The rise of ghazal

June 11, 2023

After 1947, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Mehdi Hassan, Fareeda Khanum and Iqbal Bano took singing to new heights

The rise of ghazal


fter the emergence of Pakistan, some of the classical forms of music suffered a great decline in listenership. The reasons may have been many, including the rise of film music, the focus on the popular forms and the lack of patronage extended by the princely states that had been there even in the colonial era.

In Pakistan, the patronage disappeared immediately and the musicians and vocalists were made to fend for themselves. However, the biggest reason quoted by the lay listener and some armchair critics was the abstract nature of these forms. In other words, the lyrics were not given the centrality and that made it difficult for the audience to follow the performer, moved by the power of sur alone.

It was argued that while the importance of the sur was unquestionable, the two had to be harnessed together. For the lay listener, the tangibility of music was defined by the presence of the lyrics. If lyrics were given due deference, the rest would follow. The musical rendition was seen as an illustration of the word or a musical explanation of the lyrics or poetry.

In Pakistan, the emphasis shifted to ghazal gaiki as being the more perfect form because it brought about a happy confluence of the two. It was premised that since poetry or the kalam of the leading poets was of great literary merit, the rendition of quality kalam was the underlying factor in determining the quality of music. This was more so in Pakistan where Urdu poetry was seen as epitome of high culture and the poets often complained that their lyrics were not properly rendered on the merit of poetic authenticity by the vocalists. It was premised as an unequal relationship with the vocalist appearing on the lower end of the equation.

The lack of musical education added to the tilting of balance. Most literary buffs totally underplayed the importance of the craft of the vocalist. However, due to this favourable bias, ghazal gaiki in Pakistan scaled new heights. The vocalists switched to the singing of the ghazal from their inherited vocation of raag dari in kheyal, thumri and dadra. Some puritans stayed true to the kheyal and the thumri because they saw rendering the ghazal beneath them and a huge compromise. Staying true to form was seen as fighting till the end. But ghazal gaiki in the hands of Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Mehdi Hassan, Fareeda Khanum and Iqbal Bano incorporated the virtuosity of higher musical forms to emerge as much more than the simple rendition of the kalam.

The elevation of the musical form was looked up to by the connoisseurs from across the subcontinent and admired. Similarly, some switched to singing the kaafi and brought the same musical richness to the form that was rendered in simple linear terms by the folk singers.

Given the favourable bias, ghazal gaiki in Pakistan scaled new heights. The vocalists switched to the singing of the ghazal from their inherited vocation of raag dari in kheyal, thumri and dadra.

Now ghazal gaiki has also become dated. The vocalists mentioned above are categorised as “classical”. Kheyal and thumri are not even on the popular radar any longer. It appears that the changing taste in music is not dependent on the lyrics or the lack of it alone as it was assumed some decades ago. The nature of intonation too has changed. It resonates with the younger age group where the markers may be very different from the ones taken for granted some years ago.

Mehdi Hassan found a midway in singing the ghazal composed in various ragas. His forebears were well known musicians and had been associated with the numerous courts of the states in what is now Rajasthan. His father Azeem Khan and uncle Ismail Khan, too, were court singers. He was trained by his father and uncle but the most definitive influence on him was that of his elder brother, Pandit Ghulam Qadir. Still, he had a tough beginning. He worked as a tyre fixer and motor mechanic and worked the land for a living. The first concert with his elder brother, dhrupad and kheyal, is reported to have been held in Fazilka Bungla near Ferozepur.

He was finally made an offer to sing for the film Shikaar (1953-6) at the Eastern Film Studio in Karachi. For the music directors of the film, Asghar Ali and Muhammed Hussain, he sang the following composition: Mairay khawb-o-kheyal ki dunya liye huay, phir aa giya kooee rukh-i- zeba liye huay”.

After Shikaar, he sang in Kanwari Bewa for Qadir Fareedi and then for Maska Polish and Insaan for music composer Deebo Bhatacharya. His first ghazal was Aik bus tu hi nahin by Farhat Shahzaad. He was soon recognised as a singer with immense potential. Next, he was invited to perform for Lahore Radio where his first ghazal was Ghalib’s Aarz-i-niaaz-i-aishq kay qabil nahin raha. It was followed by Jo thakay thakay say thay hauslay, woh shabab bun kay machal gaye. In Lahore, he also sang for films for the first time with Noor Jehan in Qaidi, Aik diwanay nay iss dil ka kaha maan liya in 1958; then for Hasan Latif in Susraal, Jis nay mairay dil ko dard diya; Khurshid Anwer for Ghoonghat, Mujh ko aawaz day tu kahan hai and in Jaag Utha Insaan for Lal Muhammed Iqbal, Dunya kisi kay piyaar main jannat say kum nahin. Then in a private concert, he sang Faiz’s Guloan main rung bharay in 1959 and his talent was fully recognised. This ghazal was later broadcast on the radio and he became a star.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

The rise of ghazal