Home » 15 November 2019 » A Passion for Poetry, Gazal maestro- Rajendra Mehta

A Passion for Poetry, Gazal maestro- Rajendra Mehta

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From the first floor balcony of Rajendra Mehta’s Pedder Road flat, one could see vehicles whiz by all day. For many, it was a regular journey, leading to different destinations. On the comfortable sofa inside, the ghazal maestro would greet you with “pakodas,” kachoris and essenced tea, served personally.

The constant sound of the traffic made no difference, as Mehta would recite Dr Bashir Badr’s lines, Musafir ke raste badalte rahe, muqaddar mein chalna tha chalte rahe.
By the time you emptied the cup, he would quote a few other poems which talked of travellers, journeys, fate and destinations. The first time I had this experience, I felt like I was relishing an exclusive mushaira.
For Mehta, who passed away at 85 after a brief illness on Wednesday, November 13, poetry was life. Shers were his oxygen. To convert Shers into songs, he would study each piece at length for days, even weeks. Even at concerts with his wife Nina, he would often recite Shers on one subject by different poets before rendering his tune.
Rajendra Mehta
Back in the late 1960s, Rajendra and Nina Mehta set the trend of ghazal-singing couples and were popularly known as the Musical Mehtas. The main artistes in the genre those days were Begum Akhtar in India and Mehdi Hassan in Pakistan. Ghazals, involving the use of rhyming poetry, and nazms, which had free-verse, were used a lot in films. Singers K.L. Saigal, Talat Mahmood and Lata Mangeshkar, and composers Naushad, Madan Mohan and Khayyam specialised in them.
Jagjit and Chitra Singh made their duet debut a few years later, and by the early 1980s, the ghazal wave was in full swing, with artistes like Pankaj Udhas, Talat Aziz, Anup Jalota, Penaz Masani, Chandan Dass and Rajkumar Rizvi attracting audiences. Pakistan’s Ghulam Ali became hugely popular in India after his rendition of Hasrat Mohani’s ‘Chupke Chupke’ was used in the 1981 film Nikaah.
The Mehtas were admired for their use of simple poetry and melodic orchestration, which often focused on the harmonium, santoor, acoustic guitar and tabla. Rather than singing complex Urdu poetry by Mirza Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Dagh Dehlvi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, they would choose simple verse which the majority related to immediately. “I read various poets but I had a clear picture on which of their works would appeal musically, suit our style and yet be understood by all,” Rajendra Mehta would say.
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THE JOURNEY

Born in Lahore, Mehta shifted to Lucknow as a teenager after Partition. That’s where his romance for poetry and singing began. “I was a huge fan of Talat Mahmood, whose songs I would sing, and Mehdi Hassan, who I admired for the way he used classical nuances and presented his songs. I also admired the poets Faiz, Kaifi Azmi and Qateel Shifai, and was lucky to know them closely later,” he said. To quote further from Dr Badr’s ‘Musafir Ke Raste’ ghazal, Suna hai unhe bhi hawa lag gayi, Hawaon ke jo rukh badalte rahe.
Mehta eventually shifted to Mumbai, where he was trained by Purushottamdas Jalota, Anup Jalota’s father. Simultaneously, he worked at the Gazebo restaurant. He met Nina in 1963 and decided to focus more on ghazal singing while pursuing a day job at an electrical company. He even participated in the group song ‘Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna’ with Mohammed Rafi and Manna Dey in the 1965 Manoj Kumar film Shaheed. “I grew up on film songs but that was never a career option for me,” he said.
Rajendra Mehta
After the couple married, they regularly began doing concerts, and their popularity increased once Doordarshan was launched in Mumbai in 1972. Their biggest hit – Prem Warbatoni’s ‘Taj Mahal Mein Aa Jaana’ – was released in the 1981 album Hum Safar.
Mehta said “Every artist has that one song which everyone in the audience wants to hear. In our case, this was the one.”
Hum Safar had other hits like Warbatoni’s Suna Hai Maine Yeh Jabse and Kumar Shailendra’s Alvida Alvida. Yet, compared to the other 1980s singers, the Mehtas recorded less, though fans loved Rubaru (1986), which included ‘Musafir Ke Raste’, and Manzar Manzar (1989), which had Sudarshan Faakir’s Ek Pyara Sa Gaon. Shifai’s ‘Dhal Gaya Chand’ (which was also recorded by Udhas), a live recording of the Khazana 1984 concert and some of their bhajan recordings were also popular.

