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Mehdi Hassan changed ghazal singing to become its undisputed shahenshah

Hassan was born in a family of Dhrupad singers in village Luna in Rajasthan

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
June 14, 2012 3:02:51 am

Ranjish hi sahi,dil hi dukhane

ke liye aa,

Aa phir se mujhe chhod ke jaane ke liye aa…

A few months after the 1971 Indo-Pak war ended,Mehdi Hassan recorded the above ghazal penned by Ahmad Faraz for the Pakistani film Muhabbat. Despite the deep divide following the war and the tension,the ghazal in Raag Yaman,with a hint of Rajasthani folk form Maand,was a hit on both sides of the border — evoking the yearning that both separates and unites the two countries.

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That remained the story of the man born in India who migrated to Pakistan during Partition and who,over his five-decade-long musical journey,came to be known as the undisputed ‘Shahenshah-e-Ghazal’ throughout the subcontinent.

This afternoon,Hassan,who would have turned 85 on July 18,passed away in Karachi after a prolonged 12-year illness. Suffering from lung,chest and urinary tract infections,he had been admitted to hospital almost a week ago. With his death,the curtains came down on the Dhrupad-style of ghazal gayaki (singing) in the subcontinent.

“Aaj sab kuchh kho diya (Today I lost everything),” Hassan’s son Asif Mehdi told The Indian Express over the phone from Karachi.

Hassan was born in a family of Dhrupad singers in village Luna in Rajasthan. At the time of Partition,when he was 20,his parents migrated to Pakistan. Struggling to make a living,Hassan began working at a cycle repair shop and later became a car and tractor mechanic.

He struggled for a long time to establish himself as a singer,which included a one-off performance on Radio Pakistan in 1957. The year 1959 would prove the breakthrough year when Hassan was introduced to a motley group of people at the Art Council in Lahore by legendary poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz. “Sabne kahaa ki badaa meetha gaata hai (Everybody said that he sings very well),” remembers Salima Hashmi,Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s daughter,who was present at the conference.

Soon,no musical soiree was complete without Hassan humming Faiz’s ‘Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-nau bahaar chale’. “His voice added so many colours to the ghazal that at one of the concerts,Faiz sahab stood up and raised his hands in the air and said that this ghazal belonged to Mehdi Hassan,that he had nothing to do with it. Such was the impact of the man’s singing,” says Pakistani singer Abida Parveen,breaking into ‘Ye dhuan kahan se utha hai’ and ‘Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain’.

In 1978,Hassan came to India on the invitation of then external affairs minister Atal Behari Vajpayee — his first visit since Partition.

Talking of the long association that developed between Hassan and Faiz,Hashmi,speaking from Lahore,said: “The memory came back today,of Mehdiji siinging my father’s poetry at so many occasions,including various concerts in India.”

Hassan’s contemporary and popular Pakistani ghazal singer Farida Khanum,who travelled extensively with him on tours,says Ghazal singing changed after he added the classical dhrupad style to it. “While all of us would set a list of ghazals to be sung at a particular mehfil,Mehdi bhaijaan had the capacity to sing ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’ for the whole evening. Subah ho jaati thi ek ghazal sunte huye (A whole night would pass listening to the same ghazal).”

Poet Nida Fazli,a close friend of Hassan who penned most of the late Jagjit Singh’s ghazals,says Hassan had been an institution for those in India and Pakistan. “I would tell him to leave his habit of smoking and drinking. But he would never listen. We have lost a gem of an artiste today,” says Fazli,who last met him two years ago when Hassan came to India for treatment.

He adds that it was Hassan’s training in Indian classical music and dhrupad style of singing that presented ghazal in a new avatar.

While Pakistan Premier Yousuf Raza Gilani described Hassan as “an icon who mesmerised music lovers not only in Pakistan but also in the subcontinent”,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he had “brought the subcontinental Sufi sensibilities to life through his songs”.

After news recently came of him living in penury,Indian melody queen Lata Mangeshkar and other musicians in the country had collected money for his treatment. The Rajasthan government had also offered help.

Following his illnesses,Hassan had cut back on performances in the late ‘80s and had been in and out of hospital for the past three years. He is survived by 14 children. Both his wives are dead.

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