A sublime voice
Renowned ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan has recently been suffering from ill health caused by a paralytic stroke. Fortunately
he is on the road to recovery and hopes to resume his singing career. Saqib Razaq looks back at an eventful career of the
artiste who single handedly revolutionized ghazal gayaki.
It is widely considered that the era of the 1950s and 60s was the golden age of radio broadcasting in the Indian sub-continent.
It was during this period that a rich and mellifluous voice captured the hearts of all the listeners through broadcasts on
Radio Pakistan. The melodic renditions of classical ghazals in a cultivated and cultured manner were its attributes and created
a storm amongst the masses, musical connoisseurs and erudite musicians. Almost half a century has gone by and yet it still
never fails to captivate. The voice is indeed that of Mehdi Hassan, the unparalleled master of ghazal.
The evolution of the ghazal is a momentous one. Initially written in Persian, it can trace its origins in India during
the advent of the Muslim rule in India during the 12th century. Hazrat Amir Khusrau (1253-1324), the eminent poet, scholar,
statesman and musicologist is credited with many masterpieces of Persian poetry and can be termed as a major propagator of
the ghazal. The pinnacle of the ghazal can be said to have been between the 18th and 19th centuries when Urdu became the preferred
language of poetry and culture throughout India, poets such as Sauda, Mir Taqi Mir, Zauq, and Mirza Ghalib penned ghazals
which are considered as hallmarks of Urdu poetry. Gradually, during the course of time, ghazals started to be expressed through
melody and musicians started to use them as part of their repertoire. Ustad Mauzuddin Khan and Gauhar Jan were the early pioneers
who built a reputation in the field and set the initial groundwork. Later, vocalists of the calibre of Ustad Barkat Ali Khan,
Mukhtar Begum and Begum Akhtar established themselves as major exponents of ghazal gayaki. However, Mehdi Hassan has added
a further dimension to this art form.
Mehdi Hassan was born in 1927 in a village called Luna in Rajasthan, India into a family of traditional musicians. He
claims to be the 16th generation of hereditary musicians hailing from the Kalawant clan of musicians. Mehdi Hassan had his
musical grooming from his father Ustad Azeem Khan and uncle Ustad Ismail Khan who were both traditional Dhrupad singers. The
life story of Mehdi Hassan is a journey of trials and tribulations. After partition the family migrated to Pakistan and suffered
severe financial hardships.
Mehdi Hassan during his youth :
To make ends meet Mehdi started working in a bicycle shop and later became a car and diesel tractor mechanic. Despite
the hardships, his passion for music didnt wither and he kept up the routine of practice on a daily basis. His struggle ended
when he was given the opportunity to sing on radio in 1952, primarily as a thumri singer, this got him recognition within
the musical fraternity. At that time, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar and Mukhtar Begum were considered the stalwarts
of ghazal gayaki, Mehdi Hassan also had a passion for Urdu poetry and started to experiment by singing ghazals on a part
time basis. He cites radio officers Z.A. Bukhari and Rafiq Anwar as additional influences in his progression as a ghazal singer.
They gave him ample opportunities to display his mastery over the ghazal on radio. He sang ghazals of all the renowned Urdu
poets and soon his innovative style was soon appreciated by both the masses and discerning audiences.
The most important aspect of the ghazal is its theme, themes of most ghazals revolve around unrequited love. They can
also be about mysticism, rebellion, yearning and pathos. It is vital that the ghazal singer has a clear perception of what
message the poet is trying to convey. The musician faces a further challenge in trying to emphasize the correct emotion of
the ghazal through music. Traditionally, ghazals were sung in a thumri like manner and were also composed in raags which were
best suited for thumri such as bhairvin, khamaj, tilak kamod, desh and piloo. This somewhat constrained the ghazal composition
within a small framework and there wasnt much room to experiment. However Mehdi Hassan pioneered ghazal gayaki by capturing
the mood of the ghazal through his compositions. He is a master composer and uses raags which best suit the ghazal’s
appeal regardless of whether the raag is khayal or thumri orientated. Most of his compositions are based around the correct
structure of a raag and keep the vaadi and samvaadi of the raag into strict consideration.
Baat Karni mujhay mushkil: Raag Pahadi
Poet: Bahadur Shah Zafar Composition: Mehdi Hassan
Gulon mein rang bharay: Raag Jhinjhoti
Lyrics: Faiz Ahmed Faiz Composition: Mehdi Hassan
Shola tha jal boojha hun Raag Kirwani
Lyrics: Ahmed Fraz Composition: Mehdi Hassan
Mehdi Hassan's gayaki incorporates the subtle elements of both Dhrupad and Khayal. He carefully embellishes ghazals by
using behlawas, murkhis, taans and zamzamas. Further grace is given by touches of Rajasthani folk singing. Another important
feature of his style is the importance of correct pronunciation, delivery of words are of utmost importance and he never compromises
the true expression of a word regardless of the constraints put forward by the musical composition. The mutual bond between
melody and the lyrical content is responsible for making the art of Mehdi Hassan so appealing. In addition he has raised the
profile of ghazal gayaki which was previously considered a taboo amongst classical exponents and reformed it into a major
melodic genre which sits on an equal footing with thumri, dadra, kajri and tappa. His influence was such that some leading
classical vocalists of that era took to ghazal singing.
