Mehdi Hassan – The Music Eternal

We part now
We may meet again in dreams
Like the dried up flower
That blooms between pages of an old book...               
-Mehdi Hassan Ghazal

It was an afternoon of this past June, when I was talking to a friend of mine in his factory. I had in my hands a good length of metal wire, chancing my strength, when I received an SMS from my music friend Babu from Bangalore. Frozen in shock by the message, I had strained my hands against the metal wire and blood dripped from the cut finger on my left hand. Tears welled up in my eyes. Suddenly the world was dead to me and I simply walked out of the place, wandering aimlessly under the hot sun. Mehdi Hassan, my ideal ghazal singer was no more! Where am I to go? In a weird hallucination his songs went floating one by one in my mind. When I started writing articles on music in Tamil six years ago, the one on Mehdi Hassan was among the very first. I had dedicated my book of articles on music, ‘Isaiyin Thanimai’ in Tamil, to Mehdi Hassan. For me Mehdi Hassan was not a musician’s name, but the name of a deeply felt emotion.

Mehdi Hassan was the living example of the singing heights at which a singer can continue to sing decade after decade, of how a singer should render his songs in an impeccable pitch, completely naturally and totally true to music and yet be emotionally overwhelming. His utterly devoted fans addressed him respectfully as ‘Khan Sahib’. He was the builder of the bridge, entirely with the sweetness of his music, between two nations that had lived in hatred for 65 years. That summer day, well and truly cooked by an angry sun, the great singer, a perennial source of my sensitivity to the truth of music, passed away. The voice that held us spell-bound, rendering thousands of ghazals with an out-of-this-world musical chastity, will never again waft live in the airwaves!

Thar Desert in the North Eastern part of Rajasthan holds many villages hostage to desiccating hot winds by day and biting cold by night. Luna is one such village which is wracked to this day by terrible shortage of water and lack of any kind of progress. Pokhran, where India ‘tests’ its nuclear devices, is not very far away from here. Indian border with Pakistan is not very far, either. It was in this village that Mehdi Hassan was born on 18th July of 1927. It was a big joint family, a family of musicians. His father and his uncles were all classical singers. Rajasthan means a province of kings. Mehdi Hassan was born in a traditional family of musicians who were court musicians for 12 generations in one court or the other of the kings of the many small vassal ‘kingdoms’ of the area. But the Indian Classical ‘dhrupad’ music which was their forte was not the musical form ‘approved’ for or by Muslims.

Dhrupad is a classical form of music created out of devotional songs that were sung in Hindu temples since many centuries. The Hindu kings were the patrons who sustained the evolution of this form of music. The singers who were Muslims largely followed the ‘khayal’ system of music that evolved from thirteenth century onwards from singing traditions brought from Persia, the modern day Iran, and patronized by Muslim rulers. There were pressures, direct and indirect, that Muslim singers adopt only ‘Khayal’ singing. However, Mehdi Hassan’s forefathers did not change to ‘khayal’ singing. They continued to be ‘dhrupad’ singers in the courts of Hindu kings.

It was a custom to call Muslim musicians ‘Ustad’ and the Hindu musicians ‘Pundit’. But musicians from Mehdi Hassan’s family were called ‘Pundits’ because of their ‘dhrupad’ singing traditions. The founding doyens of Hindustani music like Mian Tansen and Abdul Karim Khan had all converted to Islam from Hinduism. Mian Tansen who was reputed to have lit a lamp by singing the Raag Deepak and brought rains by singing Raag Megha Malhar was born as Ramdhanu Mishra! Grand father of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the founder of Agra Gharana, was again a Hindu who converted to Islam.

Mehdi Hassan’s grandfather, Imamuddin Khan was not only the court singer of the ruler of Rajaputana, but he also sang in the courts of Kings of Nepal, Indore and Baroda. The then King of Nepal was his disciple as well. Mehdi Hassan’s father Azeem Khan and maternal uncle Ismail Khan were court singers at the courts of small kingdoms like Manakpur, Chattarpur and Bijawal. And they taught and opened the doors of musicdom to Mehdi Hassan. He was taught both ‘dhrupad’ and ‘khayal’ singing.

Mehdi Hassan began to perform as a mature vocalist at the age of eight, but did not have the benefit of a formal education. His very first concert was at the court of Maharaja of Baroda, where he rendered the alaap of Raag Basant for forty minutes. Patronage by kings enabled Mehdi Hassan to perform in many courts of kings of small provinces and live a fairly comfortable life and grow with his music. Along with riyaaz of music, he was training his body with regular exercise.  He nurtured his body with a sumptuous diet of mutton, milk and nuts. He strongly believed that a well-built body and strong lungs were essential for a good singer.

