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One voice that binds us all

In death as in life, Mehdi Hassan united our fractious subcontinent. No other singer — not even Saigal, Noor Jehan, Lata, Manna, Rafi or Nusrat — has been so deeply adored across the region. Amitava Sanyal writes.

music Updated: Jun 22, 2012 23:41 IST
Amitava Sanyal

Treasures: Mehdi Hassan
One of the newer collections of old ghazals and geets
EMI, Rs. 595 (5 CDs)
Rating: *****

In death as in life, Mehdi Hassan united our fractious subcontinent. No other singer — not even Saigal, Noor Jehan, Lata, Manna, Rafi or Nusrat — has been so deeply adored across the region. When Pakistani writer Raza Rumi asked men and women in Dhaka about "positive memories of their united Pakistan experience", many cited Mehdi Hassan's songs. Singer Vidya Shah had noted on a different occasion that even a Chennai household given to the pursuit of Carnatic classical would welcome Mehdi Hassan's voice in its agam and puram. Nepal gave him one of their highest honours, the Gorkha Dakshina Bahu.

When he passed away on June 13, tweeters from across the region exchanged song lists and united in waging war against a columnist chosen to write an obituary. A frenzy of oneupmanship in calling Mehdi Hassan king, emperor, god and grand panjandrum of ghazal crested and ebbed.

I lunged towards the songs on the first of his audio cassettes I possessed: his earliest hit in ghazals, Faiz's 'Gulon mein rang bhare', one of Lata's favourites, Mir's 'Patta patta boota boota', and everyone's favourite, Faraz's 'Ranjish hi sahi'. I figured that I had also lugged across three cities some of his badly-reproduced, mindless collections that had flooded the market in the 1990s. But they hardly provided the sort of comfort one needed at such a moment.

I turned to Treasures, the latest collection from EMI. Apart from some later recordings of his better-known ghazals, it has some of the film songs that haven't had as much play in India as they deserve. There's 'Ek husn ki devi se mujhe pyaar hua tha', 'Eid ka din hai', 'Ek haseen sa masoom sa chehra' (from Afsan, also sung by Pankaj Udhas for the Indian film, Sanam), and 'Laga hai Misr ka bazaar', whose cabaret intro reminds one of RD Burman. Missing are some other evergreens — the maracas-lined 'Jab koi pyaar se bulayega', or 'Rafta rafta woh meri hasti ka saman', which was later copied as 'Dheere dheere aap mere' in Aamir Khan's Baazi. But in effect, the 5-CD collection failed to do what I needed it to at the moment.

In desperation, I turned to the internet. There I found, in 'Mujhe tum nazar se gira to rahe ho' (bit.ly/mehdihassan), what I was missing. This piano-led melody from the 1967 film Do Raha, heard at least half a dozen times, can have the effect of Tiger balm on any torn soul. When Mehdi Hassan turns over the notes with 'Kabhi nagma banke, kabhi banke ansoo...' (1:30), everything seems allright in this world. It tells us that when all the oneupmanship among us listeners is over, we will still cherish the songs. And there will be no barrier between us and the maestro.

The next day, I brought out Hassan's student Pervez Mehdi's collection. The first song, 'Jhoom kar gao mein sharaabi hoon', reminded me of a perky Pankaj Udhas in tune and instrumentation. I never recovered from it. Even the more sober, harmonium-lined 'Saat suron ka' and 'Gul tera rang' failed to lift the spirit. A comparison with his teacher would be unfair, but a clear-headed appraisal, too, wouldn't be too complimentary.

Saat Suron ka darya
Ghazals sung by Hassan's student, Pervez Mehdi
Music Today, Rs. 195
Rating: **
Thou shalt not sing
A more recent loss to Pakistani music was the assassination of Pashto singer Ghazala Javed in Peshawar. I, like most people outside Pakistan, came to know of her at the time of her death, because of the brazen nature of the killing. Her popular songs, with tunes often coarsely stitched from decades-old classics, are strewn across the internet.

There are conflicting reports on who killed her. Ghazala fled the Swat valley for Peshawar following threats against her performances. The first finger of suspicion was raised against the region's religious orthodoxy. But the local police claimed her divorced husband had something to do with the killing.

Only one distressing thing was certain: she was killed for her music. Both the maulanas and her husband loathed her stage success. Another female singer from the region, Aiman Udas, was similarly shot in 2009. If this form of extremism gets stronger in Pakistan, it will cause an incalculable loss to the arts. Even if for that reason alone, we should not forget Ghazala Javed.