Coming to my access to music, I really had to fight with my father for months to get a music system at home. (we had a radio, and a TV set, but those days, just after T-Series introduced cheaper audio cassettes, a cassettes-player was a must-have. All my friends had it.). Now that I had completed my 10th, in flying colours no less, I wanted a music system, nothing else would do. It was not easy to convince my father. To his credit, however, he got me a bicycle the next day I got the results; since I’d be going to college now, I needed a new bike.
Anyway, we finally got the music system. The next issue was the cassettes. A cassette cost Rs 27 or thereabouts. Those days it was a lot of money. And, I couldn’t really ask my father money for audio cassettes. So, I’d save up my pocket money, and had to choose which cassette I was going to buy. The choices were mostly between one popular Hindi film soundtrack or the other. Since I couldn’t afford to buy all cassettes I’d settled for those combined ones which had songs from two different films, on either sides of the tape. I remember I had cassettes of ‘Baazigar’ combined with ‘Imtihan’, ‘1942: A Love Story’ combined with ‘Darr’ and so on.
Later, after I made friends in college, the cassette problem was temporarily solved, when I’d borrow cassettes from my friends, listen to it non-stop for a few days and then return it and get another. And, our choices were very limited. The majority of the songs we listened to were from Hindi films, songs which we would hear first in ‘Chitrahar’ in Doordarshan. There were occasional Indie Pop albums — Baba Saigal (‘Thanda Thanda Pani’), Alisha Chinai (‘Made in India’), or Daler Mehndi (‘Dardi Rab Rab’), and rarely some western music, like Bryan Adams (‘18 Till I Die’) and Michael Learns To Rock (‘Paint My Love’), and Dr Alban (‘It’s My Life’; Does anyone remember him anymore?). We had some Assamese music as well. Apart from Bhupen Hazarika, the popular singer was Jitul Sonowal (‘Marami Lagari’), before Zubin Garg came to prominence.
In short, classical music was not in the horizon of my listening agenda. Neither was Gazals. I had heard of Mehdi Hassan, but never heard him. For me, Gazal was restricted to select Jagjit Singh numbers (‘Yeh Kagaz ki Kashti’, Yeh Tera Ghar Yeh Mera Ghar’), and Penaz Masani with her candyfloss hair as seen in Doordarshan. And just one song of Ghulam Ali (‘Chupke Chupke’).
In short I had never heard Mehdi Hassan sing, and I did not know what I was missing.
I first heard Mehdi Hassan in 1997, in Pune. It was the same year I also discovered Kaifi Azmi’s poetry, Marathi music, Hollywood films and other such assorted stuff. The first number I heard was ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi’, and the song is sheared in my memory. I may forget everything, but I won’t forget the experience of listening to this song for the first time, it was like first kiss, and then over and over again. Those were days of carefree youth, when mourning for lost love was a vocation to indulge in. So we friends would get drunk, mourn about our tragic love lives, and listen to Mehdi Hassan’s desperate voice: “Do come, even if to break my heart all over again, do come.”
Those days I was a non-drinker. Now, I cannot even imagine the time when I’d hate the smell of alcohol. I stayed in a hostel-cum-lodge, called Shridhar Lodge, opposite the Wadarwadi slums, where four of us shared a room, and we had a lot of friends. So, on any given day, the room would always be filled with people, and every evening, there’d be a party — mostly Rum, preferably Old Monk, and often, ganja, grass, weed, whatever you call it, it was so easily available at the slum. And I was the good boy. A roommate would bring the bottles in the evening and arrange it on the table, next to his books, and ask me, “Don’t you feel like opening the bottle right now and finish it?” I did not feel like. I did not care about drinks then. Now, I can understand the sentiment of the friend. This is what you call addiction. (Ask me, I know: Between 2001 and 2002, I used to get drunk every afternoon for one whole year, perhaps a little more than that. I was in love, and the only way we could sustain our love was to hit the bar and get drunk till we were out of our minds. It went on for a long time. It had to end sooner or latter, and it had to end in a tragedy. R is now dead, and I don’t hold any grudges against him.)
So, every evening these youngsters would gather in our tiny room filled with alcohol stench and smoke, and they’d talk, about their tragic love stories, mostly, and play Mehdi Hassan, all through the nigh. Though I won’t drink, I’d get a plastic glass filled with drinks anyway, and I will nurse it till I could find a place it empty it without anyone noticing and I would close my eyes and listen to Mehdi Hassan’s voice filling the room.
How do you explain the mesmerising effect of Mehdi Hassan? I cannot. But, the voice spoiled me forever. After listening to him I couldn’t listen to any other Gazal singer, not Jagjit Singh, not Ghulam Ali, not Talat Aziz, no one, except perhaps, Bhupinder Singh. He is another singer with a inspired, haunting voice, especially when he sings the poetry of the great Gulzar.
There are a number of verses immortalised by Mehdi Hassan’s voice that I can recite from memory. If I remember correctly, most of these verses were written by Farhat Shehzad. I remember the couplet: “Khud apni hathon se Shehzad usko kaat diya, jis darakth ke tehni pe aashiyana tha...” With his own hands Shehzad axed the bough on which branch was his love nest...” Extraordinary.
I love the Urdu language, there is a regal beauty about it; but I don’t understand all the words, and when there’s such an extraordinary voice, and extraordinary style of singing, you don’t need to understand, all you need is to feel.
Then there’s is ‘Kya Toota Hai Andar, Andar...’, and then my favourite of all time, from the album ‘Kehna Usey’:
“...konpalein phir phuut aayin shaak
use wo na samajha hai na samajhega
magar kahana use
waqt ka tuufaan har ik shay baha kar le gaya
itani tanha ho gayi hai rahaguzar
ja raha hai chhod kar tanha mujhe jisake liye
chain na de paayega wo sim-o-zar
ris raha ho kuun dil se lab magar
hansate rahe kar gaya barabaad mujhako ye hunar
jisane zakmon se mera ‘Shahazaad’ sina bhar diya
muskara kar aaj pyaare chaaraagar
(Remembering Rajib Deka, Bhaskar Goswami, Santanu Saikia, Surja Talukdar, Raju Das, Bipul Kalita and others...)
"The magic of his voice cannot be described in words... He drew everybody - the common man, the well read, the rich, equally to him when he rendered the ghazals of such profoundly intellectual and philosophical poets as Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Ghalib for instance," says veteran actor Dilip Kumar. The full story here.