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A poet-PM’s ‘get-well-soon’ letter to Mehdi Hassan

How the King of Ghazals figured in Vajpayee’s peace mission with Pakistan

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
June 15, 2012 2:12:43 am

How the King of Ghazals figured in Vajpayee’s peace mission with Pakistan

The world of music has suffered some big losses in the past six to eight months. First Jagjit Singh left us,in October last. Two months later,the voice of another great singer,Cesaria Evora,was stilled in distant Cape Verde,the tiny archipelago off the coast of West Africa. Though her death received little attention in the Indian media,this black artiste had won the hearts of music lovers around the world with her distinctive rendition of fado-like songs in Portuguese,a mix of melancholy and haunting melody,a quality that also defines ghazals. Two days ago,we lost Mehdi Hassan,whose name,along with that of Jagjit Singh,will always remain synonymous with the best in this uniquely South Asian genre of music.

Music is a universal language that transcends all boundaries — of race,religion,and even language. Mehdi Hassan used to say: “Sangeet to dariya hai,jitna utro utna apne anjan hone ka pata chalta hai. (Music is like an ocean. The deeper you go into it,the more aware you become of your own ignorance.)” We experience this ignorance most forcefully in the South Asian context when the uniting power of music confronts the dividing effects of geopolitics. All of us know how contentious the issues that divide India and Pakistan are. Yet,when we Indians listen to the best of music created in Pakistan,and vice versa,we both realise that what unites us is stronger and more real than the problems of recent vintage between our two peoples — who are indeed one people,civilisationally.

What was Mehdi Hassan’s prayer whenever he visited the dargah of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz,the 12th century Sufi saint,at Ajmer,a symbol of our shared civilisation? It was to see reunification of India and Pakistan in some peaceful form or the other.

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Speaking for myself,it was the countless hours spent listening to Mehdi Hassan’s songs,when I was a student at IIT Bombay in the late 1970s,that first made me a convert to the cause of Indo-Pak friendship. It was a time of existential crisis for me. My mind was focused less on technology and more on knowing about politics and the purpose of life,music becoming an aid to my soul-searching. I said to myself one lonely night: “If this music is reassuring me that life and love aren’t meaningless,then I must never harbour any ill feelings towards any person in the world,including those from the country that has produced it.”

Many years later,destiny provided me an opportunity to make a tiny contribution to the cause of Indo-Pak rapprochement when I started working as an aide to Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO. One of my comrades-in-arms in this mission was Asif Noorani,a well-known Pakistani journalist and writer associated with the Dawn group of newspapers. He is not only a connoisseur of music (and cinema) but also knew Mehdi Hassan intimately — last year,he authored a book,Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music.

In May 2001,Asif,my good friend of many years,wrote a long and touching interview with Mehdi Hassan. The maestro had suffered a massive stroke the previous year and was battling hard to recover. The interview,which is available on Dawn’s website,presents an authentic portrait of his personality and his principles. When I showed the interview to Atalji,he immediately said: “I want to send him a letter.” Here is the letter he wrote:

Janaab Mehdi Hasan Sahab,

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I am distressed to know,from reports in the press,that you are unwell on account of a stroke you suffered a few months ago. I join millions of your fans in India in praying for your speedy and complete recovery,so that the world of music may continue to have one of its greatest living exponents around for a long time to come.

The concert of mellifluous ghazals,which you were kind enough to present at my residence in New Delhi in 1978,is still fresh in my memory. This is true of all those who have savoured your music at the numerous concerts you have given in India during the past several decades. Your music,like the music of all the great artistes of India and Pakistan,reminds us of the many common bonds of culture and spirituality that unite our two countries. Its equal popularity on both sides of the border illustrates that a life of peace and goodwill,and a readiness to appreciate the best of each other,is the natural aspiration of our two peoples. I was,therefore,deeply touched by your statement published in a recent article in Dawn newspaper,which echoes the sentiment of all your Indian fans: “Music and poetry know no boundaries. Jo haq Pakistanion ko meri ghazalon pe hai,wohi Hindustanion ko bhi hai. Unho ne mujhe kum pyar naheen diya”.

While wishing you to get well soon,I also hope that you will soon be able to come to India again and,among other things,visit Luna in Rajasthan,the village of your birth. I’ll be too happy to welcome you to my home once again.

Yours sincerely,

A.B. VAJPAYEE

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Mehdi Hassan was overwhelmed with emotion when Asif delivered the Indian prime minister’s letter to him. Atalji,who as India’s foreign minister in the late 1970s had endeared himself to Pakistanis by easing restrictions on travel to India,once again won their hearts with this sincere gesture. One eminent Pakistani,Irshad Ullah Khan,a Harvard scholar,wrote a letter to him before the Agra Summit (July 2001): “Your recent letter to Mehdi Hassan is a golden gesture to an ailing genius…” Khan also wrote in a subsequent article: “The fact that the Indian Prime Minister wrote this letter at a time when he was about to undergo or had undergone a difficult knee operation tells us a lot about the innate goodness of his heart and mind.”

Today,Atalji’s health doesn’t permit him to pay his homage to the King of Ghazals. But the poet-statesman’s heart surely mourns the passing of a singer who sang of love and the higher harmonies of life.

Kulkarni,a columnist for The Sunday Express,worked as a special aide to former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee,1998-2004. He is now a member of the BJP’s National Executive

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First published on: 15-06-2012 at 02:12:43 am
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