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His true notes

Mehdi Hassan took Urdu poetry to the nooks and crannies of popular imagination

Written by Rakhshanda Jalil | Published: June 14, 2012 3:16:01 am

Mehdi Hassan took Urdu poetry to the nooks and crannies of popular imagination

Ahmad Faraz,the Urdu poet,told me an interesting anecdote. Once,he was very late in catching his flight back home to Pakistan from Delhi. The airport staff,on the verge of refusing to let him board,looked at his passport closely,and asked: “Aap wohi hain ,Ranjish hi sahi wale?” And not only did Faraz sahib catch his flight but also had his excess baggage waved through. All because of Ranjish hi sahi,he chuckled,as he narrated the incident.

Even in an age innocent of recorded music,poets became famous not just because they were read or heard at mushairas,but because their poetry was sung. I suspect it is always the singing of a particular poem that adds to its shelf life. For,it is the singing that brings poetry to those nooks and crannies of popular imagination where the written word does not reach. Many of us hear poetry more often than we read it. In India,it is also because fewer people can actually read Urdu; the singer,therefore,has increasingly become a vital link in accessing Urdu poetry.

The point of this somewhat extended introduction is to elaborate the importance of singers like Mehdi Hassan who did an immense service in popularising the Urdu ghazal in India. In the 1970s,when pirated cassettes from Pakistan were as precious as gold and visiting ghazal singers were treated better than royalty,Mehdi Hassan captured the Indian ghazal “market”. His style of singing (with the characteristic breaking up of the matla into many,many short phrases) spawned many wannabes,but no one could come close to his voice and adaygi. While a handful of the so-called ghazal connoisseurs comprehend the full wazan of the ghazal in all its intricacies,a great many,I suspect,simply sway to its sonorousness. And when the singer is Mehdi Hassan,people who can barely follow the full import of the poetry,whose Urdu vocabulary is uncertain and sheen qaf less so,the singer and the audience become one. Why is this so,I have often wondered. Perhaps it has something to do with Mehdi Hassan’s voice,which can transport you to a place where meaning becomes subservient to the magic of words.

This is not to belittle the importance of the poet. If anything,Mehdi Hassan was single-handedly responsible for introducing the work of many lesser-known poets to us in India,such as Masroor Anwar’s hugely popular Mujhe tum nazar se gira to rahe ho or Anwar Mirzapuri’s Main nazar se pi raha hoon. Or,Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karte hain,Yeh dhuan kahan se uthta hai,Shola tha jal bujha hoon,Pyar bhare do sharmile nain. These ghazals,as it were,became Mehdi Hassan’s.

In the case of the work of older poets such as Mir,Mehdi Hassan can be credited with infusing new life into them. Patta patta boota boota haal hamara jaane hai has been sung by many artists,yet none can match Mehdi Hassan’s inimitable style. The same can be said of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Baat karni mujhe mushkil kabhi aisi to na thee. Runa Laila has sung this,too,but where her voice is brimful with delicious exuberance and vivacity,the chanchalta of a mountain brook,Mehdi Hassan’s is stately and majestic like the broad river that has descended to the plains.

Unfortunately,we in India don’t know Mehdi Hassan’s oeuvre in its entirety. We don’t know much about the playback songs he sang for the Pakistan film industry,or those he recorded for the radio,or the farsi kalam. Due to the limitations of cross-border traffic,we are dependent on the goodwill of friends who cross the border or the pirated copies of popular CDs and tapes available in Indian shops. This is possibly the only explanation why the older Mehdi Hassan numbers,such as Rafta rafta woh meri hasti ka saama ho gaye or Gulon mein rang bhare are more popular among Indian audiences than the equally enchanting but less “anthologised” numbers such as the Iqbal verses he sang for PTV.

Coming back to Ranjish hi sahi,few would know that Mehdi Hassan inserted these ashaar by Talib Baghpati and sang them in such a seamless way that they seem part of the whole ghazal: Maanaa ke muhabbat ka chhupaanaa hai muhabbat/ Chupke se kisii roz jataane ke liye aa/ Jaise tujhe aate hain na aane ke bahaane/ Aise hii kisii roz na jaane ke liye aa.

The new breed of singers who have turned the ghazal into a pastiche of verses by doing a cut-and-paste job from different poets would do well to remember the maestro’s instinctive knowledge of metre and rhyme. With Mehdi Hassan there were never any false notes.

Jalil is a Delhi-based author
express@expressindia.com

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