The Inimitable Art of Mehdi Hasan

The great singer has revolutionised ghazal singing and steered it into many interesting new directions. This article reverently pays tribute to the art of Mehdi Hasan and to his well-deserved place in the subcontinent’s music.

Aren’t we lucky that we have lived in an age in which Mehdi Hasan spread the fragrance of his song? We have seen him in flesh, looked into his eyes, conversed with him and heard him perform in front of us. If we compare the all round musical mediocrity of our time with the supreme excellence of his art, we will realize that we had never enjoyed ghazal and our taste for this genre of music had never achieved the present level of refinement until Mehdi Hasan inculcated this unique taste in us. Again, aren’t we fortunate that he has continued to enrich our sensitivity for music for over half a century?

No wonder, popular ghazal singers all over the world have tried – consciously or unconsciously – to sing in his style and copy his expressions.

When K.L. Saigal died, I was a child. I grew up listening to his songs, but the great singer has lived with me only in his recordings. Mehdi Hasan, however, has been a part of my civilized existence.

Having said that, it is difficult to come to terms with the fact that the career of Mehdi Hasan has come to an end. This happened on 29th October, 2000. On this fateful day in Lahore he suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body. He never fully recovered from the tragic setback. We must admire his spirit, though, as we find that Mehdi Hasan still tries to play the harmonium and sing – despite the deformity caused by paralysis to his right hand and the slur in his speech. Imagine, the man who was sent into this world perhaps with the singular mission – to sing and receive the acclaim of his audience – is no more allowed to do his job!

Following the stroke, when his condition improved the doctors in Sheikh Zayed Hospital in Lahore allowed him to travel to Karachi where he lives with his family. Here, for the last nearly four years his movements are confined to his house in Federal B. Area.

In March 2001 when my friend Latif Kapadia – who had a heart made of gold – came to know that Mehdi Hasan, his friend and idol, was being subjected to desi treatment, such as maalish (massage) by some mohallah pahalwan, he was furious. He prevailed upon Mehdi Hasan’s sons to immediately shift their father to a hospital for treatment. Latif even made arrangements for the singer’s free treatment at Fatima Bai Hospital on Business Recorder Road in Karachi. In addition, he asked me to visit the hospital at once, talk to the doctors and prepare a press release about the singer’s latest health condition.

So, I went – it was March 16 – and I found Mehdi Hasan lying in the orthopaedic ward and being provided physiotherapy and short wave diathermy treatment under the care of Dr. Sarwat. I held his hand and told him not to worry since his fans would no doubt take care of everything and he will soon be well and able to sing once again. Mehdi Hasan mumbled something and I did not have the heart to ask him to repeat what he had said. I returned from the hospital with a heavy heart, and with the opening line of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ghazal on my lips: baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thhi! (Mehdi Hasan has sung this ghazal in raag Bhopali.)

The next morning when we telephoned the hospital to enquire about his condition, the receptionist informed that the sons had taken away their father at midnight, complaining that the hospital was too far away from their residence and it was inconvenient for them to bring the patient to the hospital for physiotherapy frequently! This development was quite shocking for us. Here, I would not like to repeat the words uttered by my late friend, Latif Kapadia. Suffice it to say, those words fully expressed Latif’s feelings which he was not in the habit of suppressing.

Following this episode, I and another friend, Sultan Arshad, picked up some paper, pen and a small tape recorder one afternoon and drove to Mehdi Hasan’s house in order to interview him for my proposed book on the Ghazal King. Arshad had made sure to take prior appointment for the interview on phone from Mehdi Hasan himself. Once again, it was humiliating experience. One of the sons, by now quite well known and in charge of the “project” would not allow us inside the house. In act, we were made to wait in the narrow lane behind the house, before being turned back: “I am sorry, you can’t see my father. I don’t know you guys and cannot let you talk to him.”

We drove back, once again humming the same Bahadur Shah Zafar line: baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thhi!

After some months I made one more attempt – and finally succeeded in meeting Mehdi Hasan, thanks to Dr. Saira Khan, an ardent Mehdi Hasan fan. She took me to his house one evening, and as we sat with the ghazal singer on his bed and I showed him the dummy of my book, particularly the picture of himself with Tufail Niazi, Mehdi Hasan broke down remembering his old friend who was, in his own right, the greatest folk singer of the subcontinent. Our visit ended up being only a courtesy call and no serious interview was possible because of the presence of one of the sons whose body language warned us that we were getting too close for comfort to the great singer.

Meantime, we kept reading in newspapers about Mehdi Hasan being provided “financial assistance” by the Government of Pakistan for treatment abroad. We also witnessed Mehdi Hasan being “honoured” by one of the TV channels in which pop singers with electric guitars were paying “homage” to the Ghazal King by rendering his famous songs, including zindagi mein to sabhi peyar kia kartay hain. Mehdi Hasan watched all this helplessly from his wheel chair.