And then came 1947. Mehdi Hassan was 20 years old. Indian subcontinent was heaving towards freedom. The small kingdoms and their courts faced the prospect of being swept away. Mehdi Hassan’s entire family, making a living with music supported only by the courts of these small-time rulers, was pushed to face frighteningly uncertain times. Indian subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan, as a condition precedent to Independence, and Muslim and Hindu minorities were frightened and forced to emigrate. Ominous slogans of ‘Pakistan for Muslims’ and ‘Hindustan for Hindus’ began to be raised and Mehdi Hassan’s family, leaving all their possessions, found refuge in the town of Chichawatni in Pakistani Punjab.

Going was tough in the new environment and family was living in dire poverty. Mehdi Hassan worked as an assistant in a cycle repair shop to support his family. His father, a genius in music, started a fuel wood shop, finding no other way to make a living. Mehdi Hassan was so hurt by the stark reality facing them that he started a cycle repair shop of his own. The effort flopped and he found work as an assistant in a workshop repairing cars and tractors. Somehow, he earned his daily keep. But even in such dire times, he did not give up his music practice, not even for a day.

When a little money came to his hand, he left for Lahore, where the then Radio Pakistan had a station, looking for opportunities. There, many who heard him praised his singing style. He even got the opportunity of singing a song for the Radio. Everyone spoke of the difference in his singing style. But no follow-up opportunity came his way. Frustrated, he started working in the farm of a person known to him. He worked day and night for the next eight months on the arid desert-like two acres field and made it lush green.

He used the money earned from the enterprise to make another foray in search of opportunities, this time in Karachi, the centre of Urdu films in Pakistan. That was in 1956 when he was 29. This time he was able to immediately secure a few singing opportunities. The first song was the ghazal ‘Nazar milte hi dil ki bat ka labon par charcha na ho jaye’ in the film Shikar. The same year opportunities came to sing and record six more film songs.

Mehdi Hassan, with great self-confidence, stayed in Karachi. But, he secured a mere two songs in the five years that followed. He found it tough competing with great playback singers of those days like Munir Hussain, Saleem Raza and Inayat Hussain Bhatti. Truth to tell, nobody in the film industry of those days liked Mehdi Hassan’s style of rendering which was more like singing to his own self without any exaggerated expression of emotions. On the other hand, the songs he sang in those days over the radio was broadcast all over Pakistan was widely noticed.

In those days, Noor Jehan who had emigrated from India during India-Pakistan partition was at the height of her popularity both as singer and actress. In one late night broadcast, she happened to hear Mehdi Hassan’s ghazal ‘ Yeh Dhua Sa Kahaan Se Uththa Hai’. She was simply stunned and wanted to meet Mehdi Hassan immediately. After the ghazal Jis ne mere dil ko dard diya’ in the Sasural in 1962 Mehdi Hassan became Pakistan’s most important playback singer. In the twenty years that followed it was he who sang all the ghazal songs of the Pakistani films.

Though these songs were released first as film songs, Mehdi Hassan later elaborated them in different forms and popularized them as stage ghazals. Apart from these, he also created many special ghazals in his own music and it was through these ghazals that Mehdi Hassan became famous outside Pakistan. His ghazal music attracted much more fans in India, Nepal and Gulf countries than in Pakistan itself. He has sung many thousands of songs in Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Rajasthani, Marwari, Sindhi, Pashto, Bengali, Persian and Arabic. But his repertoire of over two thousand ghazals was truly the world of Mehdi Hassan’s music.

I doubt if another singer like Mehdi Hassan had been born in the history of man. The musical silence that he infuses between the lines and words of his ghazals cannot be heard but can only be felt. When we lose ourselves in his ghazals we are overwhelmed by sorrow and pain like waves in the sea during the high tide. But we never once desire to come out of them. When he renders ‘Dekhna Bhi To Unhe, Door Se Dekha Karna’ our eyes moisten in memory of the love that had disappeared for ever from our life. It makes us feel the sorrows of all men who live bearing the pain of true love lost for ever. The voice and rendering style of Mehdi Hassan is the alter ego of the pain, sacrifice, dedication and resurrection of love. The clarion call of that voice is that death is preferable to a life without love. Many ghazals like ‘Kya Toota Hai Andar Andar’ of Mehdi Hassan have the ability to melt even the stoniest of human minds.

Mehdi Hassan was born to be a total ghazal singer and nothing else. His song is the soul that animates his lines and his music. His rendering style conveys the impression that he sings entirely for his own self. There is no place there for exaggerated emotions or artificial pretensions or the egotistic ‘come and watch my musical prowess’ challenges.

His rendering is totally innocent of pyrotechnics or forced emotions. Yet he sings in a fashion that all the emotions of his ghazals strike the chords in the depths of our heart. If this is not magic what is it? Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals are woven with endless ecstasies of simple ragas and meanings expressed in exact words and tones. Mehdi Hassan raised ghazal singing, once looked down upon as the art of high class courtesans, to the level of khayal and dhrupad singing and even better, he won for it the popular respect and appreciation.

