Flashback: the year is 1952 and as aspiring singers eagerly wait for their turn to audition at Radio Pakistan in Karachi, a “slim, balding young man with a longish face and bright eyes… dressed in a shirt and trousers” hopes to impress with his unique voice.
He believes that he has all the potential to be selected as he is “well-trained” and belongs to a strong tradition of music: the 16th generation of musicians that belong to the Kalawant clan. His father, Ustad Azeem Khan, who sang in the court of the Maharaja of Jaipur, and his uncle Ustad Ismail Khan had been traditional dhrupad singers.
As he is asked to sing in front of the auditioners, he asks them what they would like to listen to: thumri, ghazal or khayal. His confidence is impressive. “He begins with a ghazal by Mirza Ghalib, based on a popular raga,” writes Enver Inayatullah in a book on Mehdi Hassan compiled by Asif Noorani. “I was struck by his voice. He also seemed to have a deep understanding of the intricacies of taans.”
Much has already been said about Mehdi Hassan. He was a man of perseverance and a perfectionist. He especially worked hard over pronunciation and delivery of words. “I remember the Radio Pakistan canteen which used to be a special place for heated intellectual discussions,” remembers S.M. Shahid, eminent writer on the arts and especially on classical music. “You could spot Mehdi Hassan learning and discussing the pronunciations and adayegi (delivery) with stalwarts such as Z.A. Bukhari, Rafi Anwar, Enver Inayatullah and many others.”
His timeless, beautiful and eloquent numbers such as Kabhi Mein Soochta Hoon and Mujhe Dil Se (film: Aaina), Pyar Bharey Do Sharmeelay Nayn (film: Chahat), Tere Bheegay Badan Ki Khusbu (film: Sharafat) became instant hits and bagged numerous awards. “I am so proud to have sung with him,” reminsces Mehnaz Begum. “We sang a number of duets for films like Aaina, Bandish, etc. He thought of me as his daughter, and gave me a lot of encouragement. He was also a very dignified man and a thorough gentleman who remained deeply involved in his work.”
With the collapse of Pakistan’s film industry, Mehdi Hassan concentrated more on ghazal singing. While many of them became synonymous with his gayeki, Guloon Mein Rung Bharay by Faiz Ahmed Faiz was one signature rendition that proved his mettle. Faiz was reported to have said that the ghazal now belonged to Mehdi Hassan. Ranjish Hi Sahi by Ahmad Faraz came soon after.
“There is no denying the fact that Khan Saheb was a trailblazer as far as ghazal gayeki is concerned,” says S.M. Shahid. “He was not only technically sound but laid proper emphasis on the delivery of words and pronunciations in poetry.”
The great maestro also inspired a great many singers, both local and international, to follow in his footsteps. Jagjit Singh, Chitra Singh, Anup Jalota, Tariq Aziz, etc, consider Mehdi Hassan their guru.
Tina Sani says she also grew up listening to Mehdi Hassan’s ghazals. “I remember Mehdi Hassan Sahib’s performance at our home in Kabul when I was a little girl. He had turned out to be a star performer and the Afghan officials invited to the performance yearned to listen to more. When I started singing in the 1980s, he influenced me greatly and as I am a fast and eager learner of languages, his guidance was tremendous,” she says.
Mehdi Hassan is for Pakistan what Lata Mangeshkar is for India. “India takes a lead in cinema, but nobody can beat us in ghazal gayeki, thanks to Mehdi Hassan Khan Saheb who remains unmatched in ghazal gayeki throughout the world,” concludes S.M. Shahid.