By V Ramnarayan
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 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 harkats 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 bichde 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 must quite simply be the best song ever sung in Punjabi. Forgive me for the exaggeration, the hyperbole. Just for today.
Mehdi Hassan’s voice was stilled years ago by disease. Yet hope raged against hope in the bosoms of millions of fans that he would win his last battle. That was not to be. And never will come another like him.
Abke hum bichde to shayad kabhi khwabonmein … milenge.