Jab aanchal raat ka lehraye/ Aur saara alam so jaye/ Tum mujhse milne, shamma jala kar/ Taj Mahal mein aa jaana…
In the ’80s and ’90s, the ghazal was the only musical genre that could challenge the popularity of Hindi film music. While solo performances by Ut Ghulam Ali Khan, Jagjit Singh, Pankaj Udhas and Talat Aziz were finding audiences, ghazal duos were also gaining attention. So just before our loyalties were bought by Jagjit Singh-Chitra Singh, Bhupendra Singh-Mitali Singh and at times even brothers Ahmed and Mohammed Hussain, there was Taj Mahal mein aa jaana, a simple ditty that was and still is synonymous with husband-wife duo Rajendra Mehta and Nina Mehta. The refrain was pleasant, conscientious, slightly elementary if one compared it to the lustre of other singers, but it won our loyalties, and worked in a way that it stayed — the actual litmus test for any form of music. So much so that it is the song that’s been doing the rounds after Rajendra’s death on Thursday morning in Mumbai due to heart issues. He was 85.
“Rajendra Mehta-Nina Mehta was the first couple who started singing ghazals together. Jagjit-Chitra of course became very famous later due to their populist approach. But these two were singing since the late ’60s,” says ghazal singer Pankaj Udhas, who had known Mehta since the ’70s. The ghazal at that time was perceived a certain way, he says. “It was to be sung solo, in a certain style. Rajendra bhai broke those barriers,” says Udhas. Nina Mehta has passed away a couple of years ago.
Rajendra was a Partition refugee and came from a Sikh family. He moved to India from Lahore, where he would read the daily Urdu newspaper to his blind grandfather. Knowing how to read and write Urdu helped later in Lucknow, where the family finally settled. Lahore and Lucknow were culturally rich and Rajendra’s first brush with the ghazal was through a concert by playback singers Talat Mahmood and Sudha Malhotra. That’s when he decided to learn the basics and nuances of the genre. The city’s popular ghazal singer Yunus Malik taught him. Rajendra would perform at ghazal mehfils in the city while working with LIC on the side to make ends meet. He moved to Mumbai in the ’60s after a transfer and began performing there with wife Nina. “The two had a niche audience. He had a very good knowledge of poetry. In fact he’d speak quite a bit during his concerts. Nina ji would often tell him ‘Rajan baatein kam, gaana zyada’. But he did the way he deemed fit,” says ghazal singer Talat Aziz.
At the height of its popularity, the ghazal was being diluted and had to adapt to survive. It soon changed from a genre rooted in the cultured set-up of old nobility and embraced the masses. “Ghazal ka beda gark to humne hi kiya hai. We made it lose respect by giving in to everything that the audience demanded. We are to be blamed for shifting it to five-star hotels and auditoriums, to maidans and now nowhere. The days of the mehfil are gone,” Rajendra Mehta had told this reporter once.
While he found fame in Mumbai and other pockets of the country where the ghazal was loved through cassettes and shows, it mostly eluded him. “He refused to change much. And that probably was a factor,” says Udhas. If Mehta was alive, he would have smiled ear to ear and quoted one of his favourite couplets: Shohratein har ek ke muqaddar mein kahan hoti hain/ Tum ye har roz naya bhes badalte kyun ho (When is fame in everyone’s destiny/ Why do you take up a new disguise everyday).