Mehdi Hassan by Saqib Razaq
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Mehdi Hassan,“A sublime voice”

Renowned ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan has recently been suffering from ill health caused by a paralytic stroke. Fortunately he is on the road to recovery and hopes to resume his singing career. Saqib Razaq looks back at an eventful career of the artiste who single handedly revolutionized ghazal gayaki.

It is widely considered that the era of the 1950s and 60s was the golden age of radio broadcasting in the Indian sub-continent. It was during this period that a rich and mellifluous voice captured the hearts of all the listeners through broadcasts on Radio Pakistan. The melodic renditions of classical ghazals in a cultivated and cultured manner were its attributes and created a storm amongst the masses, musical connoisseurs and erudite musicians. Almost half a century has gone by and yet it still never fails to captivate. The voice is indeed that of Mehdi Hassan, the unparalleled master of ghazal.  The evolution of the ghazal is a momentous one. Initially written in Persian, it can trace its origins in India during the advent of the Muslim rule in India during the 12th century. Hazrat Amir Khusrau (1253-1324), the eminent poet, scholar, statesman and musicologist is credited with many masterpieces of Persian poetry and can be termed as a major propagator of the ghazal. The pinnacle of the ghazal can be said to have been between the 18th and 19th centuries when Urdu became the preferred language of poetry and culture throughout India, poets such as Sauda, Mir Taqi Mir, Zauq, and Mirza Ghalib penned ghazals which are considered as hallmarks of Urdu poetry. Gradually, during the course of time, ghazals started to be expressed through melody and musicians started to use them as part of their repertoire. Ustad Mauzuddin Khan and Gauhar Jan were the early pioneers who built a reputation in the field and set the initial groundwork. Later, vocalists of the calibre of Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Mukhtar Begum and Begum Akhtar established themselves as major exponents of ghazal gayaki. However, Mehdi Hassan has added a further dimension to this art form.

Mehdi Hassan was born in 1927 in a village called Luna in Rajasthan, India into a family of traditional musicians. He claims to be the 16th generation of hereditary musicians hailing from the Kalawant clan of musicians. Mehdi Hassan had his musical grooming from his father Ustad Azeem Khan and uncle Ustad Ismail Khan who were both traditional Dhrupad singers. The life story of Mehdi Hassan is a journey of trials and tribulations. After partition the family migrated to Pakistan and suffered severe financial hardships.

To make ends meet Mehdi started working in a bicycle shop and later became a car and diesel tractor mechanic. Despite the hardships, his passion for music didn’t wither and he kept up the routine of practice on a daily basis. His struggle ended when he was given the opportunity to sing on radio in 1952, primarily as a thumri singer, this got him recognition within the musical fraternity. At that time, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar and Mukhtar Begum were considered the stalwarts of ghazal gayaki,  Mehdi Hassan also had a passion for Urdu poetry and started to experiment by singing ghazals on a part time basis. He cites radio officers Z.A. Bukhari and Rafiq Anwar as additional influences in his progression as a ghazal singer. They gave him ample opportunities to display his mastery over the ghazal on radio. He sang ghazals of all the renowned Urdu poets and soon his innovative style was soon appreciated by both the masses and discerning audiences.

The most important aspect of the ghazal is its theme, themes of most ghazals revolve around unrequited love. They can also be about mysticism, rebellion, yearning and pathos. It is vital that the ghazal singer has a clear perception of what message the poet is trying to convey. The musician faces a further challenge in trying to emphasize the correct emotion of the ghazal through music. Traditionally, ghazals were sung in a thumri like manner and were also composed in raags which were best suited for thumri such as bhairvin, khamaj, tilak kamod, desh and piloo. This somewhat constrained the ghazal composition within a small framework and there wasn’t much room to experiment. However Mehdi Hassan pioneered ghazal gayaki by capturing the mood of the ghazal through his compositions. He is a master composer and uses raags which best suit the ghazal’s appeal regardless of whether the raag is khayal or thumri orientated. Most of his compositions are based around the correct structure of a raag and keep the vaadi and samvaadi of the raag into strict consideration.
Mehdi Hassan’s gayaki incorporates the subtle elements of both Dhrupad and Khayal. He carefully embellishes ghazals by using behlawas, murkhis, taans and zamzamas. Further grace is given by touches of  Rajasthani folk singing. Another important feature of his style is the importance of correct pronunciation, delivery of words are of utmost importance and he never compromises the true expression of a word regardless of the constraints put forward by the musical composition. The mutual bond between melody and the lyrical content is responsible for making the art of Mehdi Hassan so appealing. In addition he has raised the profile of ghazal gayaki which was previously considered a taboo amongst classical exponents and reformed it into a major melodic genre which sits on an equal footing with thumri, dadra, kajri and tappa. His influence was such that some leading classical vocalists of that era took to ghazal singing.

Mehdi Hassan's popularity resulted in his becoming one of the most popular playback singers of the Pakistani film industry from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. Many of his film based ghazals have become classics. 

One also has to give credit to music directors associated with radio Pakistan and the Pakistan film industry who composed many beautiful melodies for Mehdi Hassan to adorn. Composers such as Ustad Niaz Hussain Shami, Pandit Ghulam Qadir (Mehdi Hassan's brother), Master Inayat Hussain, Khawaja Khurshid Anwar, Rashid Atray, Nisar Bazmi and Mohsin Raza  are additional contributories to Mehdi Hassan's success. 

The government of Pakistan has awarded Mehdi Hassan the pride of performance as a recognition to his services rendered to music, and he was also recently awarded a life achievement award by Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. As with a stature of a person like Mehdi Hassan, he has released many recordings, toured worldwide on an extensive basis and performed in the renowned concert halls around the world. He recently took part in the 50th anniversary of Rajasthan celebrations in India in which the leading artistes of Rajasthani origin participated. He currently devotes most of his time with his family in between Pakistan and the USA.
Despite advancing age, Mehdi Hassan still reigns as the undisputed master of the ghazal. He has left such an indelible mark in the field of ghazal gayaki that almost all the ghazal singers of today are influenced by him. Mehdi Hassan has also been instrumental in training the next generation of ghazal singers. His sons Asif and Kamran are following in their father’s footsteps and  trying to carve a career as ghazal singers, other prominent disciples are Parvez Mehdi, Ghulam Abbas, Salamat Ali, Asif Javed and Talat Aziz.