BACK in October 2000, at a private mehfil at a Marine Drive flat, legendary singer Mehdi Hassan was part of the audience. The gathering was organised by Mumbai businessman Saurabh Daftary, and the performers included Talat Aziz and Jaspinder Narula. And though his doctor had advised Mehdi-saab not to sing, he couldn’t resist. He rendered just a couple of shers from Ghalib’s ‘Dil-e-Nadaan’ and Ahmed Faraaz’s ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi’, but they were enough to mesmerise the 40-odd people present. I was one of the lucky few.
Today, it’s difficult to believe the Pakistani ghazal great is no more. Though he had been unwell for a long time, and was critical earlier this year, the sudden news of his death on June 13 has come as a shock to millions of fans. To state the obvious, his passing marks the end of an era.
Personally, no other singer has moved me as much. Over the years, there have been many other favourites from the Indian sub-continent, but when it comes to hero worship and sheer obsession, Mehdi Hassan tops the list. And the reason for this has much more to do than with the texture, mellifluousness and purity of his heavenly voice. The brilliance of his compositions, the manner in which he adapted classical raags, the depth of the poetry he chose, his sense of ‘laya’ (rhythm), the way he expressed emotions and the way he enunciated words all contributed equally to his uniqueness.
If I were to describe my experience of listening to Mehdi Hassan, I would divide it into two phases — pre-2000 mehfil, and post-2000 mehfil. For after that event, I was converted overnight from an admirer to a devotee, from a fan to a fanatic.
It took a good 16 years for the transformation. My earliest memories of hearing Mehdi-saab go back to 1984, when I had bought few records from a friend. Most of them were English LPs, and I had picked up this Mehdi Hassan compilation as I was listening to a lot of ghazals too, mainly by Jagjit-Chitra Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Ghulam Ali, Rajendra-Nina Mehta and Talat Aziz. The ghazal craze was in full swing in India.
The first song that struck me was Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s ‘Mohabbat karne waale kam na honge’. The sheer depth of his voice blew me away, and for a few days, I listened only to that ghazal. Very soon, other songs took over — Ahmed Faraz’s ‘Ranjish hi sahi’, Ghalib’s ‘Dil-e-nadaan’, Qateel Shifai’s ‘Zindagi mein to sabhi pyaar kiya karte hain’, Mir Taqi Mir’s ‘Patta patta boota boota’, Saleem Gilani’s ‘Phool hi phool khil uthey hain’, Wafaa Roomani’s ‘Sataa sataa ke hamein’, Masroor Anwar’s ‘Mujhe tum nazar se gira toh rahe ho’, a few more.
Listening to Mehdi Hassan those days was very different from what it turned out to be later. I would enjoy the songs more for the way they were sung, and for the tunes. But because of my limited exposure to or knowledge of pure Urdu, I wouldn’t follow many words. There was no Internet to refer to for meanings or translations, and I knew little about the importance of the poet in the creation of a ghazal.
Like many from my age group, I would spend most of my time listening to rock or jazz. But after a hard day’s work, or maybe after a cocktail party, I would switch over to Mehdi Hassan or eventually Begum Akhtar, whom I first heard in 1986.
For many years, I would play the same Mehdi Hassan compilations, with a limited number of songs. Some newer favourites had come in, like Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ‘Baat karni mujhe mushkil’, Ahmed Faraz’s ‘Ab ke hum bichde’ and ‘Shola tha jal bujha hoon’, Asghar Saleem’s ‘Gulshan gulshan shola-e-gul ki’, Tasleem Fazli’s ‘Rafta rafta’ and ‘Khuda kare ki mohabbat mein’, and Himayat Ali Shair’s ‘Nawazish karam’.
By this time, I had begun understanding the nuances of the genre — the difference between a ghazal, nazm, geet and ‘rubaai’ (quatrain), the opening sher ‘matla’, the concluding sher ‘makta’ (where the writer often takes his name or ‘takhallus’), the use of metre in writing and composition, and the way rhymes are created using ‘kaafiya’ and ‘radeef’.
