Posted: 09 July 2005 at 1:57pm
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Mehdi Hasan: Infirmity and conquest "A milk shop at the corner, turn left, fourth house with a green gate," the directions given by the ghazal maestro's son, Arif Hasan, are quite explicit. I feel sure that I can count on the people on the street in Alnoor Society, located in Karachi's congested suburb of Federal B. Area, to direct me successfully to the house of the Shahenshah-i-Ghazal, Mehdi Hasan.
He is sleeping when this writer reaches the house. It is 2:30pm in the afternoon, and his son explains that Khan Saheb is on a regimen of heavy medication, and it is his routine to stay awake all night, listen to music, watch television, then sleep during the day. "But he should be up in a few minutes," he says.
Those minutes turn into an hour-and-a-half; enough time for me to get to know something about the family through Arif. His sister, Rubina, who is mostly in and out of the kitchen, had been living in the US with her other brothers but returned to Karachi when she heard of her father's ill health. Having completed high school, she had wanted to join college to study art but preferred to be by her father's side, taking care of his needs. Being the youngest, she is perhaps the most cherished child as well.
A prolific singer, the 74-year-old maestro, affectionately referred to as Khan Saheb by his family and friends, married twice, and has fathered no less than nine boys and five girls. Unfortunately, about four years ago, both his wives died within a span of 12 months, leaving him dejected and ill. A severe case of arthritis, coupled with a stroke, has left him dependent on others.
By the time this piece of writing appears in print, I am informed that will be in Delhi and in an Ayurvedic hospital. This infirmary is a branch of the hospital in Kerala where he was treated in November 2000. Here's hoping that the follow-up treatment will bear fruit and the singer, much revered and admired on both sides of the border, will sing again.
Mehdi Hasan, whose performances have been electrifying, featuring a variety of rhythmic patterns and imaginative elaborations, mastered ghazal — the love song — in vogue from the 19th century. The living Indian legend, Lata Mangeshkar, once lauded him in the seventies by saying: "Mehdi Hasan kay galay mein to bhagwan bolta hai."
Whereas his performances have been grand, impressive and spacious, with a luminous passion, the house in Karachi in which he has lived for more than 37 years is, to say the least, modest, unassuming and cramped. Sitting in a small room just outside his bedroom on the ground floor, (those two rooms and the kitchen make up Khan Saheb's entire abode, as his married daughter lives on the floor above) I contemplate and philosophize on the vagaries of life. No small wonder, the old house, the unpretentious linoleum floor, scanty furniture and the gloomy environ altogether match the mood of the maestro himself.
Having woken up, washed, had his breakfast and dressed, he is waiting in his wheelchair to receive me. A shrivelled, sad smile on his face greets me. I feel quite overwhelmed as he speaks softly, with some effort, intermittently wiping his eyes with a small towel. I have to sit close and pay attention to his words. Sometimes he drifts into nostalgia, remembering his childhood with long pauses in-between.
The first time around he married a girl from his village. She bore him nine children. "An illiterate woman, nevertheless, my mother loved to sing shadi biyah kay geet," Arif Hasan has recounted earlier. He said that his second mother, Suraiyya, (Rubina's mother) was a radio singer, but gave up singing professionally after her marriage to Khan Saheb.
Mehdi Hasan had moved to Chichawatni near Sahiwal just eight months before Partition. He had been singing for All India Radio and later for Radio Pakistan. In 1952, his ghazals, Aaya mehfil may ghaarat garay hosh aaya; Bhooli bisri chund ummeedain chund fasaanay yaad aaye, broadcast from the radio, became instant hits.
But it was the ghazal from the film Farangi, Gulo may rung bharay baad-i-nau bahaar chalay that catapulted Mehdi Hasan to the heights of fame, making him a household name in Pakistan. It was composed by his elder brother, Pundit Ghulam Qadir, and was recorded in Lahore in 1959.
