It been two years since Mehdi Hassan passed away after a protracted illness. His active music career spanned almost four decades and in the last 20 odd years from the 1990s onwards when due to age he was less creatively active, he must have ruminated over the contribution that he had made to vocal music of the subcontinent. And by any standard it has been immense. To have dominated the vocal music scene for four decades was an achievement in itself because over these years the musical taste has changed a great deal.
Now if ones enquires about the music of Mehdi Hasssan in the music shops around the various cities of Pakistan it would be placed in the category of ‘classical’. He is no longer considered a ghazal singer because many after him have attempted to sing the ghazal heavily laced either by the folk ang or a massive intrusion of techno and synthesised instrumentation. This has also changed the way the sur is intoned now. Mehdi Hassan is now ‘classical’ and if one asks the shop owner about dhrupad and kheyal which are the actually classical forms; except for one or two all others will draw an absolute blank.
He initially sang the kheyal and thumri but then switched to ghazal. In the process he sang for the films and some non-film geets which made him appear quite versatile but he was consistent in maintaining the traditional intonation. He filled in the male slot as there was no male voice in films while Noor Jehan dominated film song format in the female slot. He capitalised on his rigorous training as a kheyal and thumri gaik, and by paying due importance to the lyrics, struck the right balance between the melodic and poetic content.
As a ghazal singer he shot to fame in the 1960s with gulon main rang bhare and as his genius was spotted, went on to sing in rapid succession a number of ghazals that have now become classics of the genre. He has sung Mir, Ghalib, Faiz and Faraz with great sensitivity but at the same time he also sang a number of other poets who at the time were not that well known and are now popularly recognised because of his rendition. But he has been very careful in selecting the kalams of good poets and not necessarily popular poets, many of whom made a name for themselves as film lyricists.
The way Mehdi Hassan rendered the ghazal was directly influenced by the intonation of our more traditional musical forms. Over centuries all vocalists and indeed instrumentalists created a peculiar way of sur ko lagana which was heavily driven by musical categories like rachao and lagao. The behlawas and alankaras were meant to heighten melodiousness. Since Mehdi Hassan had been grounded in the classical tradition of kheyal and thumri he had no problems in transferring the same evocation into a form of music that had greater verbal input.
Those born in the family of musicians have an advantage over others because they imbibe music like the mother tongue. They are not even aware of this process of education that is taking place in the lap of their mothers and other members of the extended family. All of them reach a certain level of proficiency but to go beyond that is the real challenge and we all know that those who have excelled coming from any background have been few and far between. Despite all the advantage and head start it was the ceaseless honing of his own talent that made Mehdi Hassan what he was.
Ghazal in the earlier phase was sung more like a geet. Its rhythmic pattern was uniform and the singer had the freedom to add and subtract from the text. Many of the early singers felt obliged to weave the metrical pattern of the ghazal into the rhythmic scheme of the composition. Both of these were very limiting factors where music was concerned.
When he was born in Luna it must have been impossible to predict the musical ascendancy that he would achieve — there were others in that family who were good and competent musicians but none truly outstanding. And his early life and struggle to make two ends meet must have made the prediction of future greatness even more difficult. But once he was through the cycle shop, agriculture farm and motor workshop there was no holding back. From Chichawatni to Sargodha, the small towns of Sindh where he experienced society at the grassroots to the palaces of Kabul and Nepal and the famed concert halls of India, United States and Britain had been quite an upturn in fortune.
He developed a completely new style of singing. Since he was from Rajasthan he brought with him the ang of the very rich tradition of the Jaipur gaiki. By integrating the maand — a folk form — he created an ang which was rendered with a constricted throat that went along wonderfully well with the recording and microphone technological limitations as the very fine and subtle nuances were captured. He brought the ghazal gaiki to a new level and totally moulded its singing into raags while restraining to give a very broader meaning to the lyrics. His singing was not illustrative, but did not go much beyond illustration to assume a totally abstract form either.
It appears that the tradition of holding the barsis of ustads has been on the decline. Many barsis which have been held in the recent past have been marked by high degree of disorganisation and paucity of resources. The top of the line performers usually do not show up after probably promising to do so with the result that the occasion falls far short of the level needed to pay homage to the ustad. It is expected that in the years to come the barsi becomes the annual event that attracts the best vocalists and instrumentalists for paying a befitting tribute to Mehdi Hassan.