Mehdi Hassan – File photo by Dawn

MEHDI Hassan, who died in Karachi on Wednesday aged 85, was unarguably the most accomplished male ghazal singer of his time.

A benchmark in ghazal gayeki, heart-wrenchingly the last decade of his life was spent fighting a long battle with various ailments, including two debilitating strokes. He had remained under treatment for several weeks, and in the end it was complications arising out of a severe chest infection that claimed him.

The eminent vocalist was born in the Rajasthan village of Luna in 1927. He inherited his musical talent from his father, Ustad Abdul Azeem Khan, and was later tutored by his uncle, Ustad Ismail Khan, another impressive figure in the field of classical music.

Came Partition and the family moved to Pakistan, where they were faced with poverty and uncertainty. The vocalist had to cease performances from 1948 to 1951, though he did continue to pursue riyaz (practice) with the same ardour as he had in the past. To keep the kitchen fires burning he became an auto engineer specialising in the assembly of tractor engines.

Mehdi Hassan’s persistence in riyaz served him in good stead and he was auditioned by Radio Pakistan in the mid-50s.

Well-versed in classical music, he sang light classical numbers, folk ditties, Sufi songs, and geets, but where he was peerless was ghazal gayeki. The master vocalist evolved a style of his own.

At some stage of their career, many ghazal singers suffer a plateau. Not Mehdi Hassan, though, because he modelled his tunes on classical ragas, some well-known such as Darbari, Pahari and Kammaj, and other less familiar, such as Charukeshi and Partrirawa.

A few of his ghazals were based on more than one raga, case in point being his version of Mir Taqi Mir’s ‘Patta, patta, boota, boota’. What is no less of a feat is that even when he used the same raga as the basis for his ghazals, the numbers sound very different. He even adapted the ragas of Carnatic music of the south, which is vastly different in its grammar from the classical music of the northern parts of the subcontinent.

This attitude was reflected in his choice of ghazals too. Mehdi Hassan’s priority was the poem, not so much the poet. Thanks to him, people who are not much into poetry became acquainted with the names and verses of lesser-known poets such as Khatir Ghaznavi, Saghir Siddiqi and Farhat Shahzad. Yet he sang Mir, Ghalib, Momin, Faiz and Faraz with no less fervour. His signature ghazal, ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’ was written by Faiz. The immense popularity of the song induced the poet to once comment that “the ghazal now belongs to Mehdi Hassan”.

The vocalist was also a titanic figure in the genre of film music. He first met success in 1962 when his song ‘Jis ne mere dil ko dard diya’, written by Munir Niazi for the movie ‘Susraal’, won him acclaim. Success then came to him quickly: he won nine Nigar Awards in the ‘best male playback singer’ category, six of them successively from 1972 to 1977. Both remain unbeaten records.

Mehdi Hassan won three prestigious national awards, a Tamgha-i-Imtiaz, a Pride of Performance and a Hilal-i-Imtiaz. In 1979 he was given K.L. Saigal Award in Jullunder. Four years later the Nepalese government conferred on him the coveted Gorkha Dakshan Bahu.

A frequent visitor to India and cities outside the subcontinent where there are lovers of ghazals, Mehdi Hassan’s last concert was in Kerala, India, where the large hall was packed to capacity — this, for a place where not just Urdu but even Hindi has been an alien language. This was towards the end of 2000, when he suffered his first stroke. He got the best possible treatment in Karachi on his return, particularly by neurologist Dr Aziz Sonawala. He was taken to India in 2005 for ayurvedic treatment, and those who welcomed him included A.B. Vajpayee, Dilip Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. Soon after his return he suffered his second stroke, which rendered him speechless and helpless.

Mehdi Hassan had a large family — two wives and 14 children — but did not manage his finances well, although he was for many years the highest paid ghazal singer in the subcontinent. He is survived by his children.

The writer is the editor of Mehdi Hassan: The Man and his Music, a compilation of articles and music.