You were our star Mehdi Hassan

Published: June 13, 2012
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Mehdi Hasan’s richness of expression and superb career is a matter of our pride for all Pakistanis. PHOTO: ONLINE

Mehdi Hassan  died today after 84 years of serving us. There are no words to capture the influence he had over my generation and the ones before me. May you rest in peace Khan “Saheb”. The Kesariya balama”has finally left us all to his new home.

From Khyber to Dhaka and from Skardu to Deccan wafts a lifting and profound voice that bonded all the discerning lovers of music. The highly trained vocals were none other than Mehdi Hassan ’s, which leave music buffs like the me wondering how Mian Tansen may have sung “Raag Darbari”, his own innovation, with full-throated ease and with what degree of perfection in Emperor Akbar’s court, be it in Agra, Lahore or Fatehpur Sikri. Listening to Mehdi Hassan ’s flawless exposition of what is often referred to as the most royal of the “raags” on which he based his composition of Perveen Shakir’s ghazal “Ku baku phael gayi” one must feel privileged to be living in the melodious age of Mehdi Hassan . But it is not merely Darbari that he excels in; name any other raag that he has garbed his “ghazals” in and you will not miss his flair for classical music.

While the melody queen Noor Jehan reigned over the world of Pakistani film music, Mehdi Hassan  retained his status as Shehanshah-e-Ghazal, an icon, a cult in the Pakistani musical universe. His skills as a singer were matchless. Alas, the voice was silenced for many years due to his prolonged illness for nearly a decade. The man behind this soulful, mellow and earthy voice has been hidden behind our general inclination not to document the lives of the outstanding characters in our cultural life. On Pakistan’s culture, or lack thereof, the less said the better. Even at the best of times, we have been confounded by debates on whether music is haraam or halaal? Or where the glorious traditions of sub-continental Hindustani ends and the new Islamic state’s cultural ethos begin.

The debate, instead of getting resolved, has worsened with the rise of fully armed hordes of obscurantists, which are not just anti-culture but a threat to Pakistan’s existence as a pluralistic and vibrant society. Therefore, writing on music and tracing the footprints of a legend are an act of defiance in itself. It is an act challenging the orthodoxy for those who wish to eradicate the melody from our lives. Rejuvenation and preservation of our fading cultural memory, needless to say, is essential to our survival.

Rajasthan is known for its haunting melodies celebrating the relationship between the earth and the soul. The echoes of nomads and “banjaras” (gypsies) roaming its deserts are said to merge into sand dunes and shining stars. And it was in the town of Luna, of district Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, where Mehdi Hassan was born in a family of musicians in 1927. His father Ustad Azeem Khan and uncle Ustad Ismail Khan were well-known classical singers and soon became his mentors and role models. Reportedly, Hassan ’s first public performance took place when he was eight-years-old at the Maharaja of Baroda’s darbar.

After Partition, Mehdi Hassan moved to District Khushab in the Sargodha region of Pakistan and took a job as an automobile mechanic, perhaps explaining the scientific precision of his skills. However, the immense talent refused to be marginalised in the wilderness of central Punjab. Within years, Radio Pakistan glowed with his melody in 1952. This was the time when he sang the immortal ghazal “Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale” written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz. His elder brother, Pandit Ghulam Qadir, composed that ghazal and two other classics.

A formidable icon had emerged whose voice and mastery led the subcontinental diva, Lata Mangeshkar, to remark,

un ke gallay mein bhagwan boltay hain

(God speaks in his throat.)

With his credentials as a maestro established in a short span of time, Mehdi Hassan  moved to film music where he was to enjoy a unique position as a playback singer.

He was neither a pop star nor a film singer, as we understand today through the Bollywood lens. His was a musical soiree that was a blend of the popular and the courtly, of the sublime and the banal resulting in some of the best film music in Pakistani history. Perhaps one of the cultural bonds between the eastern and western wings of pre-1971 Pakistan was Mehdi Hassan ’s music.

I have met several men and women in Dhaka who while struggling to locate some positive memories of their united Pakistan experience point towards Mehdi Hassan ’s songs and ghazals. The repertoire of his film music was also wide-ranging and continued through the decades.

Earlier songs, “Aye roshnian ke sheher bata from film Chingaari (composed by Khawaja Khursheed Anwar), “Tu lakh chahe ye jaane baharan” from Najma (composed by Master Inayat), “Ik naye mod pe le aaye hai halat mujhe” from Ehsan (composed by Sohail Rana) and the experimental “Mein hoon yahan tu hai wahan” from Gharnata (composed by A Hameed) set new standards for film music not only in Pakistan but throughout South Asia.

