Song of Surrender

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Remembering Mehdi Hassan

By V Ramnarayan

It has been a year since Mehdi Hassan breathed his last. Here is a somewhat personal, not so objective tribute to his music.

The first time I heard a Mehdi Hassan ghazal was in the voice of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. The former India captain and iconic batsman of the 1970s, my senior in the Hyderabad cricket team, had this habit of entering the dressing room with a song on his lips — well, a thunderous rendering of his favourite tune of the day in a stentorian voice that set the windowpanes rattling. So it was that I was completely overcome by surprise when I first heard Gulshan, gulshan, shola yeh gul ki in Mehdi Hassan’s gentle voice after being rocked by Tiger Pataudi’s version.

Before that, however, I had had my introduction to ghazals through Jagjit Singh, who regarded Mehdi Hassan as his guru. Jagjit Singh of that vintage was a revelation to someone like me, who until then knew film music and classical music, and nothing in between. He and his wife Chitra Singh delighted listeners with some excellent albums of poignant Urdu verses sung so sensitively, yet so strongly.

Gulshan, gulshan and Patta patta were the first two Mehdi Hassan ghazals to captivate me, particularly in how deceptively simple they were. They sounded so easy to the ear, but had so many subtle variations and so many delightful nuances that the ustad indulged in so effortlessly, but which were impossible of achievement to ordinary mortals.

Many more favourites followed: Gulon mein rang bhare, I understand was the song with which Mehdi Hassan began his career. A haunting number, it has a delicately tragic air about it.

I did not chance to hear the all-time classic Abke hum bichhde for many more years. The early versions of this song set in raga Bibhas were never equalled for poignancy or purity of sound even by Mehdi Hassan himself in subsequent performances or recordings.

To me, Mehdi Hassan was at his simple, nuanced, natural, sophisticated best in Dekh to dil ke jaanse uthta hai, Yeh dhuan sa kahan se uthta hai. If that description sounds contradictory, try singing it. You’ll see what I mean. Sheer genius — all art and no artifice.

I am almost forgetting his songs in Punjabi and Bengali. His Bulleya kee jaana main kaun (in raga Tilang) must be among the best songs in Punjabi.

To listen to the purest, most innocent Mehdi Hassan voice we must go back to his early songs, even to his film numbers. Most of his work after the 1980s were to my mind somewhat laboured, especially when he prefaced his singing with explanations and demonstrations of the challenges posed by certain ragas. In time I learnt to be suspicious of any collection or album of his specifically labelled as raga-based. Even his all time favourites like Kaise kaise log, Ranjishi sahi or Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain, or Abke hum bichhde, the earliest versions find him at his peak, according to me, because his voice was at its pliant best and the many variations were spontaneous and effortless.

There have been many great ghazal singers including the still popular Ghulam Ali, but Mehdi Hassan remains my personal favourite. Had he taken seriously to khayal singing, he would have probably made it to the top rung with a lot of hard work, but in his chosen genre, he was king — seemingly effortlessly so.

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