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Rakhshanda Jalil
Friday , June 15, 2012 at 12 : 03

With Mehdi Hassan, there were no false notes


Ahmad Faraz, the Urdu poet, told me an interesting anecdote. Once, he was very late in catching his flight back home from Delhi. The airport staff, on the verge of refusing to let him board, looked at his passport closely, and asked: 'Aaap 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 people like Mehndi Hassan who have done 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, Mehndi Hassan captured the Indian ghazal 'market'. While his style of singing (with the characteristic breaking up of the matla into many, many short phrases) spawned many wannabes, 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 Mehndi Hassan, people who can barely follow the fill 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 Mehndi Hassan's voice that can transpose you to a place where meaning becomes subservient to the magic of the words.

This is not to belittle the importance of the poet. If anything, Mehndi Hassan is 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 uththa hai, Shola tha jal bujha hoon, Pyar bhare do sharmile nain and many more. These ghazals have, as it were, become Mehndi Hassan's.

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

Unfortunately, we in India don't know Mehndi Hassan's ouvre 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 kalaam. 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 Mehndi 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 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 Mehndi Hassan inserted these ashaar by Talib Baghpati and sang them in such a seamless way that they seem a 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 Mehndi Hassan there were never any false notes. May his soul rest in peace.

(Rakhshanda Jalil blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com)


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More about Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She has published over 15 books, including the much-acclaimed book on Delhi's lesser-known monuments called 'Invisible Delhi' and a well-received collection of short stories, called 'Release & Other Stories' (Harper Collins, 2011). She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com. Her Ph D is on the Progressive Writers' Movement.