LAHORE – “Ranjish hee sahi,” says one Facebook update, “dil hee dukhaane ke liye aa!” (“If only to cause me anguish come back, even if only to break my heart!”) Another says: “Jab koi pyaar se bulaye ga, tum ko ek shakhs yaad aaye ga” (“When your name is gently called, you’ll think of one particular person”). These are lines from two of Mehdi Hassan’s best-loved songs. And they’re pouring like rain today all over the news and across the internet, throughout the subcontinent.
He wasn’t always going to be king of this poetic form, whose rhyming-but-thematically-free couplet is the basis for so many songs in the subcontinent. Born in 1927 to a clan of minstrels in Rajasthan, Mehdi Hassan Khan was initially expected to become, like his father and uncle, a competent singer of dhrupad – the difficult form of singing that was patronised by the local raja.
Hassan had a repertoire of songs and styles with many regional and devotional influences. In 1947, Hassan’s family shifted to Pakistan. The story of Hassan’s rise in these circumstances is told like a fable: one of many poor immigrants in the new country, he had to work in a bicycle repair shop in an obscure settlers’ town. But – and this is the crucial detail – he never gave up his practice of sur, an elusive state of musical rightness, and carried on with his exercises even as he drove a tractor through the fields, pitching his voice against the drone and shudder of that hardly musical machine.
In the late 50s he moved to Lahore. And here he began to push through. He sang for films and the radio, pouring his voice into new forms, taking cues from other singers. (In one televised interview he claimed to have “learned” the art of playback singing from the famous songstress Noor Jehan.)
It was his rendition in 1959 of Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ghazal “Gulon mein rang bhare, baad-e-naubahar chale” (“Let the breeze pour colours into the waiting blossoms”) that broke the mould and made Hassan a genre unto himself. Here we see several different strands of south Asian history converging beautifully: the ghazal form; the “modernist” Marxian-Sufi idiom of Faiz’s poetry; the romantic sand-dune feel of the Jhinjhoti scale (a speciality of desert singers); and the deep-soft tone of Hassan’s voice.
If you grew up in Pakistan in the last 40 years you will remember Hassan from TV. He was the man with the receding hairline and stubborn mullet, cross-legged on a stage with his fingers on the keys of a harmonium, his brow contorted with effort and his jaw thrust forward – his mouth a dark slit through which a low, deep, impossibly beautiful voice flowed. Indians will remember him from audio cassettes (Best of Pakistani Ghazals – Vol 1) that frantically changed hands in the 1980s. If you were a playback singer for Indian or Pakistani films, you would have listened to Hassan for hours, trying to glean (as he did once) whatever you could from his technique, his style.
But there is only so much you can sift and separate and steal in this world. I came to this conclusion a few years ago, when I began to study classical music with a dhrupad-trained singer in Lahore. The scales I was practising began to echo one another, doors opening unto doors. I went back to Hassan’s songs. And now I could hear in them the modes and melodies of ancient India, and see in them at least 400 years of Urdu poetry, which in turn opened on to the artistic traditions of Persia and Arabia.
Occasionally, as I am carried aloft on the transcending arc of Hassan’s voice, I find myself tugging at counterfactuals. But then the arc carries me through – past the sands of Rajasthan – and I am at a place where there is only the fact, the truth, of Hassan’s voice, eternal and sublime.