Music would be the poorer for the death of Mehdi Hasan
Posted on July 15th, 2012

Dr Kamal Wickremasinghe

The death of the renowned Pakistani Ghazal singer Mehdi Hasan on 13 June took away one of the legendary exponents of ragadari based popular music scene in the subcontinent. Hasan’s death at 84 removes the “ƒ”¹…”King’ (Shehnshah-e-Ghazal) of the immensely popular triumvirate of Ghazal singers he formed together with Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh.

Hassan who had withdrawn from public performances since the late 1990s due to the debilitating effects of a stroke he suffered held his last concert in Kozhikode in India in 2000, when he was 73-years old. His last recording was the song “ƒ”¹…”Tera Milana’, a composition of his own, he sang with Lata Mangeshkar in 2009. He spent the last several years of his life bedridden.

Mehdi Hassan Khan was born on 18 July 1927 at Luna, a small village in the Indian state of Rajasthan, to the 16th generation of a musical clan who sang at the court of the Maharaja of Jaipur. Mehdi himself is reported to have started to perform at the age of eight. His family migrated to Pakistan following Partition in 1947.

From the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, Pakistani artists like Noor Jahan, Iqbal Bano, and Mehdi Hasan thrived in a Muslim society dominated by fundamentalist interpretations of Islam that treated music “ƒ”¹…”haram’ (forbidden). In 1952 Hassan sang on Radio Pakistan, making an unremarkable entry in to the music scene. He had to repair bicycles and work as a car mechanic to make ends meet. His first big breakthrough came only in 1964, with his Ghazal for the film “ƒ”¹…”Farangi’; the song was the first in a series of hits.

The “ƒ”¹…”Ghazal’ is a collection of Dari or Urdu poems (sher) of two rhyming lines each dealing, almost exclusively with the subject of love that can be interpreted as Divine Love (ishq-e-haqiqi) as well as carnal love (ishq-e-majazi). The Ghazal is always written from the point of view of the unrequited lover who who experiences rejection, or reluctance due  to factors such as social barriers. Persian mystics and poets Rumi (13th century) and Hafiz (14th century), and Mirza Ghalib (1797″”…”1869) are the authors of many a memorable Ghazal. The Ghazal spread into South Asia in the 12th century through Sufi mystics and the courts of the new Islamic Sultanate.

Mehdi Hassan was the pioneer of an innovative approach to Ghazal “Gayaki”, the art of singing the Ghazal in the Indian classical tradition  that reflected the amorous mood of the lyric, set on traditional raga-base. Hasan’s vocal style popularised Ghazal in concerts, recordings and, on soundtracks of more than 300 “Lollywood” films (made in Lahore, Pakistan): he had recorded more than 20,000 songs in Bengali, Punjabi and Pashto in addition to his native Urdu.

Hasan singing in a mesmerising soft, yet deep register, cross-legged at his harmonium, with characteristic brow furrowing in concentration, with lower jaw overworking to produce the clear enunciation of chaste Urdu, symbolised the ethos which was adapted to a more flamboyant delivery by Ghulam Ali, and to a lesser extent by Jagjit Singh: Jagjit’s death last December 2011, of a brain haemorrhage, and Mehdi Hasan’s recent demise leaves Ghulam Ali alone to “ƒ”¹…”hold the tune’.

Apart from his music, Mehdi Hassan was also noted for his love for his native Rajastan and his contribution to bridging the gap between Indians and Pakistanis at popular level. The last song album he recorded with India’s voice, Lata Mangeshkar, was named Sarhadein (Borders), and contained a duet with the words Geet kab sarhadein mante hain, geet duniya ko ek jaante hain (When do songs recognise any borders, for songs, all the world is one).

Hasan’s unique contribution to Ghazal gayaki was his skilful blending of appropriate ragadari melodies and poetical lyrics without destroying the integrity of the ragas he used, such as Yaman Kalyan, Jhinjhoti, Pahadi and Bibhas to heighten the sense of sorrow, loneliness, or diffidence characteristic of the lyric he was working with. His interpretation was usually “ƒ”¹…”out of this world’.

Mehdi Hassan is survived by 14 children, from two marriages. The Karachi Metropolitan Corporation has announced the establishment of a museum and music library in memory of the legendary singer. The museum will display his personal belongings along with a collection of memorable songs and Ghazals sung by him. A 2000 square yard mausoleum is also being constructed in north of Karachi in his memory.

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