The songs memorable for their soulfulness among others were: “Jab koi pyar se bulayega, Yoon zindagi ki raah mein takra gaya koi, Mujhe tum nazar se gira tau rahay ho,” and the ultimate piece of complete music, “Ik husn ki devi se mujhe pyar hua tha”.

Small wonder that Mehdi Hassan’s oeuvre is ever popular and rendered even today by young and new artists to make them accessible to the youth of today.

The list is endless, almost like a mythical, boundless sea. For any geet (song) touched by Mehdi sahib’s intonation has something special and surreal to offer: the utterly romantic “Zindagi mein to sabhi piyar kiya kartay hain”, the sultry numberTere bheegay badan ki khushbu, and again a love paean “Piyar bharay do sharmeelay nain” will always be reminisced. Millions who understand Urdu and Hindustani must have wondered with Mehdi Hassan  “Kyon humse khafa ho gaye”.

Pakistan’s perennially popular film Aaina, acquired another dimension with the soft tunes and notes rendered by Mehdi Hassan . From the modern “Kabhi mein sochta hoon kuch na kuch kahoon” to the anguished cry through “Mujhe dil se na bhulana“, his film music rose above the commercialism of cinema.

Even many years later, his melodies were always in public demand and was a dream project for any composer. Later, in the early 1980s, Bandish gave us another brilliant song “Do pyasay dil aik huay hain aise, bichrein ge ab kaisay”.

The film journey, majestic and fulsome, as it was, benefited greatly from the parallel stream flowing in our cultural veins in the form of ghazals and semi-classical pieces. The two reinforced each other and even merged at many points. When the film music genre interacted with the ghazal idiom, the results were absolutely astounding. Two examples are the ghazals composed by Ahmad Faraz which were rendered with extreme sophistication and the adroitness of a miniaturist: “Abke hum bichray to shayad kabhi khwabon mein milain,“and the masterpiece Mehdi Hassan  based on the evergreen raag– Aiman- “Ranjish hi sahi, dil hi dukhane ke liye aa”.

Be it Mir, Ghalib, Faiz or any of the long line of contemporary poets such as Parveen Shakir and Faraz, Mehdi Hassan  had the innate art to bring out the best from Urdu’s versified poetry and its tender images. The ultimate of ghazals, a piece-de-resistance, is Mir Taqi Mir’s “Patta patta boota boota, haal hamara jaanay hai”, (composed by Niaz Hussain Shami) which remains an outstanding chapter of ghazal singing. Parveen Shakir’s first book Khushboo received its greatest tributes in the form of Mehdi Hassan ’s extraordinary rendition of “Ku baku phail gayee baat shanasai ki”.

His exposition of Raga “Tilak Kamod in Dukhwa main kaise kahoon mori sajni” is a sample of high points of semi-classical music. This composition testifies to the virtuoso’s genius for its effortlessness and sheer beauty. As if this incredible dexterity, range and diversity are not enough, Khan sahib’s essential command over the folk genre has been a spectacular treat. In particular, “Kesariya balama,” the eternal Rajasthani song delivered amazingly with the range of the Thar desert, is an imprint on our collective memory that refuses to fade away.

Mehdi Hassan ’s richness of expression and superb career is a matter of our pride. His voice is what I grew up with. I remember my childhood when the radio, television, cinema and mehfils (events) were nothing but revered grounds devoted to Khansahib. His popularity cuts across ethnic, provincial and linguistic divides.

But what did the state do? A mammoth entity and the state showed minimal interest in the treatment of Mehdi Hassan ’s prolonged illness to the extent of being cruel. The least that Pakistan’s officialdom could have done was to take care of its brilliant performer who gave music to a turbulent and tumultuous country.

But this has been our tragic tradition. Our greatest artists, singers, poets and intellectuals have suffered at the hands of a conformist society and state captured by puritans especially since late 1970’s. It is never too late for the intelligentsia of this country to mobilise public pressure on the state so that it learns to respect cultural diversity and consider it imperative to nurture a creative, healthy and civilised society.

An ailing Mehdi Hassan  is now no more but his longevity is ensured through his legendary voice that will echo with us forever.

This post originally appeared here.

Follow Raza on Twitter @razarumi

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Raza Rumi

A Pakistani writer and a self-taught painter who is interested in world civilizations and cultures, politics, travel, and mysticism. Academically, he is trained in economics, social development, law and public administration. Raza tweets @Razarumi

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.