Mehdi Hassan: Musician hailed as the maestro of the 'ghazal'

There is a quip in Bangladesh that Hassan's voice was the only good thing to come out of West Pakistan

Mehdi Hassan was one of the all-time great vocal artists of the Indian subcontinent, a majestic musician hailed as transformative by peers and admirers. The ghazal maestro Jagjit Singh stated: "There has never been a ghazal singer of his calibre, nor is there likely to be one." Qawwali's finest female singer, Abida Parveen, called him "a titanic figure in the field of music" while The film composer Naushad Ali evoked Bollywood's greatest female playback singer, Lata Mangeshkar: "One cannot agree more with Lata when she says that you hear the voice of Bhagwan [the Divine] when he sings." There was also the apocryphal Bangladeshi quip that the only good thing that came out of West Pakistan was Mehdi Hassan's voice.

Mehdi Hassan – sometimes rendered "Hasan", as in the title of the Asif Noorani-edited biography Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music (2010) – was born in a Rajasthani village into an extended family of hereditary musicians. Owing to the Raj era's lackadaisical birth registration arrangements, doubts persisted about his year of birth. His father Ustad [a Muslim teacher] Azeem Khan and uncle, Ustad Ismail Khan, were esteemed vocalists who guided him on the classical path. But he retained a lifelong affinity with Rajasthan's vibrant folk-song traditions.

After Partition in 1947 he moved to Khushab in Pakistan's Punjab province, where he rose to become a motor mechanic and garage owner. Supposedly, even though he assiduously maintained his musical riyaz [practice], he did not sing in public between 1948 and 1951.

Remembering his time at the Karachi station of Radio Pakistan, Anwar Enayetullah recalled being asked to audition "a slim, balding young man with a longish face and a pair of bright eyes" in 1952. The unknown singer ran through a variety of pieces in different styles, displaying a command of raga and the regionally based light classical idiom and revealing a breathtaking technique and clear, nuanced diction. He sang so impressively that Hassan left their premises as a staff artiste.

By 1956 he had entered the world of film music, though his first two releases flopped at the box office. Although he sang in films into the mid-1990s, the Lahore-based, Punjabi- and Urdu-language film industry (later dubbed "Lollywood") remained a cul-de-sac compared to the traffic flowing from its Bombay counterpart. During the 1960s and '70s Hassan won a succession of Best Playback Singer trophies at the Pakistani film industry's annual Nigar Awards, inaugurated by the magazine of the same name in 1958 in emulation of India's Filmfare Awards, launched in 1954. Along with Ghulam Ali, Reshma and Saleem Shahzad, he was one of Pakistan's few post-Partition playback singers to make inroads in India.

For Hassan film music was a sideshow to some extent, albeit a lucrative one. His main focus was ghazal. He had a broad repertoire but his speciality was that particular poetic form. Ghazals take the form of self-standing couplets, the step-by-step progress of which advances the narrative. In the years following Partition, ghazal's allegorical and metaphysical potential was being recalibrated. Sambhag [union] and viyog [separation] masquerades of love for the Beloved might hide politics in plain yet allegorical view. Pakistan's keenest-eyed master and most trenchant overseer of the form's secular transition was the poet and left-wing intellectual Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911-1984), and Hassan was right there beside him.

Harnessed to music and sung, ghazals could win enhanced longevity and memorability – although paradoxically, after Partition, recording ghazals was not deemed commercial. Hassan was prevailed upon to record two Faiz pieces. One became the calling card of his career, "Gulon mein rang bhare" ("Let the blossoms fill with colour") which his older brother Ghulam Qadir had set in raga "Jhinjhoti". At a time when the Gramophone Company of Pakistan was releasing 78rpm singles, what could be squeezed on to one side was an important artistic restraint; one couplet was lost. The recording, with its haunting, traditional-style sarangi accompaniment, was snapped up for the film Farangi ("Foreigners"). Afterwards, the song was identified with him.

Urdu is a language which stresses careful enunciation and Hassan became renowned for his linguistic precision and ability to bring out the words' innate musicality and infuse them with new life. Consequently, he recorded extensively, especially for what became EMI (Pakistan), including performances with Noor Jehan, Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan and Runa Laila. An important UK connection was Navras, whose label launch was his triple CD set Classical Ghazals.

Hassan had composed for Lata Mangeshkar since the 1980s. Thwarted from recording together until 2009 and 2010, they recorded their parts in Pakistan and India for his composition "Tera milna bahut acha lagta hai" ("I like meeting you"). It was a duet of great symbolic importance for both of them.

Mehdi Hassan, singer, musician and composer: born Luna, Jhunjhunu district, Rajasthan, India 18 July 1927; twice married (twice predeceased; nine sons and five daughters); died Karachi, Pakistan 13 June 2012.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special
tvNick Frost, Natalie Gumede and Michael Troughton step up
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Beard, Ben Schnetzer, Douglas Booth and Jack Farthing in ‘The Riot Club’
filmReview: Sheer nastiness of Riot Club takes you aback
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Senior Research Executive - Quantitative/Qualitative

£27000 - £31000 Per Annum Excellent Benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

ETL Developer / Consultant

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

DT Teacher, Full time supply role, Maidstone school

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: We urgently require an experienc...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week