Mehdi Hassan has left a rich legacy of poetic anguish -by Ras H. Siddiqui

Mehdi Hassan, one of the finest ghazal singers that South Asia has produced, passed away in Karachi, Pakistan on June 13, 2012 at the age of 84. It has been reported that he had suffered a stroke over a decade ago and had been struggling with his health ever since, dealing with a number of related problems and trying to pay for his medical bills. He had not been singing for a long time, his last reported effort being a duet with Lata Mangeshkar in poet Farhat Shahzad’s “Tera Milna Bahot Accha Lage Hai” in the Sarhadain” (Borders) album. Both Hassan Sahib and Lata Ji recorded their segments of the song separately which were later merged or blended together to produce this historic song.

Mehdi Hassan Khan was born in 1927 in Luna, Rajasthan, located in Jhunjhunu District bordering Haryana. Rajasthan is well known for handicrafts, forts, palaces and havelis (large dwellings of the rich) and somehow as a place of birth of geniuses and great ghazal singers no less. It is interesting to note that we have now lost not one but two of the giants of ghazal singing within a year (the other being Jagjit Singh). And they were both born in Rajasthan where the native language is not even Urdu or Hindi. Maybe some kind of scientific study is needed of the soil of the area to determine why it has produced such fine singers although this writer credits that feat to the presence of Ajmer Sharif and its Sufi shrine located near the center of the state.

There were two singing visits by Mehdi Hassan to the San Francisco Bay area during the closing period of the last century which this scribe attended. The first was when he was still quite mobile and singing not only in Urdu and Punjabi but also in Dari (Persian spoken in Afghanistan). At this venue it came as a surprise to me that he had a large following amongst the Afghan Diaspora. Before that show I was only used to sharing his songs with Indian and Pakistani fans (and with a few Nepalese and Bangladeshis). I was told at the show that he used to sing for former Afghan King Zahir Shah at the monarch’s invitation. The second time Mehdi Hassan performed here, he was physically helped on to the stage so we knew that something was seriously wrong. If memory serves me right he started off with a beautiful rendition of Farhat Shahzad’s “Tanha Tanha Mat Socha Kar” (Don’t think too much while alone). He came to the stage very late that night and left after singing just a handful of songs to our disappointment.

For the masters and connoisseurs of the Urdu language, its written poetry is all inspiring. But for many of us, who do not have a good grasp of the nuances of its script, we have had to depend on the singers of India and Pakistan to keep us connected to our most cherished emotions. The ghazal is the ultimate expression of this emotion. Amongst others, the late Mehdi Hassan and Jagjit Singh have done wonders for us in understanding this art form. On the musical side, we who do not understand the difference between a Raag and a Thumri also have to thank them for making it all appear simple.

Young Mehdi was once working in a bicycle repair shop in Pakistan when his family migrated there after the 1947 partition of British India. Belonging to a family of musicians from the Kalawant clan of which he was the 16 th generation, he refused to give up singing and took Radio Pakistan by storm during the 1950’s. Poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s “Gulon Mein Rang Bharay” (The Fill of Colors in Flowers) did additional wonders for Mehdi Hassan’s singing career and for Faiz Sahib’s mass appeal when it was included in the film Farangi in 1964. He became the most significant male playback singer for the once thriving Pakistani movie industry along with Ahmad Rushdie (who died very young) and Masood Rana during the 1960’s and early 70’s. He returned to live classical singing after that as the industry started declining. But while it lasted, Mehdi Hassan’s voice became associated with the faces of lead actors Mohammad Ali, Waheed Murad and Nadeem. The 1969 film Zarqa which celebrated its Diamond Jubilee in Karachi was a crowning achievement for him. The peak years for his many movie songs were during the 1970’s. Hassan Sahib’s duet with Madam Noor Jehan for the 1970 movie Insaan Aur Aadmi “Tu jahan kahin bhi Jaye, Mera piyar yaad rakhna” certainly enhanced one of the finest Mohammad Ali and Zeba films pairs. His last big movie hit was “Aaj tu ghair sahi” for Nadeem in the film Dehleez in 1983, one in which (now Bangladeshi actress) Shabnam was Nadeem’s love interest during the song.

The fact that Mehdi Hassan had a huge fan following in India cannot be understated. From Lata Ji, Dilip Kumar and a host of others connected to Bollywood, many have acknowledged his passing. Some leading personalities from India have already visited his grave in Karachi and many condolences have accompanied the news of his death from across the border. A statement from the Indian Prime Minister’s office was also reported on this sad occasion. Many ordinary Indian fans also posted their feelings on various websites. Thus the “King of Ghazals” was mourned in death by fans irrespective of borders.

Faiz Sahib has already been mentioned as has the work of Farhat Shahzad, both given a bigger musical following with Mehdi Hassan’s singing of their work. From Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir (“Patta patta boota boota…”), other more contemporary poets were featured including Parveen Shakir whose “Kubaku Phail Gayi..” will be long remembered. But there was one poet in particular who stood out in Mehdi Sahib’s work and that was Ahmed Faraz. From “Shola tha jal bujha hoon” (which today could apply to Mehdi Hassan himself, or its author Ahmed Faraz or possibly to its original subject Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) to “Ab kay hum bichray to shaayid, kabhi khaboon mein milain,” to the unparalleled masterpiece “Ranjish hi Sahi..,” also composed by Mehdi Sahib himself, which was in this scribe’s opinion his crowning achievement.

Others will have their own favorite songs by the King of Ghazals, but the master stood out with his rendition of this particular number. Nobody has expressed the pain in the lines of love written by Faraz and captured in the word “Ranjish” (Anguish) better than Mehdi Hassan. His own struggle has ended, may his soul now rest in peace with God.

(Ras Siddiqui writes from Sacramento, California)



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