Even when Mehdi Hassan was a great classical singer with ability to render any difficult classical raga with all its emotions and nuances in detail, he chose the lighter version of the classical music, the ghazal, as his signature form of music. He effortlessly expressed the many dimensions of classical music through ghazal. He brought the many finer points of dhrupad and khayal singing besides scintillating expressions of Rajasthani folk music into his ghazal rendering. Naturally no other ghazal singer in this world could match the soft touch, nuances, the poetic touch, the bubbling emotions, the magical silences that Mehdi Hassan delineated in his rendering. The music form of ghazal which had over ten centuries of tradition was rejuvenated to popularity by Mehdi Hassan. In fact the popular opinion is that Mehdi Hassan has bequeathed to the world a new music form, The Mehdi Hassan ghazal.

Mehdi Hassan mostly rendered the ghazals penned by the great poets of Urdu and Persian literature. But when he renders Shola Tha Jal Bujha Hoon, Dil Ki Baat Labon Par Lakar, Zindagi Mein To Sabhi Pyaar Kiya Karte Hain, Ranjish Hi Sahi Dil Dukhaane Ke Liye Aa, Yoon Zindagi Ki Raah Mein, Bhooli Bisri Chand Umeedein.. etc, the lines of these poems become Mehdi Hassan’s own lines, his very own music animated by the indescribable depth and sorrows of his voice.

Mehdi Hassan was decorated with every possible award that a musician can win in Pakistan. King of Nepal had accorded him the highest award of his land. He was accorded the Saigal Award in India. Mehdi Hassan, who counted hundreds of prominent people from the world of Music, Cinema and Politics like Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachhan, Lata Mangeshkar, Jagjit Singh, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, Hariharan and Shreya Ghosal as his fans, not to mention millions like me from all over the world as die-hard fans, was essentially simplicity, honesty and humaneness personified.

A few years after the two horrifying and debilitating wars were fought between India and Pakistan, Mehdi Hassan came to India in 1978 to stay a few days in his native village of Luna. He was most pained to see that his native place still did not have connecting roads or electricity or water supply. He announced that he was not going to participate in the dinner being hosted in his honour at the residence of Governor of Rajasthan.

The village of Luna was given electricity supply facilities within three days. When the Government told him that they did not have the financial allocation for roads and water supply, he offered to raise funds through a ghazal concert in the nearby town of Jhunjhuna. Nearly 15,000 fans thronged the concert organized with the help of the Government. He donated the entire fund collected for the development works in the village of Luna. Mehdi Hassan was moved to tears by the sight of poor students being taught under the trees, squatting on the ground, in the Government Primary School in his native village, due to paucity of rooms. He arranged to build two class rooms at his own expense!

Towards the end of 1990s, his hemiplegia and lung problems caused Mehdi Hassan to retire from music. In the year 2000, he came to Kottakkal Arya Vaidhyashala in Kerala, looking for a cure to his diseases. The event then organized in Kozhikkode was the last time Mehdi Hassan ascended the stage! There was some temporary relief, but no lasting cure resulted from the treatment. An event was organized in Mumbai in 2008 to honour him. But since some Pakistanis were behind the terrible terrorist attack that year, Mehdi Hassan could not come to India, being a Pakistani!

In this period, amidst all his debilitating health problems, Mehdi Hassan composed and sang a song with Lata Mangeshkar, fulfilling her long time wish! He sang and recorded his portion of the song in Pakistan and sent the tape to Lata Mangeshkar. The song Tera Milna Bahut Acha Lage Hai was released only in 2011 through the album ‘Sarhadein’(Borders).

Mehdi Hassan spent his last years in terrible misery. He was struggling to breath because of his lung problems that was the result of constant singing without a break from the age of five. He also suffered from Parkinson’s disease and was bed-ridden the last few years, unable to recognize people. Seeing the pathetic condition in which he was lying in a Karachi Nursing Home unable to pay for his treatment, media had made it a headline news everywhere!

Mehdi Hassan had 14 children through his two wives. Many of them live in places like America! But it was his lot to live in a dilapidated house with peeling paint and broken steps during his last days. He had not mastered the art of deal-making to encash his out-of-this-world music. Countless were the free events and causes that he sang for during his lifetime. He lived a great and humane life trusting only his music, truth and hard work.

He was called the Voice of God by many! He was by far the best ghazal singer ever born. But he did not have, in his old age, the money even for the medicines he needed! Today Mehdi Hassan is liberated from all his sorrows and lies in eternal state with his immortal music as his guard of honour. 
Ilaahi Aansu Bhari Zindagi Kisi Ko Na De…..
Dear God!
Please don’t bequeath to anyone
A Life filled with tears alone!
Push no one into the depths of total helplessness!