Voice Of People- Mehdi Hassan

June 17, 2012 at 9:15 PMJun (Cinema, Friends, Literature, Media, Music, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Javed Akthar scarcely misses hitting the bull’s eye. He was at the heart of truth when on Mehdi Hassan’s death he said (speaking to Tehelka) that the era of popular gazals started and ended with the gazal king. That was bang on.

What is popular gazal? What was pre-popular gazal? What is popular?

Popular gazal can be popularly understood as popularized by the detaching gazal from the courtesans and the coming of recording mechanisms. What happened with the coming of recording mechanisms at the beginning of the 20th century was that the style and method of gazal singing was undergoing change. Earlier the courtesans as artists would project their voice as loudly as possible and their live performance was intertwined with a lot of coloratura runs (tans) and nakhras which elevated the gazal to a higher level by deepening it. The tempo of the gazal in the pre-recording era too was different.

These changes to take shape completely did take time. In earlier days the recordings were no less to a concert with a huge orchestra and the recordings happening with one recording device in a huge hall, most of the times cinema halls after the last show of cinema for the day is over.  But with technological advancements the singing of gazals got a bit mellowed down and the coloratura runs decreased to a large extent. The tempo too changed to an extent.

Thanks to the popularity of Urdu/ Hindustani in the north belt at the turn of the century, some of the earliest recordings done during the initial days of recording industry were gazals. The recording of the gazals and selling of the recordings further popularized gazal singing in the times when it was moving out of the courtesan hands. Later with the coming of talkies or sound in cinema the existing and easily available form for songs in cinema were the folk forms and the gazal. So the songs in films included a lot of gazals. This not just popularized gazals among the people but, with the recording mechanisms, changed the style of gazal singing too.

Gazal singers like Saighal, Farida Khannum, Begum Akthar carried the memory of pre-recording days of gazal singing in their style. But soon was to emerge a new generation of popular gazal singing shaped in the times of studio recording which redefined gazal singing and the singer who was the first and last among them was Mehdi Hassan. So what Javed Akthar said is at the heart of the truth that popular gazal begins and ends with Mehdi Hassan. This new style of singing was at its best in the hands of Mehdi Hassan and this new style of popular gazals popularized gazals further with the help of mass production and mass distribution. (The contribution of these popular gazals to the language of Urdu has been discussed by me in my obituary to Jagjit Singh which I do not wish to repeat here.)

Mehdi Hassan’s life cut paths with another shifting period- one country being partitioned into two nations. Born in Luna, India when the nation was partitioned he was forced to leave for Pakistan where he worked as a mechanic initially before coming to fame as a gazal singer and ruling the hearts of the once one nation.

His life, soon after partition, is also a story of partition revealing what partition did to individuals. It divorced individuals from themselves, reflected in Mehdi Hassan being distanced from his music by being forced to become a mechanic to make the ends meet.

The trauma of partition left an everlasting pain in the heart of Mehdi Hassan. He longed for his village and the soil of his village. But Mehdi Hassan had the ability to turn what seem negatives into positives. Once while performing his harmonium is said to have stopped working. Immediately Mehdi sahab repaired it and while repairing it said, “I had worked as a mechanic and then had repaired very complicated machines in comparison to which this harmonium is easy to be repaired.” The pains of partition added depth to his gazals. The gazals, “ranjish hee sahi,” “ab kay hum bichadey hai toh,” became an expression of his agony and his dreams too.

To take the help of Javed Akthar again, he in an elongated interview (Talking Songs) said, “Sad moments and experiences usually settle deep within a person… so sad songs connect to the inner world… People have different ways of expressing happiness but sadness is often hidden away. That sadness finds expression in songs and so such songs are very precious.” In the same interview he also says that being tired of excessive melodrama of one era the following generation wanted emotions to be expressed without melodrama or overt-sentimentality. Saying this he states that melodrama should be replaced with dignified under-stated drama, without compromising with the sensitivity.

Mehdi Hassan’s voice had a restrain. That along with his uncomplicated (or less complicated) way of singing struck a chord with the larger mass and Mehdi Hassan became the voice of many and a release of hidden emotions for many, emotions settled deep within. A less recognized contribution of film songs and ghazals to the mass has been that of catharsis. Apart from giving new dimension to gazal singing method Mehdi Hassan with his restrained voice also provided catharsis to the melancholic emotions which is kept deep inside and keeps looking for an outlet.

Lata Mangeshkar was true to say Mehdi Hassan’s voice was the “voice of God,” to speak of its quality. But it was as much a voice of people, giving release to their pent up emotions, as much the “voice of God.”

It is sad that the voice of people, as said by Raaza Rumi, minimal interest with regard to treatment by the officialdom. It required media to pick up the issue. The minimal interest by the system is a shame. At the same time its sad that though Rajasthan Chief Minister volunteered to take care of the artist’s treatment things did not work out.

When I heard the sad news of Mehdi Hassan passing away I imagined myself singing, “Ranjish hee sahi dil hee dukhaane kay liye aa…” and suddenly in my imagination I heard Mehdi sahib singing, “Shola tha jal bujha hoon hawaayein mujhey na do, main kab ka jaa chukka hoon sadaayein mujhey na do.” It could have been in no other way because if you once heard Mehdi Sahab sing, you would, at your subconscious level, be having continuous interaction with him, his voice and his songs. He, with his voice and song, would become an extended self on whose lap you would rest your head and he would pamper you, console you.

I told a senior friend (Ashok Shettar) about my interaction with Mehdi Hassan on hearing the sad news and he rightly quoted Faiz from a gazal which Mehdi sahib immortalized. The line goes like this:

Chaley Bhi Aao Kay Gulshan Ka Khaarobaar Chaley…

But again Mehdi Sahab had to converse. I heard him sing:

Muhobbat Karney Waaley Kam Na Hongay,
Teri Mehfil Mein Lekin Hum Na Hongay.

I laughed at the interaction and swallowed the line that came to my lips but did not take wings…

Agar Tu Ittefaakan Mil Bhi Jaaye,
Teri Furkat Kay Sadme Kam Na Honay.

Though there is ‘furkat’ there will be ‘milna’, through gazals and conversations. The ‘mehfil’ has not come to an end…

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