My shift to music journalism with Mid-Day newspaper in 1995 led to interactions with many ghazal singers, and when I told Rajendra Mehta about my limitations with the language, he gifted me two simple books which would explain many ghazals. Soon, I began to re-discover many Mehdi Hassan and Begum Akhtar songs, as I started looking at them from the extra perspective of sheer lyrical beauty.
However, barring a few additions like Raza Tirmizi’s ‘Bhooli bisri chand umeedein’ and Munir Niazi’s ‘Kaise kaise log’, my Mehdi Hassan collection was restricted to some 20-odd songs, with ‘Zindagi mein toh sabhi’ and ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’ being played repeatedly for months. The October 2000 mehfil made things even better.
Interestingly, it was by sheer chance that I attended that session. Talat Aziz had a show at the Oberoi where Mehdi Hassan was a guest, and knowing I was a fan of the maestro, invited me to Saurabh’s place. The evening was a dream come true. But strangely, I was so much in awe of my hero that I didn’t have the courage to ask him for an interview. Talat introduced us, and I was totally speechless, just touching his feet and basking in the momentary magic.
It took me a few weeks to recover, and even as I re-listened to my earlier favourites, I had decided to become a ‘collector’ of Mehdi Hassan recordings. Very soon, I was buying cassettes or CDs even if only one song out of 10 was new to me.
One of the treasures I picked up those days was ‘Kehna Usey’, written by the young poet Farhat Shahzad, who I met a few times later. The album was an absolute masterpiece, containing gems like ‘Kya toota hai andar andar’, ‘Dekhna ukka kanakhiyon se’, ‘Komplen phir phoot aayein’, ‘Faisla tumko bhool jaane ka’,’Ek bas tu hi nahin’, ‘Khuli jo aankh’ and ‘Tanha tanha mat sochakar’. The two of them later released the album ‘Sada-e-ishq’ in 2002, but sadly, ill-health had affected Mehdi-saab’s voice by then.
Over the next few months, there were regular showers of classics I hadn’t heard. Morning and night, I would listen to Saleem Kausar’s ‘Main khayal hoon kisi aur ka’, Faiz’s ‘Aaye kuch abr’, Ghalib’s ‘Daayam padha hua’ and ‘Arz-e-niyaz-e-ishq ke kaabil nahin raha’, Mir Taqi Mir’s ‘Dekh toh dil ke jaan se uthta hai’, Momin’s ‘Navak andaaz’, Sagar Siddiqui’s ‘Charagh-e-toor’ or Qateel Shifai’s ‘Tu ne yeh phool jo zulfon mein sajaa rakha hai’.
The collection has kept expanding ever since, with Hasrat Mohani’s ‘Roshan jamaal-e-yaar’ and ‘Kaise chupaoon raaz-e-gham’, Parveen Shakir’s ‘Ku ba ku phail gayi’, Habib Jalil’s ‘Dil ki baat labon par laakar’, Khatir Ghazanvi’s ‘Jab us zulf ki baat chali’, Ehsaan Danish’s ‘Yun na mil mujhse’ and Qateel Shifai’s ‘Yeh mojeza bhi’ (whose Jagjit Singh version I had loved). Older Pakistani film songs like ‘Apnon ne gham diye’, ‘Duniya kisi ke pyaar mein’, ‘Pyaar bhare do sharmeele nain’ and ‘Ek husn ki devi’ have also delighted me, though unfortunately, I don’t know the names of the lyricists.
The beauty about Mehdi Hassan’s songs is that one never tires of them. In fact, the more one hears them, the more enchanting and intoxicating they get. And when you hear them by surprise, it’s an altogether different experience – for instance, while watching ‘7 Khoon Maaf’ in a cinema hall, I was suddenly jumping in my seat when ‘Dekh toh dil se jaan’ was playing to the backdrop of an Irfan Khan scene.
Indeed, what Mehdi Hassan has left behind is a treasure trove. Each word he has sung dazzles like a diamond solitaire. The music world has lost a real gem and one of its truly golden voices, but his music will sparkle forever.