Mehdi Hassan's popularity resulted in his becoming one of the most popular playback singers of the Pakistani film industry
from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. Many of his film based ghazals have become classics.
Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya kartay hain
Lyrics: Qateel Shifai Music: Nashad (1971)
Ranjish hi sahi
Lyrics: Ahmed Faraz Music: Nisar Bazmi (1971)
One also has to give credit to music directors associated with radio Pakistan and the Pakistan film industry who composed
many beautiful melodies for Mehdi Hassan to adorn. Composers such as Ustad Niaz Hussain Shami, Pandit Ghulam Qadir (Mehdi
Hassan's brother), Master Inayat Hussain, Khawaja Khurshid Anwar, Rashid Atray, Nisar Bazmi and Mohsin Raza are additional
contributories to Mehdi Hassan's success.
The government of Pakistan has awarded Mehdi Hassan the pride of performance as a recognition to his services rendered
to music, and he was also recently awarded a life achievement award by Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. As with a stature
of a person like Mehdi Hassan, he has released many recordings, toured worldwide on an extensive basis and performed in the
renowned concert halls around the world. He recently took part in the 50th anniversary of Rajasthan celebrations in India
in which the leading artistes of Rajasthani origin participated. He currently devotes most of his time with his family in
between Pakistan and the USA.
Mehdi Hassan being presented with the lifetime achievement award by PTV
Despite advancing age, Mehdi Hassan still reigns as the undisputed master of the ghazal. He has left such an indelible
mark in the field of ghazal gayaki that almost all the ghazal singers of today are influenced by him. Mehdi Hassan has also
been instrumental in training the next generation of ghazal singers. His sons Asif and Kamran are following in their father's
footsteps and trying to carve a career as ghazal singers, other prominent disciples are Parvez Mehdi, Ghulam Abbas, Salamat
Ali, Asif Javed and Talat Aziz.
Mehdi Hassan was born in the village of Luna in Rajasthan, India in 1927 into a family of rich traditional musicians.
He claims to be the 16th generation of hereditary musicians hailing from the Kalawant. Kala means "Art" and Want
means "teacher" so he is from family of teacher who taught Kings and Royal families the art of music. Mehdi Hassan
received his musical training and grooming under his father, Ustad Azeem Khan and his uncle Ustad Ismail Khan who were classical
musicians, well-versed in dhrupad singing. They instructed him in classical music and voice production within the framework
of classical forms of thumri, dhrupad, khayal and dadra, from the young age of eight. After the Partition of India, 20 year-old
Mehdi Hassan and his family migrated to Pakistan and suffered severe financial hardships. To make ends meet, Mehdi Hassan
began working in a bicycle shop and later became a car and diesel tractor mechanic. Despite the hardships, his passion for
music didn't wither and he kept up the routine of practice on a daily basis.
The struggle ended when Mehdi Hassan was given the opportunity to sing on Radio Pakistan in 1952, primarily as a thumri
singer, which earned him recognition within the musical fraternity. At the time, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Begum Akhtar and Mukhtar
Begum were considered the stalwarts of ghazal gayaki.
Mehdi Hassan also had a passion for Urdu poetry and began to experiment by singing ghazals on a part-time basis. He cites
radio officers, Z.A. Bukhari and Rafiq Anwar as additional influences in his progression as a ghazal singer. They gave him
ample opportunities to display his mastery over the ghazal on radio. He sang ghazals of all the renowned Urdu poets and his
innovative style was soon appreciated by both masses and discerning audiences.
Mehdi Hassan's voice and unique performance skills in ghazal singing were unmatched in the world of South Asian music.
The 60s and 70s can be named Mehdi Hassan's decades, as there was hardly any hero in the Pakistani musical scene on whom Mehdi
Hassan’s songs were not filmed.
King of Ghazals :
He is universally acclaimed as the finest ghazal singer of his time, perhaps of all time. His unsurpassable vocal range
and his mastery over even the most difficult of raags makes him the undisputed emperor of ghazals. His popularity amongst
the masses, appreciation by the masses, and continued success over five decades makes him on par with Noor Jehan and Nusrat
Fateh Ali Khan in the league of the greatest Pakistani singers of all time. The ultimate tribute to his greatness was from
the eternal nightingale, Lata Mangeshkar, who compared his songs to " voice of god " . Talat Aziz is one of his
famous disciples. 
Stepping Down :
Following a severe illness in the late 80s, Mehdi Hassan stepped down from playback singing. Later due to severity of
his illness he completely departed from music. He now lives a secluded life in Karachi which he has made his permanent residence.
Nevertheless he often visits Lahore where he spends most of his time with his children and other family members.
While he was singing in the Court of Nepal's King Shah Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, he forgot the lines of his song "Zindagi
mein to sabhii pyar kya kerte hain". Shah, then stood from his seat and start singing the next line. This was really
a great tribute to him.
He has been the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions: the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz granted to him by Gen Ayub Khan; the
Pride of Performance bestowed on him by Gen Ziaul Haq; and the Hilal-i-Imtiaz conferred by Gen Pervez Musharraf. Besides the
Nigar Film and Graduate Awards from Pakistan, he was presented the Saigal Award in Jalandhar, India, in 1979, whereas the
Gorkha Dakshan Bahu Award was given to him in Nepal in 1983. Recently, he travelled to Dubai to receive yet another award.