Let me go back to the glory days of the great singer, rather, let me go down memory lane!

Our friend Dr. Mohammad Sarwar used to be the personal physician of Mehdi Hasan’s elder brother, Pundit Ghulam Qadir and the two brothers sang at Sarwar’s place on a few occasions without charging any fee. On one such occasion, Mehdi Hasan was singing before a select gathering of close friends. There was an informal air to the event and I got carried away and started to hum quietly with the singer. Mehdi Hasan’s sensitive ears noticed my intrusion. He looked at me, smiled and said into the microphone: “Aap yeh na karein, mujhe apne sur par shak honay lagta hai!” It provoked laughter. I had made a fool of myself. But when I pondered over the otherwise nasty comment, it helped me to comprehend the truthfulness of his words. It made me realize that indeed no other ghazal or folk singer, except, of course, his friend Tufail Niazi, was able to sing with such precision, accuracy and refinement of the two most vital elements of our music – sur and taal.

In 1988, Latif Kapadia and I were visiting Naushad Sahib at his home in Bandra, Bombay. Having enjoyed his august company for some time, when we wanted to take leave of the great composer, he said, “Aap log ruk jaaen, Mehdi Hasan sahib tashreef laane waley hain, mein ne kuch aur doston ko bhi bula liya hai.” (Please stay. Mehdi Hasan sahib is going to grace us with his presence. I have invited some other friends too.)

“What do you think of Mehdi Hasan?” Latif asked.

“Bhai, unki tareef to sooraj ko chiragh dekhana hai. Woh bar-e-sagheer ke sub se baray gaane walay hain. Lata theek kehti hain ke unke galay mein bhagwan bolta hai. Noor Jehan ne bhi kaha hai ke hum nein Tansen ka sirf naam suna thha, magar unko dekha Mehdi Hasan ki shakl mein” (To praise him is like showing light to the sun. He is the greatest singer of the subcontinent. Lata is quite right in saying that God speaks through his vocal chords. Noor Jehan too has said that she had only heard Tansen’s name, but she saw him in the guise of Mehdi Hasan.)

So, this is what some of the subcontinent’s greatest singers and a top music composer had to say about Mehdi Hasan.

I sometimes wonder what difference it would have made if Mehdi Hasan had not lent his voice to the Pakistani film industry. Would his position as a great singer be any less? There is no doubt that many good songs were composed and recorded in his voice for films by eminent composers such as Nisar Bazmi, A. Hameed, Niaz Hussain Shami, Altaf Hussain, Niaz Ahmed, Lalit Sen, Mohsin Raza, etc. And we can’t deny the merit of compositions like ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhan ne ke liye aa, zindagi mein to sabhi peyar kia kartay hain, rafta rafta who meri hasti ka saaman ho gaye, dunya kisi ke peyar mein jannat se kam naheen. These songs were recorded for films, but to tell you the truth, what has made Mehdi Hasan’s name immortal is not these filmi songs but his non-filmi ghazals like guloon mein rung bharay baad-e-naubahar chalay, dekh to dil ke jaan se uthhta hai, uzr aane mein bhi hai aur bulatay bhi naheen, roshan jamal-e-yar se hai anjuman tamam, plus all the hundred other ghazals he sang. (Two-thirds of these ghazals were composed by Mehdi Hasan and his brother Pandit Ghulam Qadir.) I’ll give you another example. Pick up any CD of his film songs sung in concerts, without the “interference” of his composers and their orchestra. You will know the difference!

To my mind, Mehdi Hasan is not an Ustad in the classical sense of the word, because, as far as I know, he has not presented raags like Ustad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan and others have done. But the truth is that he has been the favourite artiste of every Ustad. They have loved and respected him like they had never loved and respected any other singer who did not belong to their fraternity. (The same can be said about Tufail Niazi.)

The recording of Mehdi Hasan’s live concert in London released under the title, “Classical Ghazals in Rare Raags” has eminent artistes of the calibre of Ustad Sultan Khan and Ustad Shawkat Hussain accompanying him on the sarangi and tabla, respectively.

Coming to ghazal, we have, of course, heard the recordings of many ghazal singers of the 20th century – Kamla Jharia, Indoo Bala, Mohammad Hussain of Calcutta, Afzal Hussain of Nagina. I would place them in the first group of ghazal singers; in the second lot, we have Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, K.L. Saigal, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan and Talat Mahmood. In the third group are Ustad Amanat Ali Khan, Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Ghulam Ali and Mehdi Hasan. I leave it to my readers to decide as to who is the greatest.