Bashir Ahmed's death last week was once more a reminder of the many ways in which we neglect our leading artistes when they are alive. Once they are dead, though, people fall on one another to sing the praises of the one who has just departed. No one says a word about the way in which the dead artiste suffered, for want of economic sustenance or health or attention.
And then there is the other side of the problem. Most artistes, as they age, lose touch with themselves. Pakistan's Ghulam Ali once sang some beautiful ghazals. Remember his hum tere sheher mein aaye hain musafir ki tarah? These days he cannot sing, at least not in the way he used to. Does drinking have anything to do with it? Or is ageing an impediment to singing? If you think of Mehdi Hassan, towards the end of his life, there was not the kind of verve his music once conveyed. The original duniya kisi ke pyar mein jannat se kam nehi did not evoke the thrill it once did when he sang it on special occasions in later times. Lata Mangeshkar continues to sing, but there is a distinct feeling that it is an aged woman who sings. Think of mun dole mera tan dole of old. What might you expect if she decides to sing that song now?
Honestly, there must be a time for artistes to retire before they become objects of pity. Individuals like Rafi, Mukesh, Talat and Kishore were fortunate in that they died relatively young, before their voices could run away from them. Imagine what could have happened, had they grown old, if they tried singing their old classics before their admirers --- tere mere sapne ab ek hi rang hain, zulfon ki sunehri chhaon tale ik aag lagi do deep jale, dil jalta hai to jalne de, wo shaam kuchh ajeeb thi ye shaam bhi ajeeb hai.
If you recall, in the time before he died, Hemanta Mukherjee found it rather taxing to sing his old songs. In the process, he left a good number of his fans disappointed. But, then, you can raise the question: why should an audience, aware of the laws of mortality and aware too that these laws affect artistes as well as the rest of mankind, expect an ageing music maker to sing in the old way? Not everyone is like Sachin Dev Burman, whose voice, even in youth, conjured up images of an elderly man. But that voice had a magical quality of its own. Try singing jani na jani na keno emon hoy or sun mere bandhu re sun mere mitwa. You can rest assured that there will not be a second Burman.
One is happy that Shahnaz Rahmatullah, on her own, has said farewell to singing in public. That is indeed a sign of wisdom. If only people like Asha Bhonsle and Lata would emulate her! But there are too the singers who should have sung on or whose artistry ought to have been utilized to the fullest extent. Anjuman Ara Begum should not have gone into seclusion. Her duet with Bashir Ahmed --- tum bhi haseen dil bhi jawan --- remains a classic for all times. Pakistan's Munir Hussain, of qarar lootne waale fame, should not have been pushed into oblivion, in the way that Salim Raza, despite his tujh ko maloom nehi tujh ko bhala kya maloom, was.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star