Charakhadi, a tiny hamlet in the state of Gujarat, is the native to one the most famous family of ghazal singers in India. Born into a family of landlords, the Udhas brothers would venture out on a musical sojourn and etch their names in music history. One of them being, the ghazal legend Pankaj Udhas.
Most musicians would be handed a musical instrument in their childhood. This was not particularly the case in the Udhas household. Though their mother was passionate about singing, it was limited to festivals, family functions and wedding. Their father was the first in the family to receive musical training. He learnt the art from one of the musicians in the court of the Maharaj of Bhavnagar. After Independence and the implementation of a new constitution, he took up a job with the Government of India. This did not restrict his daily riyaaz of the ‘ishraj’. This dedication to music was the first trigger which generated an interest in music among the brothers.
“The combination of our parents’ interest in music worked on us and we developed a liking. The exposure to film music and mainly the radio were the other influences,” recounted Pankaj.
The youngest of the 3 brothers, Pankaj would attend college functions in Rajkot where his brothers would sing. A young Pankaj was inquisitive and impressed by them but it was the tabla that fascinated him. He underwent formal training in the instrument at the Sangeet Natak Academy in Rajkot. It was here that he would be exposed to Hindustani vocals.
The film music of 1960s-70s was phenomenal in every aspect. There was a tremendous amount of poetry. The composers used a lot of ragas in the music. Bollywood music played a great part in Pankaj’s development of interest. It was the legendary Begum Akhtar’s voice that mesmerised him.
“She had an unusual voice which was apt for ghazal. I thought there was something very attractive in her singing and style. I probably did not understand what she sang at that time but she was the trigger for me taking up ghazals. She was the catalyst which made me think about this form of singing at a very young age,” said Pankaj.
The ghazal singer then moved to Mumbai where his elder brother, Manhar, was singing with Kalyanji-Anandji. Kalyanji had advised Manhar to learn Urdu to have clear pronunciation and diction. Following Manhar’s footsteps, a long haired, bell bottoms clad college going Pankaj approached his brother’s teacher to learn Urdu. Reluctantly the teacher agreed and it made Pankaj’s foundations stronger. It was a bigger driving force towards turning professional.
Gujarat has always had a big ghazal base. Poets like Mariz, Barkat Virani, Shahida were big names at a time. Gujarati ghazals also played its role in influencing Pankaj’s musical ambitions.
“There are a lot of similarities between Urdu and Gujarati ghazals. The format is the same. I still listen to a lot of it. Somehow the attraction of singing Urdu ghazals was far more than Gujarati ghazals for me,” quipped Pankaj.
Creating his signature style
The ghazal singer’s debut was during the time when legends like Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh et.al were ruling the charts. Breaking the stereotype and exploring newer possibilities, in the realm of ghazals, was Pankaj’s challenge. He took a rather unusual route while composing and presenting his songs. The traditional barriers and protocols were respected in the process but what emerged was a fresh new sound of ghazals.
“When I was working on composing the music for my first album, the selection of poetry was of paramount importance. I had a dear friend Sheikh Adam Abuwala from Ahmedabad who wrote in Gujarati and Urdu. We both figured out the selection process of poetry’s for the album. We hit upon a ghazal ‘Aap jinke khareeb hote hai’ by a very old poet Noor Narvi. The ghazal was very simple yet poetic. That is when we decided that we will select poetry which is simple but at the same time conveys the meaning properly making it easy for a layman to understand. This is what set me apart from many other singers at that time,” asserted Pankaj.
Pankaj’s sound was lapped up by the audience. His rather ‘popstar’ like demeanour struck well with the younger lot of the time. Breaking the mould of a kurta-pyajama clad ghazal singer, Pankaj would be seen wearing a casual t-shirt over a pair of jeans. His performances were more energetic and livelier with an interactive audience. This image was not created by a marketing strategy, it was just a reflection of what the man was and is.
Keeping relevant with the changing times
Pankaj released a very ‘different kind of ghazal album’ titled, Stolen Moments in 1994. These were the times when India was changing. The markets had opened up to world music and the influences were clearly felt. The music channels were keen to beam only specific genres of music to live up to their ‘music for the youth’ policies.
“The music channels of those times were kind to me but my music did not fit in their company policies. I was irritated and I took it as a challenge. Also around that time there was a general decline in interest for ghazals in the younger generations. So I created my album Stolen Moments. I made it sound very contemporary with a specific approach that the younger lot would relate to it. The marketing team decided to do a video. The same music channels then beamed the video 10-15 times a day,” smiled Pankaj.
From a ghazal singer to a pop star
The ghazal singer regained his popularity and was now playing ‘cupid’ to the children of his older fanbase. His simple work ethics and a keen sense of observation, saw his songs surging the charts. Pankaj was now labelled as a ‘pop singer’ from being a ‘ghazal singer’.
This however is not the first time he had been ‘labelled’.
Pankaj’s discography as a ghazal singer includes songs which are socially relevant to highly romantic ones. Somehow down the line, he got known as the ghazal singer whose songs had to be played at a drinking session.
Urdu poetry and its metaphors
Urdu poetry has one element that really is a contrast. ‘Sharaab’ is considered a taboo but every Urdu poet has written about it. The biggest example would be the Iranian poet, Omar Khayyam. He wrote his entire body of work on alcohol. ‘Sharaab’ in Urdu poetry is basically an expression with many dimensions. The beauty of Urdu poetry is that when you recite a couplet, there is one layer which you will grasp immediately but if you think deep there are 100’s of layers to that one couplet. Alcohol is basically used as a metaphor. It has never meant to be the physical alcohol in a bottle. But this may be beyond a layman’s understanding.
“If you take my whole discography, songs about alcohol are not even 5% of it. What happened was a smart guy from the music label compiled a list of my songs based on alcohol from my various albums and released it under an album called ‘Paimana’ which became a big hit. He followed it with ‘Maikhana’ then ‘Nasha’. It was commercial exploitation. It is very unfortunate for me to be labelled. I have to give a clarification to people even now that I do not particularly sing only on this subject,” Pankaj pointed out.
‘Recreations’ and ‘Covers’
Misfortune also carries fame and Pankaj is quite averse to it. His firm belief lies in creating original content that would get an artist adulation and fame. Pankaj’s views on creating original content may get a mixed response in this age of ‘recreations’ and ‘covers’. Good music is creativity. You like a song because it is well created.
“I might be from the old school of thought but I believe every creation should be an original. Over a period of time I have been disappointed that the whole approach towards creativity is diminishing. I have never been in favour of ‘covers’. I am against it as I feel this country has a lot of talent and creativity. If I am approached for my songs to be ‘recreated’, my answer would be ‘absolutely no!” said Pankaj.