It’s one voice I can listen to for days and nights together, summer, monsoon or winter. It has the depth, enunciation, nuances, variation and above all, expression of poetry. To me, ghazal legend Mehdi Hassan has been a passion, an obsession, the subject of a biography or research thesis I may never write.
There are various anecdotes about my Mehdi Hassan experience. And the reason I am narrating them is because today is his sixth death anniversary. I first heard him in 1983, as a 19-year-old. Instantly loved the few songs I heard. But the real turning point came in 2000, the only time I met him, albeit briefly. I was converted from a fan to a fanatic.
Rather than go chronologically, what I shall do is use that meeting as the base, and go back and forth in time. That accidental encounter took place at businessman Saurabh Daftary’s place on Marine Drive, Mumbai. There was a mehfil where ghazal singer Talat Aziz invited me, knowing I was Mehdisaab’s fan. For health reasons, the maestro had been advised not to sing that day.
Aziz had told me I could interview him. And my response was, “I do not have the guts to interview such a legend. I mean, who am I to ask him anything?” Earlier, I had the same issues about Lata Mangeshkar and Bhimsen Joshi. But my editors wouldn’t listen. In this case, they didn’t know I was meeting Mehdisaab.
What happened was funny and memorable. Aziz introduced us. “He’s a fantastic writer,” he began, referring to my journalistic skills. Mehdisaab said, “Yeh baat! Why don’t you write a few ghazals for me?” Aziz had to explain, but I touched his feet, and he blessed me. “Whatever you write, do it with such sincerity and focus that it moves people.” That was the only short conversation I had with him. Words never forgotten, never will forget.
Aziz sang first. Well-appreciated. A female singer, who I won’t name, came on next, and began Mehdi-saab’s hit, Ahmed Faraz’s ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi’. She sang in a very high pitch, and the maestro looked clearly uncomfortable. He broke her in the middle of the song, and asked for the mic. “Beta, aisa nahin, aisa.” Then he sang the whole ghazal and followed it with Ghalib’s ‘Dil-e-nadaan’. The small audience was stunned. Mehdisaab had clearly forgotten his doctor existed.
Hariharan was to conclude the evening. He told the host, “After this, I don’t have the courage to open my mouth.” He was happy mingling with the guests.
The party got over at 3 a.m. I could not sleep, or even risk playing my Mehdi Hassan cassettes after reaching home. Wife would have thrown a fit. But for the next month I would listen to him daily, over shave, shower, breakfast, dinner, corridor walks with my Walkman. I went across town to pick up any cassette or CD I would find, even if I hadn’t heard only two songs out of nine.
I later came to the conclusion that my Mehdi Hassan phases were clearly divided into two. Before and after meeting him. I won’t get into much detail here, as that will turn out to be an encyclopedia, but will stick to the broad outlines. More like a book’s summary, epilogue.
Back in 1983, my father’s friend was selling vinyls and insisted we pick up ‘The Best Of Mehdi Hassan’. I couldn’t understand most of the Urdu language, in comparison to Jagjit-Chitra Singh, Pankaj Udhas and to an extent Ghulam Ali. But Mehdisaab’s ‘Mohabbat Karne Waale Kabhi Kam Na Honge’, written by Hafeez Hoshiarpuri, just hit me. I wouldn’t touch another song for weeks.
Next came ‘Ranjish’ and Qateel Shifai’s ‘Zindagi Mein Toh Sabhi Pyaar Kiya Karte Hain’. I was hooked, and just basked in the glory of that LP, and another casssette I bought much later. Though I was more into rock, jazz and old Hindi film music, I would always go back to Mehdisaab and my other discovery Begum Akhtar. That happened till 2000.
After meeting my idol, I realised I had heard only a fraction of his work. My biggest find was the album ‘Kehna Usey’, written by poet Farhat Shahzad. ‘Komplein Phir Phoot Aayi’, ‘Dekhna Unka Kanakhiyon Se’, ‘Kya Toota Hai Andar Andar’ and ‘Tanha Tanha’ were like paradise found on earth. Sorry, John Milton, our side of the world has geniuses too.
More songs came into my life. Today I find a lot of rare ones on YouTube. To pun on a Bob Dylan song “(When) I’m not sleepy, and there’s no place I am going to. In the jingle-ghazal morning, I’ll come following you.”
I can go on, Mehdisaab. There’s so much more. But some other time. Your immortal voice will never rest.