‘If music be the food of love, play on’. That is what the English bard William Shakespeare wrote as the opening line of his popular play Twelfth Night. And that is exactly what the legendary singer Mehdi Hassan did to entertain the 1978 visiting Indian team to Pakistan, led by Bishen Singh Bedi, to keep them spellbound till the early hours of the morning at Lahore to spread the message of love.
Relations between the neighbouring countries had turned sour after Pakistan’s 1960-61 tour to India because of war and later due to crisis in East Pakistan in 1971 which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.
Although some of the Pakistani and Indian players played against each other at county level, it was not possible for them to play Tests because of the feud that lasted nearly seventeen years before things normalised and the Indians and their fans were welcomed for the revival of the cricketing relations.
Besides cricket, the Indian team’s long cherished dream was to listen to Mehdi Hassan. That I discovered a couple of days before the Test at Lahore when during the nets, Bedi whom I knew from his playing days in Northamptonshire asked me if it was possible to have an evening with the great singer. Indian team’s manager, the Maharajah of Baroda, Fateh Singh Rao Gaekwad was just as keen to have a session with the gifted singer as were all the Indian players including the legendary Sunil Gavaskar.
I happened to be staying during the Test with my childhood friend, neighbour and college colleague Mohammad Ali, the matinee idol of Pakistan movie industry, who I thought could make this possible to fulfill the request of the Indian players.
When I sounded him out about it, generous as he was, he immediately sprung into action to invite Mehdi Hassan the very next day and then called the Indian captain and the Maharajah to invite them home for the musical evening.
Two hours before the Indians and Pakistan team arrived, Mehdi Hassan stepped in at the Gulberg house of Ali-Zeb where for the first time I had the honour of meeting the genius who I discovered was a keen follower of the game and a big fan of Hanif Mohammad, Zaheer Abbas and Gavaskar.
The visiting Indians shook hand in reverence with the great man and soon settled down for a mesmerising rendition of ghazals and songs by the maestro that followed. Glued to their seats, they listened to him with obvious admiration and respect that they had for his skill and voice.
Bhagwat Chandrashekhar, the great leg-spinner of his time who loved singing Mukesh, and his colleagues were so overcome by the ghazals that they would often rise from their seats to applaud Mehdi Hassan. The party went on till late in the morning before the Indian team left shaking the singer’s hand in appreciation and thanking Mohammad Ali and Zeba for providing this unforgettable opportunity to them on their tour.
The second time I came across Mehdi Hassan was when I flew from Georgetown to Trinidad on Pakistan’s tour of the West Indies in 2000-01.
No sooner had I checked in my hotel and was unpacking when I heard a knock at my room door. To my surprise, it was Mehdi Hassan standing right in front. Not recognising me from our first meeting in Lahore, he apologised in English and told me that he was looking for his son’s room.
I told him in Urdu to take me as his son and invited him into my room to remind him of my meeting with him at Mohammad Ali’s house during the Indian team’s visit. I soon located his son’s room, entertained him with a glass of coconut water before he departed saying that he was in Trinidad for a concert.
In 2007 when I boarded the plane at Karachi to cover Pakistan team’s tour of India, I noticed him in a wheelchair boarding the plane with another great singer, Ghulam Ali. At the Delhi airport before he had even gone to the immigration he was profusely garlanded as was Ghulam Ali and people at the airport rushed in from every direction to look at them. He made us all so proud, no doubt about it.
Mehdi Hassan’s popularity grew beyond borders as he toured the world to entertain his fans. Indians, I suppose, were his greatest fans as were the Pakistanis. To put it succinctly, he was the Don Bradman of ghazal singers.