Mehdi Hasan: The Man and his Music
By Asif Noorani
Karachi , Pakistan



Mehdi Hasan with Dilip Kumar

It all started when in February my friend Kishore Bhimani, a veteran Kolkata-based journalist and one of the most ardent fans (read devotees) of Mehdi Hasan, asked for a copy of S. M. Shahid’s book on the great singer, which has long been out of print. The compiler-cum-publisher had no intention of going in for a second edition or even a reprint.

“Every time you send me a copy of the book it doesn’t stay with me for more than a few weeks. It is borrowed and not returned,” Kishore told me on the phone.

It’s so sad that no book – good, bad or indifferent – on the greatest exponent of ghazal gayeki of the late 20th century is available in Pakistan or elsewhere, I thought. In a meeting with my publishers, Liberty Books, I discussed the idea of putting up something that would be a tribute to the musical genius amidst us. They were just as eager to go ahead with the project as I was. We then got in touch with EMI Pakistan, who have been pushed to the brink of the recording business by the never-ending scourge of piracy, to help us produce two CDs of his extraordinary tracks by delving deep into their rich archives dating back to the 1950s. They joined us in the project enthusiastically.

S. M. Shahid’s volume has served me as a useful jumping board. I had access to some pieces I had helped him compile, including mine and Kishore’s, not to speak of the letter of a former Indian Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee who wrote to Mehdi Hasan on hearing about his illness and sent it to him through me. The letter was first published in Star Weekend, the weekly color magazine of the afternoon daily Star, which ceased publication in 2006.

My biggest problem is that there is not much available by way of textual archives and more unfortunate is that Khan Sahib (as Mehdi Hasan is referred to affectionately by his fans and friends alike) is just not able to talk. He has been unwell (if you allow the understatement) for almost a decade now and in recent years he cannot speak at all, except for a word or two, and that too with much effort on his part.

But on the flip side, I discovered to my surprise and, of course, pleasure that people like composer Robin Ghosh in Dhaka, Raza Ali Abidi in London, Rakhshanda Jalil in Delhi and Raza Rumi in Lahore agreed wholeheartedly to write for the book at short notice. Then there were singers like Runa Laila, Jagjit Singh, Abida Perveen, Nayyara Noor and Tina Sani, who spoke of their association with the vocalist from whom they have drawn inspiration.

This volume has to be sent to the press as soon as possible because I wish to see it in the left hand (his right hand doesn’t move because of the debilitating stroke that paralyzed him in 2001) of Mehdi Hasan before his failing health fails him more. Hopefully, in the second edition we will have greater participation by him.

One more point, Kishore Bhimani, a Gujarati-speaking ghazal aficionado, has never read Urdu in its own script and perhaps not even in the Roman script but thanks to Khan Sahib his interest in this genre of Urdu poetry is no less than that of a scholar of the language. That speaks of the contribution Mehdi Hasan and some other singers have made in bringing Urdu poetry to the lips of thousands of non-Urdu or non-Hindi speaking people.

Another point to remember is that if it would not have been for Mehdi Hasan many readers of Urdu literature would not have enjoyed the richness of the ghazals of lesser known poets such as Farhat Shahzad and Saleem Jilani. With his keen understanding of the nuances of Urdu verse the singer has chosen nothing but the best of the ghazals. His flair for poetry is also reflected in his ability to emphasize and repeat the right words in a couplet that he renders.

All the ghazals that have been set to music are based on ragas, which convey the same mood as those expressed by the poets in the verse that he selects for rendition. A case in point is ‘Khuli jo aankh to woh tha na woh zamana tha’, which is based on a rarely heard early morning raga, Bhankar.

This brings us to the fact that Mehdi Hasan has based his ghazals not just on well-known ragas such as Jhinjhoti and Darbari but has also picked up rare ragas like Charukeshi and Partirawa, not to speak of Kirwani, which belongs to the Carnatic music of South India. His repertoire of ragas is as wide as the range of his voice.

Calling him Shehenshah-e-Ghazal would be limiting his contribution to one genre of vocal music. He has sung folk numbers like the Rajasthani Maand and the Punjabi Heer with great feeling too. His rendition of classical and semi-classical music is no less superb. In the field of film music his contribution has been second to none. Proof, if proof be needed, are nine best playback singer (male) Nigar Award trophies that he has bagged.

One last word about Mehdi Hasan: in a field where everyone looks for inspiration and initially adopts a successful senior’s style before evolving one’s own, this singer is unique. He didn’t have a ghazal singer as a model to emulate. On the other hand, he has had quite a number of clones.

I am grateful to EMI Pakistan, particularly Umer Sheikh, the CEO, for partnering the project, and Iqbal Asif, Senior Manager Acoustics and Fidelity, who gave a new ‘look’ to some of the old but priceless recordings.

Finally, I am indebted to my wife, who has put up with my obsession (read magnificent obsession, though she may not agree with the adjective) with music.

Mehdi Hasan fans can order their book through www.desistore.com.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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