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How to remember a maestro

On Mehdi Hassan’s fifth death anniversary, looking at the fading tradition of holding barsis for the great ustads

How to remember a maestro
Mehdi Hassan.

This year too the barsi of Mehdi Hassan passed eliciting only a few references in print and electronic media. The usual tradition or ritual of holding a programme or a series for such an occasion was not followed. It could be that the month of Ramzan was the cause for the anniversary of one of the greatest vocalists to go muted this time. But even in the previous years it was not been observed with the fervour that the status of the man and his contribution to music demanded.

Traditionally barsis of the great ustads have been held, usually in our context, of those who made a name for themselves in kheyal. It must have also been held for the dhrupad ustads/gurus. But in the 20th century, with the decline of the dhrupad, the only family that kept itself engaged in the subcontinent with the form were the Dagar Brothers. In Pakistan, a few dhurpadias struggled to be heard but every passing day meant fewer audiences for them?

In India perhaps attempts may have been made to observe the barsi of the various illustrious members of the Dagar Brothers but in Pakistan these have gone unnoticed because of the lukewarm attempts at holding such programmes. It is said that one of the greatest dhrupadias, Pandit Bhathkande took great pains in discovering the burial site of Tansen in Gwalior and then reinvigorated an ancient tradition — by initiating the holding of barsi in the beginning of the 20th century for the most outstanding and celebrated vocalists of the subcontinent.

Other forms of music became more popular, and as a consequence more prestigious; there were calls to observe and hold barsis of ghazal, film gaiks and film composers. As far as qawwali is concerned, it was only with the rise of Nusrat Fateh Ali that the barsi of his father and then his uncle Mubarak Ali started being held regularly. It followed that it became one of the biggest congregation of musicians in Punjab in the last thirty odd years or so at Lyallpur /Faisalabad. It attracted all the leading vocalists and musicians, mostly indulging in raagdari and to a relatively well-organised affair.

Radio became a big platform for the promotion and propagation of music and it too held barsis of prominent musicians during the decades of its prime.

The kheyal was considered to be the most prestigious forms of music; it took the other forms years to habilitate themselves among the connoisseurs of music. The ghazal, initially the vocal accompaniment of dancing women in the salons, rose gradually, gaining popularity during the course of the century and gained prominence and then some prestige among the musicians with a lineage with Akhtari Bai Faizabadi and Barkat Ali Khan. K. L. Saigal who became popular because of his film geets, actually the first male super star of film vocalisation, gave a shot in the arm to ghazal gaiki. Prestige followed popularity then which was not previously the case in feudal patronage where prestige hinged upon the taste of the patron and not necessary the larger populace.

It has been observed that a famous person is not usually remembered over a period of time, and it is the family that struggles to keeps the name and contribution alive. This has often been criticised in our society. It is expected that other than the family, a larger group or body of people should come forward, own and acknowledge the contribution of the famous person other than the immediate family.

Another reason why barsis are not observed now of other musicians could be that they do not label themselves as a gharana. Gharana may not have been exclusively about numbers and families, but only a particular style that matured over generations, but it did necessarily involve the larger extended family of musicians. It then became the responsibility of the members to keep the name and contribution of an ustad alive. It was not, in other words, limited to one person or the responsibility did not fall on the son or the male member of the family only.

In the other forms of music, for example the ghazal, such a clusters of shagirds and progeny did not come together to generate the same spirit as among the gharana musicians and vocalists. The burden in such a scenario fell on an individual, usually the ustad’s male descendent, and it was too much for him to sustain it over a period of time.

Radio became a big platform for the promotion and propagation of music and it too held barsis of prominent musicians during the decades of its prime but gradually the tradition there too had suffered a decline. It is now expected of the public sector organisations like the arts councils to perk up and hold barsis of famous ustads. This not only provides an occasion for musicians to get together and perform but also to remember and recall the contribution and pay homage in music to a forebear.

Mehdi Hassan’s ancestors were well-known musicians and had been associated with numerous courts of the states in what is now Rajasthan. His father Azeem Khan and uncle Ismail Khan too were court singers. He was trained by his father and uncle but the most definitive influence was that of his elder brother Pandit Ghulam Qadir but still he had a tough beginning. He worked as a tyre fixer, then motor mechanic and then worked the land for a living. The first concert with his elder brother of dhrupad and kheyal is reported to have been held in Fazilka Bungla near Ferozepur. He was finally made an offer to sing for the film Shikaar (1953-6) at the Eastern Film Studio in Karachi. Having sung for many films, in a private concert, he sang Faiz’s ‘Gulon Main Rung Bhare’ in 1959 when his talent was fully recognised and as this ghazal was broadcast on the radio at some later date he became a star.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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