A tribute to the king

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 5:00:31 by


The remarkable thing about ghazal singer Mehdi Hassan was that he fashioned, along with Begum* Akhtar, a style of singing that did not exist before them.

The ghazal as a song was not part of our culture before the 20th century. It was part of the canon of poetry which was recited and read, but not sung. The classical training of both these singers brought music to the words of the great Urdu poets. The 1950s, not that long ago, is when the ghazal came into popular music. Its decline came only three decades later.

For this entire period, across the subcontinent, in Pakistan, in India and in the nations where Pakistanis and Indians live together, Mehdi Hassan was the undisputed king of ghazal singers. Many good singers came after him, for instance Jagjit Singh and Ghulam Ali. But for most, the idea of the ghazal was linked to Hassan. He was beloved in Gujarat, and often sang in Surat’s Gandhi Smruti Bhavan, where I first heard him in 1981. I was too young to notice his singing but still remember what a regal figure he was on stage.

My mother always loved the way he looked, and if you see his early photographs you will know why. He had a rough-hewn but intelligent face. The word I’m looking for is leonine. His expression was of a man lost elsewhere, thinking about the words being carried by his voice.

And what a voice it was.

He had the ability to deliver emotion, a rare talent and one that separates very good singers of our music from the great ones. In keeping with the style of ghazals, this emotion that his voice carried was masculine but melancholic. Of all ghazal singers, his voice suited it best. It was convincing. Technically, he was sound along with the other great Pakistani singer of ghazals, Ghulam Ali. Both of them were inclined towards classical Hindustani music and most of their compositions were in pure raag form.

Unlike Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh, however, Hassan’s best numbers were from the classical canon of Urdu poetry. Ghazals like “Patta Patta” by Mir, or “Aye Kuch Abr” by Faiz. My favourite was the haunting “Dekh toh dil ke jaan say uthta hai, yeh dhuan kahan say uthta hai?” It was made superb both by the quality of Mir’s writing and the gravelly sombre tone in which Hassan renders it. I cannot listen to it without being deeply moved.

Mehdi Hassan was a kind man, and forgiving. In the last of his singing years — this must have been about 15 years ago — a man from Calcutta booked Hassan for a concert. However, he was unable to execute the show for some reason and did not inform Hassan till he came over, wasting his time and causing him loss. If Hassan was overly angered by this he did not reveal it, and simply shrugged off a newspaper reporter’s inquiry. This sort of thing happened sometimes, he said, but he did not judge all Indians by such incidents. He would again trust the next man who invited him. But these invites tapered off.

By the early 1990s in both India and Pakistan, the ghazal slipped as a form of popular music. It has now become esoteric, liked by only a few who are older. This is a great shame.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in 1997. In 15 years, there has been nobody who has come close to replacing him and who can be surprised by that?

Now another very great man is gone from our midst, the likes of whom we will not see again in our generation.

Mehdi Hassan’s Milestones


Hassan was born in 1927 in a village called Luna in Rajasthan, India into a family of traditional musicians


He migrated with his family to Pakistan and settled in Cheecha Watni, Sahiwal district, Pakistan.


Hassan was given the opportunity to sing on Radio Pakistan, primarily as a thumri singer, which earned him recognition within the musical fraternity


Hassan sang his first film song “Nazar Miltay Hi..”  for the film Shikar.

His all-time hit ghazal “Gullon Mein Rang Bharay” in the film Farangi gave him a breakthrough as a playback singer in 1962.

Hassan collaborated for the first time with Noor Jehan for the song “Eik Deevanay Ka Is Dil Ne Kaha Maan Liya”  in film Qaidi.


Hassan sang for the first time for Waheed Murad in the film Saz-o-Awaz. The song on to become a megahit


Hassan sang one of his most popular Punjabi songs “Dukh Labba Tay Ba Aaway” for the film Mehndi


Hassan sang for the first and last time for a Bengali film


Hassan was at the peak of his film career and sang 71 songs, the highest number of film songs in a year in his film career


Received the Saigal Award in Jalandhar, India


Received the Gorkha Dakshina Bahu Award, one of the highest honours given by the president of Nepal.

Hassan sang 38 songs in these 17 years; seven in 1983, eight in 1984, 10 in 1985, four in 1986, two in 1987, two apiece in 1988 and 1989. After a five-year gap, he sang two songs in 1994 and a single in 1995. He then sang for a Punjabi film Chann Puttar which was screened only for two shows in Lahore in 2000.


His first and last duet song with Indian legend Lata Mangeshkar “Tera Milana” was released

Published In The Express Tribune, June 14th, 2012.

Lahore News Sources -2

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