By Ras H. Siddiqui
Mehdi Hassan, possibly one of the finest ghazal singers that South Asia has ever produced passed away in Karachi, Pakistan on June 13, 2012 at the age of 84. It has been reported that he had suffered a stroke over a decade ago and had been struggling with his health ever since.
He had not been singing for a long time, his last reported effort being a duet with Lata Mangeshkar in Urdu poet Farhat Shahzad’s “Tera milna bahut accha lage hai” in the album titled “Sarhadain” (Borders). Both Hassan Sahib and Lata Ji recorded their segments of the song separately which were later merged or blended together to produce this historic song.
Mehdi Hassan Khan was born in Luna, Rajasthan in 1927, located in Jhunjhunu District bordering Haryana. Rajathan is well known for its handicrafts, forts, palaces and havelis and somehow as a place of birth of geniuses and great ghazal singers no less. It is interesting to note that we have now lost not one but two giants of ghazal singing within a year (the other being Jagjit Singh). And they were both born in Rajasthan.
There were two singing visits by Mehdi Hassan to the San Francisco Bay area during the closing decades of the last century which this scribe was able to attend. The first was when he was still quite mobile and singing not only in Urdu and Punjabi but also in Dari (Persian spoken in Afghanistan). At this venue it came as a surprise that he had such a large following amongst the Afghan diaspora. Before that show I only knew of his Indian & Pakistani fans (along with a few Nepalese and Bangladeshis). The second time Mehdi Hassan performed here; he was physically helped on to the stage, so we knew that something was seriously wrong. If memory serves me right he started off with a beautiful rendition of Farhat Shahzad’s “Tanha tanha mat socha kar” (Don’t think too much while alone).
For the masters and connoisseurs of the Urdu language, its written poetry is all inspiring. But for many of us, who do not have a good grasp of the nuances of its script, we have had to depend on the singers of India and Pakistan to keep us connected to our most cherished emotions. The ghazal is the ultimate expression of this emotion. Amongst others, the late Mehdi Hassan and Jagjit Singh have done wonders for us in understanding this form of art. And on the music side, many of us who do not understand the difference between a Raag and a Thumri, also have them to thank for making it all appear simple.
Young Mehdi was once working in a bicycle repair shop in Pakistan when his family migrated there after the 1947 partition of British India. Belonging to a family of musicians from the Kalawant clan of which he was the 16th generation, he refused to give up singing and took Radio by storm during the 1950’s. Poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s “Gulon mein rang bharay” did additional wonders for Mehdi Hassan’s singing career and for Faiz Sahib’s mass appeal. He became the most significant male playback singer for the once thriving Pakistani movie industry but returned to live shows after the industry started declining.
The fact that Mehdi Hassan had a huge fan following in India cannot be understated. From Lata Ji, Dilip Kumar and a host of others connected to Bollywood, many have acknowledged his passing. Some leading personalities from India have already visited his grave in Karachi and many condolences have accompanied the news of his death from across the border including a statement from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office.
The poet Faiz has already been mentioned as has the work of Farhat Shahzad, both given a bigger following after Mehdi Hassan’s singing of their work. But there was one poet in particular who stood out in Mehdi Sahib’s work and that was Ahmed Faraz. From “Shola tha jal bujha hoon” to “Ab kay hum bichray” to the masterpiece “Ranjish hi Sahi..,” (whose music was composed by the singer himself), the words of Faraz were immortalized.
Others may have their own favorites by the “King of Ghazals”, but the master stood out with his rendition of this particular song. Nobody could express the pain of love within these lines of poetry written by Faraz and captured in the word “Ranjish” (Anguish) better than Mehdi Hassan. His own anguish has now ended, may his soul rest in peace.