Mehdi Hassan has passed away but he will remain unsurpassed as the sovereign exponent of the art of ghazal singing.
The Pakistani maestro, born in an undivided India in the village of Luna, Rajasthan on July 18, 1927, died today in Karachi. Hassan was suffering from multiple ailments affecting his lungs, urinary tract and chest. He was also laid low by paralysis for sometime now.
During a career spanning nearly six decades, what set Hassan apart above all else was the supreme ease with which he took the ghazal on uncharted vocal journeys. A form of singing of unrealizable longing and inconclusive quest that has been around for more than four centuries found in Hassan perhaps its most enduring host. I would sum up Hassan with just one verse in Urdu that I am writing right here:
Dar Dar Bhatki Sadiyon Tak,
Fir Thehar Gayi Bazubaan-e-Mehdi Hassan
(I wandered for centuries, Until I found Mehdi Hassan’s voice to rest in)
All great artistes make their talent feel easy to attain. The greater they become, the easier their talent seems to master. Nothing could be more misleading. Hassan was one of those artistes throughout his long career.
At the risk of overstating it, here is what I felt many times while listening to Hassan. It felt as if his voice was in the constant state of regeneration even while he was singing, particularly when he took a song from low register to high.
Speaking of his voice, that subtly raspy edge and that brilliant bass that he was so famous for has an interesting little anecdote about it. It seems Hassan was often asked how he developed that unique combination. My late journalist and poet friend Ifti Naseem, who had met Hassan, believed that apart from a singer's natural gift, smoking cigarettes could add that raspy bass in a singer's voice. Ifti said not that Hassan was recommending that singers smoke but he told the singer that it could deepen a singer's voice. I personally do not know if Hassan smoked or not.
On my first visit to Pakistan in August, 1990 I did try to set up an interview with Hassan in Karachi but he was on a concert tour abroad. It is one of those strange features of my career that after that one attempt I never tried to interview him again. It is better to remember him as a singing voice than as a speaking voice.
Mehdi Hassan’s career overflowed with the finest exposition of ghazal singing. It seems pointless to pick favorites. However, I have made a random selection as they popped up in my mind this morning. Here are five in no particular order at all.