A MENTOR

Though I had first briefly met Mehta after a concert in Jaipur in 1986, I first interviewed him at his residence 10 years later, to preview a show scheduled at Nehru Centre, Worli. He played perfect host, and snacks quickly arrived. The formal interview over, he began talking of poets and reciting shers.
My upbringing had been on the rock, jazz and a bit of Hindustani classical, and though I had heard ghazals for over 15 years then, I enjoyed them purely for their melody and the voices of different singers and had a very basic understanding of their emotions. I mentioned that much as I loved Mehdi Hassan and Begum Akhtar, I didn’t follow the words.

Mehta seemed free that evening, but from what I gathered later, everything else could have waited for a conversation on poetry to get completed. Over the second round of tea, and with impromptu examples, he explained the nuances of ghazal poetry, how the rhyming concepts kafiya and radeef were used, and the role of syllables and meter. He described the difference between a ghazal and nazm, and stressed on the importance of understanding the poet’s thought process and choice of words.

When you read a novel, you may just enjoy the story and forget it soon. But when you get deep into the language and characters, you retain much more,” he said.

“My door is always open, so when you come to this side, just give me a call,” he said when I left. I attended his concert, and this time, my approach to listening showed a marked difference, as I was actually thinking of line construction and rhyming.
He called me home a few days later and gifted me two books – the dictionary “Aaina-e-Ghazal”
by Dr Zarina Sani and Dr Vinay Waikar, and “Ghazal Darpan” by Dr Waikar, which contained lyrics of popular ghazals, with meanings of tough words.
Those days, there was no Google, and the books came as a blessing. Mehta spoke about poetry and composition, this time talking of raags and use of instruments.
“The next time you come, I will take a written test,” he joked. Meeting him opened up my thinking, and like many good things, this happened by sheer chance. To quote Dr Badr’s ghazal, Koi phool sa haath kaandhe pe tha, Mere pair sholon pe chalte rahe.

THE PERSONA

For almost a decade, I would meet Mehta at various events. Very often, I would see him at Nehru Centre enjoying a classical music recital. In the interval, we would head for batata vadas or samosas. Wherever he went, he seemed to know everybody. No conversation with anybody ended with a simple hello, and he made sure he introduced the other person in detail.
Mehta loved narrating incidents and often laced anecdotes with jokes. He once performed solo at a corporate event organised by a foreign airline company. The guests included some consulate seniors and business clients.
Over dinner, he whispered to me, “Wonder how many people understood what I sang. I should have sung in my suit and tie instead of my kurta-pyjama. Thankfully, I didn’t start talking about poetry or they would never give me a visa.”
Mehta was 29 years senior, but one rarely felt the age difference.
“I’m like your elder brother,” he would often say. When Nina Ji passed away in 2014, I met him at the prayer meeting. I had a serious neck problem and was wearing a cervical collar. Though there were many visitors, he spent some time to enquire about my condition.

A flood of memories flashed through my mind when I visited the Mehta residence after getting the news on Wednesday. His son was on his way back from Dubai, and I sat with his brothers-in-law, discussing his immense contribution. The traffic kept moving outside, and people headed to their destinations. There was nobody to recite poetry, but citing my own experience, my thoughts went back to Dr Badr’s line, Mere raston mein ujala raha, Diye uski ankhon mein jalte rahe.

Thank you, Rajendra Bhai.

Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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