Mehdi Hassan and the modern ghazal singing

June 16, 2024

Having struggled long to establish himself as a quality singer, Mehdi Hassan finally became the touchstone for a popular form

Mehdi Hassan and the modern ghazal singing


ne was surprised, a few years ago, to find the label of ‘classical’ attached to the singing (gaiki) of Mehdi Hassan as for long it was thought that ‘classical’ meant the singing of kheyal, and to the more discerning, the dhrupad. Forms like thumri and dadra were generally classified as semi-classical. Many other forms, usually originating in Uttar Pradesh and Bengal, were also called semi classical. These included the chaitti and the bhatyali.

In Pakistan, despite the fact that the Punjabi ang was one of the three dominant ones of the thumri - the other being Lucknow and Benarus - kaafi and ghazal took over became the more popular forms other than the film song. It was only in the 1970s that qawwali was discovered anew and for a number of reasons became acceptable and popular among the urban classes.

I recent years there has been a muddling of forms as well as a radical change in the way the music is produced and consumed. The intonation has seen a change that could not have been predicted only a few years ago in a land that has been so sure and confident about its own methods embedded entirely in its cultural evolution.

It was Khursheed Anwar who one said that the more popular forms, like the film song, would retain their melodiousness for as long they retained their organic link with the classical forms. To him there was an integral relationship between the two. The serious and the lighter forms of music rendition were linked by an umbilical cord and the virtues of one did not get lost in the transference to the other.

In some ways the link has been severed so that the intonation has changed drastically over the recent decades both in India and Pakistan. The traditional melodiousness is no longer the hallmark of popular music. It is not even cherished. Too many influences now inform music to make it fully eclectic. An important virtue of the music in the past was the absorption of change.

Rajasthan was one of the centres of classical music. The Jaipure Gharana, for instance, produced many a great performer. The folk form dominant in Rajasthan was the mand. Its influence can be traced in the gaiki of some famous practitioners who lit up the firmament.

When he switched to singing the ghazal, it seemed that he had hit the right note. It was his popularity in concerts, probably on the radio, that ensured that he would be taken seriously. His switch over to the film song came later.

Mehdi Hassan had started performing at a young age. The first concert where he performed with his elder brother, singing dhrupad and kheyal, is reported to have been held in Fazilka Bungalow near Ferozepur. After that he came to Lahore and lived in a small room in Sherawala Gate. For some time, he took up employment with Shori Film Company. As partition riots broke out and the law and order situation deteriorated, he went back to his ancestral village. The family later migrated to Pakistan, settling down in a village in Chichawatni near Montgomery (now Sahiwal) where one of his aunts already resided.

Poverty and lack of opportunity to perform as an elite singer forced him to work at a cycle repair shop. After about a year, he handed over this business to his brother and embarked on a quest to establish himself as a singer. He had continued his riyaz and worked on building his stamina with breathing exercises This time he went to Sukkur and again failing to make a breakthrough became an apprentice motor mechanic at a workshop before shifting to Bahawalpur with a reputation for being a very competent motor mechanic and setting up his own workshop.

But he still wanted to be a singer. Once again, he returned to Lahore seeking a breakthrough; failing once again, he started working on agricultural land in Sargodha that belonged to an acquaintance. Still, he continued his riyaz. Finally, in 1953, he got an offer to sing for the film Shikaar at the Eastern Film Studio in Karachi. For music directors Ashghar Ali and Muhammed Hussain he sang the following composition:

Mairay khawb-o-kheyal ki dunya liye huay

Phir aa gaya kooee rukh-i-zeba liye huay

His relentless quest to measure up to the changing tastes in music needed more trial. When he switched to singing the ghazal in Pakistan, it seemed that he had hit the right note. It was his popularity in concerts, probably on the radio, that ensured that he would be taken seriously. His switch over to the film song came later.

Extreme melodiousness evoked by constricted throat voice production made his singing initially acceptable and then the benchmark for singing the ghazal in contemporary times. He then established his own ang, which others emulated to put a seal of credibility to it.

Mehdi Hsssan’s death anniversary fell on June 13.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Mehdi Hassan and the modern ghazal singing