KARACHI, June 13: The black shamiana under which friends and admirers of Mehdi Hassan gathered outside his Ancholi house cut a strange picture. It was an occasion to mourn his death, for sure. But even while tears trickled down their cheeks and their voices trailed off, who could not have discussed his art, his music, his voice? It was impossible. The man and his voice, the man and his art, were one.
Mohammad Hussain, who accompanied Mehdi Hassan on the harmonium for a major part of the legendary singer’s professional life, looked utterly distraught. He cried like a baby. “I’ve lost everything. I’ve been robbed of my life. I have nothing now. I have nothing. He’s gone.”
Arif Mehdi, one of the singer’s six sons, moved forward and hugged Mohammad Hussain. “Ye kia ho gaya? Wo chale gaey?”
(What is this? Is he gone?) Mohammad Hussain was understandably repetitive. He had not gone crazy. He just did not want to believe that Khan Sahib was no more.
Members of the artist community, politicians and lovers of music thronged Khan Sahib’s house from the time the news of his death broke. They could ill afford not to. Anyone who had the slightest of understanding of music knew and knows Mehdi Hassan, the man who elevated ghazal singing to a level that the genre richly deserved. Not that before him singers didn’t pay due attention to it. They did. They just did not understand its nuances in entirety.
Mehdi Hassan knew the sanctity of diction and understood the metrical patterns used in ghazals. He did not learn that anywhere. He was just a gifted artist. No one before or after him used the ‘vowels’ in an Urdu couplet with such feeling and intellectual capacity as Mehdi Hassan did. He was aware that it was the vowels that expressed a thought more (with their long or short sounds) more than the consonants. When he sang Mir’s ghazal ‘Dekh to dil ke jaan se uth’ta hai’ it was the use of the vowels in the noun ‘jaan’ and the verbs ‘uth’ta’ and ‘hai’ which embellished the composition and turned a work of poetry into auditory treat.
This is something that’s consistent in Mehdi Hassan’s ghazal gaeki. Be it the very difficult composition of ‘Shola tha jal buhja hoon’ or the sonorous ‘Ku ba ku phel gaee baat’ or for that matter the piece that catapulted him to immortal fame ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’, his reverence and respect for words was unparalleled. Of course, all of this could not have been awe-inspiring if Khan Sahib had not been a veritable student of music. He gave paramount importance to sur and taal, and again did not particularly worked hard for it, because here too he was supremely gifted. He could make the most intricate of ragas sound like an easy-on-the-ear piece of music.
Many years ago, Mehdi Hassan sang for some farmers. The track that he chose, off the top of his head, was ‘Gulon mein rang bhare’. Once he was done with it, the farmers received it with a thunderous applause and demanded an encore. This confused the singer. The ghazal was a difficult one for the educated lot, leave alone the kisan community. He sang it one more time and the response was no different. He was perplexed. Then someone wise told him that his composition had something which was beyond the (usual) realm of music — the eighth note, the mehboob sur, that didn’t exist in the vocabulary of music. And it had touched the farmers, for which understanding of poetry was not required.
Those who think Mehdi Hassan sang the pathos-laden ‘Hum chale is jahan se’ for the film Dillagi so that it could be used to support the footage of his funeral are mistaken. They don’t know the legend yet. He is not going anywhere, because music is not going anywhere.