KARACHI CHRONICLE: Mehdi Hassan – incomparable golden voice -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

KARACHI CHRONICLE: Mehdi Hassan – incomparable golden voice

KARACHI CHRONICLE: Mehdi Hassan – incomparable golden voice
His incomparable golden voice was stilled more than a decade ago when on 29 October 2000 he suffered a stroke that paralysed half his body. Thereafter he could not sing and that was his real end. The remainder of his life was a heroic battle with several medical complications that took him in and out of hospital.

Who knows what mental anguish he suffered not only at realisation of the end of his career but the humiliation of being trundled about from one fund-raiser to the next to raise money to foot the hefty hospital and medical treatment bills.

Those who loved him thanked God he was finally put out of his misery in the afternoon of 13 June 2012 when he passed away at a local hospital.

He was born on 18 July 1927 in village Luna in Rajisthan. His father Ustad Azeem Khan and his uncle Ustad Ismail Khan were renowned classical vocalists.

It was his uncle who trained him from the age of six in the art of singing and in the sport of wrestling. Few artistes recognise the importance of physical fitness for excellence in singing.

It is the reason why, although the country has many talented singers – which the Pak-India joint talent hunt titled “Chote Ustad” amply proved – there is no hope there will ever again be a singer of Mehdi Hassan’s calibre.

Even his sons are not his heirs. They have his talent but gave themselves up to a life of ease to become poor imitations of their father. His true heir in music would have been his shagird or student Pervaiz Mehdi who unfortunately died when his career was just beginning to take off.

Heer, for example, is a raga that needs great physical strength to sing. It was when she heard him sing Sufi Tabassum’s “Tere bazm me aane se ai saqi” set in Heer that Lata Mangeshker said: Bhagvan sings in your voice. To which he famously quipped, “Lataji, Bhagvan can sing Heer only if he eats meat.”

The numerous tributes that have poured in since his death state the obvious; that he was the King of Ghazal singing, that he infused in the genre a quality never heard before even from great singers like Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, KL Saigal and Iqbal Bano, each of whom, like Mehdi Hassan, had their own inimitable style of rendering ghazal.

This quality was the breathtaking range of ragas in which he could compose and sing. None of the other greats could match that.

The ghazal genre is erroneously described as semi-classical. That description fits dadra, thumri and to some extent kafi where the stress is on the raga in which the piece is rendered instrumentally or vocally. In ghazal it is verse that dictates which raga is suitable for conveying the mood of the poetry.

A long time ago in an interview broadcast by Radio Pakistan Mehdi Hassan was asked why the masses loved his rendering of Faiz’s “guloon me rang bhare baad-i-naubahar chale.”

He said that was because the tune perfectly matched the poetic mood, he called the tune “suchche sur.”

Anwar Maqsood put his finger on it when he said people remember Mehdi Hassan only as a ghazal singer; he was a singer. In other words, he sang film songs, national songs, on rare occasions dadra and thumri, as well as ghazals. Whatever he sang he had the acumen to mould his voice to suit every phrase, every word to bring out its meaning, to make every facet of the lyric shine. In one poem (I cannot recall which one) there is the word “toofan” or tempest. At a musical evening I heard him spend fifteen minutes on that word to vocalise the whole scenario of a violent storm.

It was incredible. Such was his genius and the reason why even though people may not have understood the poetic depth of a poem they were still mesmerised. Mehdi Hassan himself pointed it out in the above mentioned interview. He said people would ask him to sing the Faiz piece often describing “baad-i-naubahar” as “baadal-o-bahar.” They were carried on the sheer force of the music and his rendering. Mehdi Hassan’s greatest contribution to music: he introduced ghazal to the comman man.

If Mehdi Hassan’s career had to start in the present day he would not have been a great success. He was lucky to have shot into fame at a time when there were great composers, when Radio Pakistan sponsored and promoted great talent in all forms of music both vocal and instrumental. Above all, there was patronage of great music. There were no rajas and nawabs who were patrons of music in pre-partition India.

But the culture of holding musical evenings prevailed in the homes of the wealthy in Pakistan, particularly in Karachi where the wealthy were businessmen and industrialists.

The great composers died out long before Mehdi Hassan suffered his first stroke. Radio Pakistan lost listeners to Pakistan Television and later to the numerous TV channels which do little or nothing to promote music culture. And the film industry is virtually dead.

As for the wealthy Karachiites, they still have musical evenings but the stress is on entertainment. They invite singers who have good voices but no personal repertoire. They sing pathetic imitations of Noor Jehan and Mehdi Hassan’s popular pieces.

The rich are more than pleased. The musical evening is nothing more than a society party where the guests and hosts admire the diamonds, dresses and the latest mobile phones much more than the popular songs and ghazals.

If Mehdi Hassan had been a struggling artiste today he would be unknown, buried under crass commercialism and superficial cultural norms. Thank God he lived and sang in those good old days.

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