"The vulnerability and impermanence of his bony skeletal frame depicts the dominating metaphors of the canines and demons painted in Mehdi Hasan's childhood scenario. His fearlessness in pursuing his career to its ultimate heights emanates from his early conquest of fear itself."
In 1964, he sang for the first time with Madam Noor Jehan at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In 1965, the patriotic songs that he recorded during and after the war, such as, Allah kay waday pay mujahid ko yaqeen hay, and Sohni dharti Allah rakhay qadam qadam aabad (also sung by Shahnaz Begum) will always be remembered. Mehdi Hasan's subsequent rise was meteoric, and there was no looking back.
Duniya kisi kay pyar mein jannat say kum nahin; Mujhay tum nazar se gira to rahay ho; Ranjish hi sahi; Pyar bharay do sharmilay nain and scores of other numbers have made the singer immortal in his own lifetime. According to his son, Khan Saheb has perhaps recorded as many as 50,000 ghazals and geets. Although this number may be somewhat high, there is no doubt Mehdi Hasan has been a highly successful singer.
The main reason for this has been his careful choice of poems, combined with his thorough knowledge of music. He renders many a raga meticulously and in a wide range of styles such as Dhrupad, Thumri and Dadra.
He has been the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions: the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz granted to him by Gen Ayub Khan; the Pride of Performance bestowed on him by Gen Ziaul Haq; and the Hilal-i-Imtiaz conferred by Gen Pervez Musharraf. Besides the Nigar Film and Graduate Awards from Pakistan, he was presented the Saigal Award in Julandhar, India, in 1979, whereas the Gorkha Dakshan Bahu Award was given to him in Nepal in 1983. Recently, he travelled to Dubai to receive yet another award.
While Khan Saheb has continued to sing all his life, interestingly, he earned his living in the early days working as a car mechanic and chauffeur. He keeps punctuating the conversation with words of gratitude for the Almighty.
"I was born in a village called Luna, in the state of Jhunjnu in Rajhastan, India. My father Azeem Khan, uncle Ismail Khan, and my forefathers were Jaipur's darbari gawayay. They not only performed in Jaipur but also in the darbars of Indore and Baroda and other rajwadaas. I performed in front of the Maharaja of Baroda at the age of eight," he recalls, specially wanting me to write about his childhood. Apparently, the road leading up to his village has been named after him, and his ancestral house there is still intact.
I ask him about the black-and-white picture on the wall of his room in which one of the three men standing in a wrestling ring resembles him vaguely. "Yes, that's me," he smiles, "I must have been in my 20s. It was a regular practice to go for pehlwani. It was necessary to build a strong body and a strong breathing pattern in order to develop the stamina to sing. There is a direct relationship of a lung full of air and a tonic and dominant note of a singer." He explains. "I was woken up at 3:00am everyday.
My uncle Ismail Khan was entrusted with my vocal as well as physical training; I also learnt from my elder brother, Pundit Ghulam Qadir, who has composed several of the ghazals that I have sung. Each morning, I had to exercise and then jog in the dark jungle. But even that wasn't considered good enough. I had to spend time practising singing in the midst of human and animal skeletons.
It was widely believed that there were bhoot paleet in those jungles and I was trained to overcome the impact of menace and insecurity that they posed. If the demons bared their teeth and tried to intimidate me with their howls, I just continued to render my long alaaps and improvized on the notes that I had been taught. May nay sub kuch dekha, magar dara kabhi nahin," he says emphatically.
I listen to his fascinating tale with the rapt attention of a child, imagining and visualising paintings I have been familiar with. Some creative people walk on the wild side, others remain purists.
Among those with creative sensibilities are some people who turn their backs on reality and prefer to create from the life within, indifferent to life's events.
The vulnerability and impermanence of his bony skeletal frame depicts the dominating metaphors of the canines and demons painted in Mehdi Hasan's childhood scenario.
Like all of us, this 'immortal singer' too will one day be gone, but his fearlessness to pursue his career to its ultimate heights emanates from his early conquest of fear itself. A lesson for lesser mortals.