A few decades back, it was in print that Talat Mahmood could not stand Mehdi Hassan's 'talaffuz'. Whether it stemmed out of 'filmi gossip' or fact will remain a mystery as both Talat Mahmood and Mehdi Hassan are now gone for good.
Mehdi Hassan had a flair for poetry and gave soulful renditions of Talat's ghazals at private functions. In fact it was through the vocals of Talat that he realised the goldmine in his voice. Talat's “Ek main hoon ek meri bekasi ki shaam hai” and “Husnwalon ko na dil” had left a permanent impression on him. While singing these two numbers once on stage in Rawalpindi, he held an audience of thousands spellbound and collected a whopping amount in a trice! Later, he became a part-time ghazal singer for Radio Pakistan, Karachi. It was ZA Bokhari and Saifuddin Saif initially and then the poets Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Qatil Shifai, Ahmad Faraz, Himayat Ali Shair and Muneer Niazi who helped the Rajasthani master the language and its 'talaffuz'.
Mehdi Hassan signalled his forte with C. Faiz's classic composition of “Ilahi aansoo bhari zinadgi” for a film (“Hamen Bhi Jeene Do”, 1963). It was not a very popular song for public taste. But a year later, with Faiz Ahmad Faiz's “Gulon mein raang bharey” (later used in the film, “Farangi”, 1964) Mehdi Hassan made the first major impact. A string of immortal film ditties soon followed -- Hassan Latif Lilak's “Kaise kaise log” (“Tere Sheher Mein”, 1965), Lal Mohammad Iqbal's “ Duniya kisi se pyar” (“Jaag Utha Insaan”, 1966), Khalil Ahmed's “Aye jaan-e-wafa dil mein teri yaad rahegi” (Tasveer, 1966), M. Ashraf's “Dil-e-weeran hai teri yaad hai” (“Aaina”, 1966), A Hameed's “Nawazish karam shukriya” (“Mein Wo Nahin”, 1967) to name some. Then Sohail Rana moved his magic wand for “Mujhe tum nazar se” (“Doraha”, 1967) and “Ek naye mod pe” (“Ehsan”, 1967); and Nisar Bazmi cast his pearls, “Yoon zindagi ki raah me takra gaya koi” (“Aag”, 1967) and “Ik sitam aur meri jan” (“Saiqa” 1968).
The 'Mehdi Hassan' we know was born. One may debate that the music directors and the lip-synching by matinee idols, especially Waheed Murad and Mohammad Ali added substantial lustre to his songs. Partly true as by mid-'70s, when these composers became spent forces and the actors got typed, his songs suffered barring some compositions from Robin Ghosh like “Pyar bhare do sharmili” or “Kabhi sochta hu”.
But Mehdi Hasan was a thinking singer. Undaunted with the decline of film music, he used his moorings in classical music and experiences with film composers to develop his music that had nothing to do with films. Mind you, it was the days of Farida Khanum and Iqbal Banoo too and yet Mehdi Hassan stood out. It is this dimension that separates him from his contemporaries.
His first big one outside the film world was Bahadur Shah Zafar's “Baat karni mujhe mushkil” in 1975, which was his own composition. Ghazal after ghazal followed including Dagh's “Ghazab kiya tere waade pe etbar kiya”, Ghalib's “Dile-e-nadaan tujhu huwa kiya hai”, Mir's “Patta patta boota boota”, Momin's “Woh jo hum me tum me qarar tha”, Hafeez Hoshiapuri's “Muhabbat karne waley kum na hongay”, Raza Tirmizi's “Bhooli bisri chund umeedein”, Hafeez Jullundri's “Hum hi me thi na koi baat”, Jigar Muradabadi's “Teri khushi se agar gham me bhi khushi na hui”, and then the relatively unknown Saleem Jilani's “Phool hi phool khil utthe mere”, Farhat Shahzad's “Khuli jo aankh to who tha”, Shai Lakhnavi's “Jo thakey thakey se thay hausle”, Mohsin Naqvi's “Jab pukara hai tujhe apni” -- you just name it, he was supreme all through to become the 'rehnuma' of a new school of ghazals.
But if listeners think that his art was developed during this period, they are wrong for some of his finest thumris, e.g. “Dukhwa mein kase kahoon mori sajni”, “To aaja sajni nadia kinare more gaon” happen to be of the '60s just as his own composed piece, Ahmad Faraz's “Ranjish hi sahi” (later used in a film) or the Bangla piece “Harono diner kotha” (which easily ranks with Tagore's “Purano shei diner kotha” or Hemanta's “Muchhey jawa dinguli” if one is to judge it by the theme of the song). His Punjabi Heer or the Rajasthani Maand that go back to the same time were equally exquisite. Therefore, with the film songs cited above, labelling him as the 'shahenshah-e-ghazal' as most do, would only be unfair to him. He was much above that.
At the peak of his career he was travelling everywhere; loved by all -- from the heads of state to those on the streets. Once while singing in the court of Nepal's King Shah Birendra Bir Bikram, he forgot the lines of his song, “Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kya karte hain”, Shah stood up and sang for the next line for him. He was robbed in the highway but when the robbers learnt his identity they returned him all that they had taken but not before the master hummed them some lines of their favourite numbers. Such was his control on music lovers.
A man of 'tameez' and 'tehzeeb', during his visit to Calcutta, he went straight to ailing Hemanta's house from the airport to the pleasure of the Mukherjee family. The Bengali singer's beauties of the '50s, “Yeh raat yeh chandni”, “Jaane woh kaise” haunted him. When he heard Manna Dey's “Madhushala”, he was ecstatic and said, “How could a film singer sing such songs!” When his musicians were paid late or underpaid, he would use his purse for their relief.
Mehdi Hassan had the finesse to extract the finest from Urdu's versified poetry and its delicate images. He touched the finer chords of emotion and in so doing gave one pleasure, intellectually or spiritually to add to the totality of pleasure in living. His vocalism was so pure and authentic that to Naushad Ali, he was the greatest expert of ghazal gayaki; to Lata, the Bhagwan's voice and for Noorjahan, a Tansen. Thus one wonders whether Talat Mahmood at all made a comment about his 'talaffuz' not to forget Talat was a perfect gentleman.
Mehdi Hassan passed away on July 13, 2012. A paralytic stroke that felled him 12 years ago took its toll, bit by bit to make the once “expression master” totally speechless and then motionless. The old order changed, yielding place to new. So, to keep him 'alive', the four walls of his room were decorated with his photographs in the company of Atal Behari Bajpayee, Gulzar, Ghulam Ali and others. What change of fate!
Mehdi Hassan visited Bangladesh several times both before and after the Liberation War. One wonders why the maestro was never exposed to the world of Atul Prasad and Kazi Nazrul Islam. Imagine him singing “Ami bandhinu tomar teerey” or “Aamar kon kuley aaj bhirlo tori”. I am sure his rendition would have gone a long way to make these numbers lifetime treasures; for some songs never fade just as some artistes never die. An artiste of his calibre would surely have enriched our music. Mehdi Hassan was a heavenly gift to us; his songs will outlive us as long as music remains in air.
The writer is a music connoisseur.