through the vocals of Talat that he realized the goldmine in his throat. Talat’s Ek main hoon ek meri bekasi ki shaam hai and Husn walon ko na dil had left a permanent impression on him. Once, while singing these two numbers on stage in Rawalpindi, he held an audience of thousands spellbound and collected a whopping amount in a trice! Later, he became a part-time ghazal singer for Radio Pakistan, Karachi. Thanks to ZA Bokhari and Saifuddin Saif initially and then the poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Qatil Shifai, Ahmad Faraz, Himayat Ali Shair and Muneer Niazi who helped the Rajasthani master the language and its talaffuz.
Mehdi Hassan signaled his forte with C Faiz’s classic composition of Ilahi aansoo bhari zindgi for the film, Hamen Bhi Jeene Do in 1963. It was not a very popular song by public taste. But a year later, Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s, Gulon mein raang bhare, (later used in the film, Farangi, 1964) helped Mehdi Hassan make his first major impact. A string of immortal film ditties soon followed:
Then Sohail Rana moved his magic wand for Mujhe tum nazar se (Doraha, 1967) and Ek naye mod pe (Ehsan,1967) and Nisar Bazmi cast his pearls, Yoon zindagi ki raah mein takra gaya koi (Aag, 1967) and Ik sitam aur meri jan (Saiqa,1968).
Gulon mein raang bhare / Faiz Ahmed Faiz
The Mehdi Hassan we know was thus born.
One may debate that the music directors and the lip-synching by matinee idols, especially Waheed Murad and Mohammad Ali added substantial lustre to his songs. Partly true, as by mid seventies, when these composers became spent forces and the actors got typed, his songs suffered barring some compositions from Robin Ghosh like Pyar bhare do sharmeele nain or Kabhi main sochta hun.
But Mehdi Hassan was a thinking singer. Undaunted with the decline of film music, he used his moorings in classical music and experiences with film composers to develop his music that had nothing to do with films. Mind you, it was the days of Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano too and yet Mehdi Hassan stood apart. It is this dimension that separates him from his contemporaries.
Baat karni mujhe mushkil / Bahadur Shah Zafar
His first big one outside the film world was Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Baat karni mujhe mushkil in 1975 which was his own composition.
Ghazal after ghazal followed, including
* Dagh’s Ghazab kiya tere vaade pe aitbar kiya,
* Ghalib’s Dile-e-nadan tujhu hua kya hai,
* Mir’s Patta patta boota boota,
* Momin’s Vo jo hum mein, tum mein qarar tha,
* Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s Muhabbat karne waley kum na honge,
* Razi Tirmizi’s Bhooli bisri chund umeedein,
* Hafeez Jalandhari’s Hum hi mein thi na koi baat,
* Jigar Moradabadi’s Teri khushi se agar gham mein bhi khushi na hui.
Patta Patta Boota Boota / Mir Taqi Mir
And then the relatively unknown
* Saleem Jilani’s Phool hi phool khil uthe mere,
* Farhat Shahzad’s Khuli jo aankh to vo tha,
* Shaayar Lakhnavi’s Jo thakey thakey se the hausle,
* Mohsin Naqvi’s Jab pukara hai tujhe apni…
you just name it, he was supreme all through to become the rehnuma of a new school of ghazals.
But if listeners think that his art was developed during this period, they are wrong; for some of his finest thumris, e.g. Dukhwa main kaa se kahun mori sajni, Tu aaja rasiya, nadia kinare mora gaon happen to be of the ‘60s, just as his self-composed piece, Ahmad Faraz’s Ranjish hi sahi (later used in a film) or the Bangla piece Harano diner kotha (which easily ranks with Tagore’s Purano shei diner kotha or Hemanta’s Muchhey jawa dinguli if one is to judge it by the theme of the song). His Punjabi Heer or the Rajasthani Maand that date back to the same time were equally exquisite. Therefore, with the film songs cited above, labeling him as the shehenshah-e- ghazal, as most do, would only be unfair to him. He was much above that.
Ranjish hi sahi / Ahmad Faraz
At the peak of his career he was traveling all over the map, loved by all. From the heads of states to those in the streets. Once, while singing in the court of Nepal’s King Shah Birendra Bir Bikram, he forgot the lines of his song, Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain. The king stood up and sang the next line for him. He was robbed on the highway, but when the robbers came to know of his identity they returned to him all they took; but not before the master hummed them some lines of their favourite numbers. Such was his control and influence over music lovers.
A man of tameez and tehzeeb, during his visit to Calcutta, he went straight from the airport to ailing Hemanta’s house to the immense pleasure of the Mukherjee family. The Bengali singer’s beauties of the ‘50s, Yeh raat yeh chandni, Jane vo kaise, etc., haunted him. When he heard Manna Dey’s Madhushala, he was ecstatic and said, ‘How could a film singer sing such songs?’ When his musicians were paid late or underpaid, he would use his purse for their relief.
Mehdi Hassan had the finesse to extract the finest from Urdu’s versified poetry and its delicate images. He touched the finer chords of emotion and, in so doing, gave the listener pleasure, intellectually or spiritually, to add to the totality of pleasure in living. His vocalism was so pure and authentic that, to Naushad Ali, he was the greatest expert of ghazal gayaki; to Lata, the Bhagwan’s voice and for Noorjahan, a Tansen.
Mehdi Hassan passed away in 2012. A paralytic stroke that felled him 12 years before took its toll, a little at a time, to make the once ‘expression master’ totally speechless and then motionless. The old order changeth yielding place to new. So, to keep him ‘alive’, the four walls of his room were decorated with his photographs in the company of Atal Behari Bajpayee, Gulzar, Ghulam Ali and others. What a change of fate!
Mehdi Hassan visited Bangladesh several times both before and after the liberation. One wonders why the maestro was never exposed to the world of Atul Prasad and Nazrul Islam. Imagine him singing, Ami bandhino tomar tirey or Aamar kon kule aaj bhirlo a tori. I am sure his rendition would have gone a long way to make these numbers lifetime treasures; for, some songs never fade, just as some artists never die. An artist of his caliber would surely have enriched our music.
Mehdi Hassan was a heavenly gift to us; his songs will outlive us as long as music remains in the air.
(This article was first published in The Daily Star, Jul 18, 2014)
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(The opinions expressed by the writer are personal.)
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