The remarkable thing about Mehdi Hassan was that he fashioned along with Begum Akhtar a style of singing that did not exist before them.
The ghazal as a song was not part of our culture before the 20th century. It was part of the canon of poetry which was recited and read, but not sung. The classical training of both these singers brought music to the words of the great Urdu poets. The 1950s, not that long ago, is when the ghazal came into popular music. Its decline came only three decades later.
For this entire period, across the subcontinent, in Pakistan, in India and in the nations were Pakistanis and Indians live together, Mehdi Hassan was the undisputed king of ghazal singers. Many good singers came after him, for instance Jagjit Singh and Ghulam Ali. But for most the idea of the ghazal was linked to Hassan. He was beloved in Gujarat, and often sang in Surat’s Gandhi Smruti Bhavan, where I first heard him in 1981. I was too young to notice his singing but still remember what a regal figure he was on stage.
My mother always loved the way he looked, and if you see his early photographs you will know why. He had a rough-hewn but intelligent face. The word I’m looking for is leonine. His expression was of a man lost elsewhere, thinking about the words being carried by his voice.
And what a voice it was.
He had the ability to deliver emotion, a rare talent and one that separates very good singers of our music from the great ones. In keeping with the style of ghazals, this emotion that his voice carried was masculine but melancholic. Of all ghazal singers, his voice suited it best. It was convincing. Technically, he was sound along with the other great Pakistani singer of ghazals, Ghulam Ali. Both of them were inclined towards classical Hindustani music and most of their compositions were in pure raag form.
Unlike Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh, however, Hassan’s best numbers were from the classical canon of Urdu poetry. Ghazals like Patta patta, by Mir, or Aye kuch abr, by Faiz. My favourite was the haunting Dekh to dil ke jaan say uthta hai, yeh dhuan sa kahan say uthta hai? It was made superb both by the quality of Mir’s writing and the gravelly sombre tone in which Hassan renders it. I cannot listen to it without being deeply moved.
Mehdi Hassan was a kind man, and forgiving. In the last of his singing years, this must have been about 15 years ago, a man from Kolkata booked Hassan for a concert. However he was unable to execute the show for some reason and did not inform Hassan till he came over, wasting his time and causing him loss. If Hassan was overly angered by this he did not reveal it, and simply shrugged off a newspaper reporter’s inquiry. This sort of thing happened sometimes, he said, but he did not judge all Indians by such incidents. He would again trust the next man who invited him. But these invites tapered off.
By the early 1990s, in both India and Pakistan the ghazal slipped as a form of popular music. It has now become esoteric, liked by only a few who are older. This is a great shame.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in 1997. In 15 years, there has been nobody who has come close to replacing him and who can be surprised by that?
Now another very great man is gone from our midst, the likes of whom we will not see again in our generation.