This piece was first published in June, 2014.
It has been two years since Mehdi Hasan left this world and almost 14 since he last gave a public performance. It was so heartrending to see him suffer from different illnesses for at least a decade and to be told that there was no chance of his recovery that when he finally called it a day, one felt relieved.
Mehdi Hasan's contribution to Pakistani and North Indian music has been immense, but his admirers are all over the subcontinent. No less a person than the Academy Award winning composer A. R. Rahman, whose knowledge of Hindi, let alone Urdu, is fairly limited, said, “I have grown up with the ghazals of Mehdi Hasan.”
Coincidentally, Mehdi Hasan’s last public performance before he was afflicted with a stroke in 2000 was in Kerala, deep down in South India.
Mastery over both music and language
There can be no two opinions on the fact that in the last three decades of the 20th century Mehdi Hasan's singing was the benchmark of musical renditions of ghazals. Singers of the calibre of Jagjit Singh considered the great exponent of ghazal-gayeki (ghazal singing) his mentor.
Abida Perveen, another titanic figure in the field of music, told me when I was compiling a book on Mehdi sahib that “he has widened the horizons of ghazal gayeki immeasurably.”
One of Mehdi Hasan's many remarkable qualities was that he did not always go for big names in Urdu poetry. More concerned with the poetic quality of the verse, he chose the finest ghazals even if their authors were lesser or barely known poets like Farhat Shahzad, Saleem Gilani and Razi Tirmizi.
This is not to say that he never rendered the ghazals of such stalwarts as Mir, Ghalib, Momin, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Dagh and among the more recent ones Faiz Ahmed Faiz, whose 'Gulon mein rung bhare', was a rage of the late 20th century.
What imparted timeless appeal to Mehdi Hasan’s ghazals was that he had based his renditions on different ragas. The ragas he selected were in accordance with the moods of the verse. Thus Mehdi Hasan the composer worked in tandem with Mehdi Hasan the singer.
What was no less remarkable was that two songs of his based on the same raga invariably sounded different.
That he was a stickler for perfection can be illustrated by one single incident: Writer-cum-broadcaster Raza Ali Abidi recalls that once when he was having lunch at the Karachi Press Club, he met Mehdi Hasan for the first time. He was to perform at the club the same evening but wasn’t sure about the pronunciation of a couple of words. For just those words, he had come looking for the singer as someone whose knowledge of language was known to be impeccable.
Contributions to film music
Mehdi Hasan’s contribution to Pakistani film music was second to none. Proof, if proof be needed, is that he won as many as eight Best Playback Singer Nigar Award trophies, a figure even Noor Jehan could not match. His solos include such immortal numbers as 'Mujhe tum nazar se gira to rahe ho', 'Ik naye mod per le ayen hai halat mujhe', 'Yoon zindagi ki rah pe takra gaya koi' and 'Pyar bharay do sharmeelay nain'.
His list of dulcet duets comprises such lilting numbers as 'Aap ko bhool jayen hum', 'Mujhe dil se na bhoolana' and 'Tere bheegay badan ki khushboo se'.
Likewise his folk songs, such as the Rajasthani number 'Kesarya balama' and 'Heer' are etched on the memory of music lovers in much the same way as the wistful 'Bulleh Shah kafi ki jaana mein kaun Bulleya' has continued to haunt music buffs for more than three decades.
Read next: 'Who killed Mehdi Hasan?'
I would like to conclude my tributes to the departed singer by recalling a semi-classical number Chedho madhur beena from the movie Geet kahan sangeet kahan. He was pitched against the exponents of two ustads, Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali. He matched their virtuosity but the duo had no answer to the mellifluousness he imparted to the number.
Mehdi Hasan may not be with us, but his repertoire will continue to enthrall music lovers in all times to come.