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Ghazal – Verse to worse, then better

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Back in the early 1980s, it had become fashionable to use the term ‘ghazal wave’. After all, the genre was competing with mainstream film music and growing hugely popular in the non-film album segment. Singers Jagjit and Chitra Singh, Rajendra and Nina Mehta, Pankaj Udhas, Talat Aziz and a host of others became overnight stars.

The good things lasted five or six years. But as the joke went, after that, everyone with a fancy kurta, shawl and harmonium tried to become a ghazal singer. The wave became a tiny gust. Luckily, it is still surviving today thanks to the efforts of few people.

Ghazals, of course, were not a 1980s creation. Poets of the 19th century, specially Mir Taqi Mir, Mirza Ghalib and Dagh Dehlvi, popularised the style as a form of written poetry. In the 1950s and 1960s, ghazals formed a large chunk of Hindi film music, with K.L. Saigal, Talat Mahmood, Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi singing them regularly. Many music directors used the format, and Madan Mohan was known to be a master of the style.

Before proceeding, a few things in the background of the ghazal. The word as such has an Arabic origin but the poetic form derived its meaning from a Persian term meaning ‘the art of speaking to or about a lady’.

Poetically, it consists of a series of rhyming couplets, which normally have no connection with each other. There are alternative styles called nazm (which uses free verse), rubaai (with four lines in every stanza) and geet (a simple love song without a defined poetic structure).

Having said that, let’s come back to the original point. What led to the ghazal wave? There were three main factors. One, with film music becoming violent, many didn’t have scope for softer music. Ghazals provided an alternative. Secondly, music labels were looking at promoting singers and styles different from film or even serious classical music. Three, the parallel cinema movement had become popular, and many directors felt ghazals would blend perfectly.

All this didn’t happen suddenly. Before Jagjit and Chitra Singh made it big, Begum Akhtar was the undisputed ghazal queen. The Indian duo of Rajendra and Nina Mehta were popular on the live circuit, and Hyderabad-based Vithal Rao, Madhurani and Begum Akhtar’s disciple Shanti Hiranand became known for their teaching skills.  Pakistani greats Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali records sold well among those who followed the nuances.

Tauseef Akhtar

Jagjit and Chitra Singh took ghazals to the next level. In his compositions, the former used simpler poetry and added western arrangements to the traditional harmonium-tabla-bansuri-sarangi set-up. As Tauseef Akhtar, who has been mentored by Jagjit, says, “He was beyond time. He took ghazals from the traditional format and gave it a contemporary flavour.”

Soon, record labels Saregama HMV and Music India (now Universal) tapped other talent in the field. The ghazal wave was thus born. Udhas, Aziz, Anup Jalota, Bhupinder-Mitali, Hariharan, Penaz Masani and Chandan Dass were among those whose albums were regularly recorded. They also did live shows across the country. As Udhas explains, “It was a very exciting time for all of us. All singers had different styles and we were given opportunites by the labels, radio, Doordarshan and concert organisers.”

Though the focus was on male singers and duos, Masani was hugely popular among female artistes. She says, “I have been hugely influenced by Begum Akhtar, Farida Khanum and my guru Madhurani. I never considered myself as a female ghazal singer. I just believed in this realm and relentlessly plodded on. My first album Aapki Bazm Mein was released in 1981 and through the 1980s I was regularly recording and performing.”

Penaz Masani

From across the border, female singers like Noor Jehan, Mallika Pukhraj, Iqbal Bano, Khanum and Nayyara Noor sold albums in large numbers.

With records succeeding overall, ghazals and nazms came back in film music, and Jagjit Singh, Udhas, Aziz, Suresh Wadkar and Hariharan did memorable songs in films like Arth, Saath Saath, Naam, Bazaar, Umrao Jaan and Gaman. Those not exposed to the genre bought private albums released by these artistes.

By the end of the decade, things changed. With films like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Maine Pyar Kiya and Aashiqui, mainstream film music came back in a big way. Yes, artistes like Rajkumar Rizvi, Roopkumar-Sonali Rathod and Ahmed-Mohammed Hussain took the genre forward but overall, the craze subsided. The late 1990s introduced Radhika Chopra, Jaswinder Singh, Sudeep Banerjee, Rekha Bhardwaj, and Somesh Mathur.

However, the genre never really faded. As Udhas explains, “Ghazals are still popular across the world. They may not be at the forefront as they used to be but they remain a major option. When people get tired of loud music they switch to ghazals and classical music, which give them peace.”

Pankaj Udhas

For his part, Udhas started the Khazana festival in 2002. Held at the hotel Trident in Mumbai it has featured the cream of artistes. Themes have varied from tributes to Begum Akhtar and the famous poets, to how ghazals were used in film music.

Jagjit’s disciples Ashok Khosla, Ghansham Vaswani and Akhtar later started the Ghazal Bahaar festival in Mumbai. There are numerous private mehfils, though only select invitees are called.

Yet, fans feel there is a need for more such events across India and also think the mushaira culture of poetry recitation has faded away. Says ghazal fan Vidyut Sharma, “There have been great 20th century poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ahmed Faraz, Shakeel Badayuni, Sahir Ludhianvi, Allama Iqbal, Qateel Shifai and Sudarshan Faakir. Sadly, the younger listeners are not exposed to them. Later, Gulzar, Javed Akhtar and Bashir Badr did some amazing poetry but the first two names known mainly for film songs.”

There is, of course, a lot of younger talent in the field. The list is too long but Jaswinder Singh, Akhtar, Anurag Sharma, Sraboni Chaudhuri, Amrita Chatterjee, Runa Rizvi, Neha Rizvi, Pooja Gaitonde, Mohammed Vakil, Smita Bellur, Indira Naik and Jazim Sharma come to mind. Many more passionate about the genre. Maybe event organisers, record labels, TV channels, radio stations and mobile phone apps need to have a re-look at things.

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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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