Think of celebrated ghazal singers, and Pankaj Udhas’s name would certainly be among the top few. His tracks, ‘Chitthi aayi hai’ and ‘Chandi jaisa rang hai tera,’ among others, have kept music lovers hooked till today. That is probably why, even after singing ghazals for about three decades, he continues to perform to full houses. His latest show will be held in the city on January 9.
Talking about his journey, Udhas says, “It’s been interesting, challenging and satisfying. When I started out, the ghazal had just started gaining popularity. Even then, Bollywood music dominated the scene.”
He says that the genre only gained momentum with the arrival of artistes like late Mehdi Hassan and late Jagjit Singh. “After they arrived on the scene, people started talking about ghazals. There was a curiosity about this kind of music. By the time I started out, which was around 1978-79, Bollywood music was struggling to impress the masses. The audience was looking for an alternative. That’s when the ghazal started to rise. After the ’80s, it became a craze. I am glad to have been around when the ghazal ruled the roost,” says Udhas.
Ask him why he feels the musical form took the backseat, and he says, “When a lot of alternate music like pop, rock and Sufi sprung up, the audience got a chance to listen to different kinds of music.” The singer feels the genre is still facing a challenge. “In my 30 years, as a ghazal singer, I have seen a lot of highs and lows. Today, once again, I see a challenge similar to the one that the genre experienced around 1978-79. However, I’m optimistic that the story will repeat itself, and that the ghazal will regain its lost glory,” he adds.
You are believed to have brought the ghazal to the masses. What do you think sets you apart as a ghazal singer?
When I started singing, I was influenced by Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan’s styles. But as I grew up, I realised that I shouldn’t keep singing like them. I wanted to create my own space. That’s when I started creating a style of my own. I wanted to reach out to the masses, as the ghazal was always limited to a very small audience. It was meant for people who could understand Urdu and Persian. I wanted to make it more accessible. So, I composed the ghazal, ‘Aap jinke kareeb hote hain’. Anyone who could speak Hindi could understand it.I composed it in such a tune that everyone could sing along. That clicked, and I realised that I had found the success formula. So, in all my albums, I have kept my singing style simple, with intense and meaningful poetry, without using Persian and Arabic lyrics extensively. That’s what sets me apart.
When one thinks of new ghazal singers, there are, perhaps, none who are as prominent as Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh, Talat Aziz or you. Why?
It’s certainly a matter of concern. There is some kind of a void. Though we have many upcoming ghazal singers, there is still no name as prominent as Jagjitji and Ghulam Ali saab. I pray that some of the singers from the young generation get that kind of prominence. I think the circumstances are such that many talented youngsters haven’t been able to make it to that league of ghazal singers, mainly because with piracy and almost no sales of CDs, most audio companies have stopped making new ghazal albums. And if you don’t market your work properly, your creativity remains unknown. And therefore, your work doesn’t get appreciated. I guess most new ghazal artistes are facing this problem, which we didn’t deal with during our time. Our albums managed to reach out to people across the globe. Today, people don’t buy albums, and the new generation is hooked to Bollywood music.
The tracks you sang for Hindi films were chartbusters. Why don’t you sing for Bollywood movies anymore?
To be honest, I would love to sing for movies, as that’s a very exciting medium. I cannot deny that some of the Hindi film songs that I sang have had a huge impact on my career. They helped me gain popularity. Songs like ‘Chitthi aayi hai’ and ‘Jeeye toh jeeye kaise’ helped me reach out to audiences across the world. So, if the right kind of songs happen, I would love to sing for films again. It’s a different story that the style of songs and the approach to music in Bollywood has changeddrastically now. Perhaps that’s why we (ghazal singers) are not called in to sing anymore.
What do you think is the future of the genre?
Bollywood music is not really happening anymore. Today, when we do ghazal concerts across the country, we see so many people turning up. So, they are definitely looking for an alternative to Bollywood music. The ghazal has not gone away. The form is still close to people’s hearts. It’s a little out of focus, but I think it’s time for ghazals to make a comeback, because people have had enough of Bollywood music that they ideally would not want to listen to all the time. I am very confident about the future of this genre.
Are you currently working on any album?
I am working on a ghazal album. I intend to release it in February. The album sounds very different [from my previous ones].
Has the ghazal changed over the years?
Yes, it has. If we go back to Begum Akhtar’s era, she would sing in a very thumri-ish kind of style, with just one sarangi, harmonium or tabla. Today, we have a very sophisticated sound, with multiple instruments. But, that’s only the outer shell that has changed. The soul has remained the same. The ghazal won’t be true to itself if it doesn’t have good poetry and melody. So, the combination of both the elements remains the same to this day. When we sing, we keep in mind the traditional style of singing. Only the presentation has changed.
Has there ever been a sense of competition with your contemporaries?
I think this is the only genre where most of the artistes have had very cordial relationships with each other. For instance, Anup Jalota and Talat Aziz are my contemporaries, so we should be competitors. But, on the contrary, we are the best of friends, and are inseparable. This is the beauty of ghazal singing; every singer is independent and unique. All of us have different voices and styles. We don’t compete with each other’s style. So, there’s never any insecurity.