Ghazal gaiki (singing) attained true musical credentials in Pakistan and the artiste who best represented that was Mehdi Hasan.
Though he became popular and was recognised by connoisseurs of music as the “sahib-i-tarz gawaiya”, the journey was very difficult for him. It is easier for a musician born in a family of musicians to be a gawaiya or a bajwayia because music is imbibed in the same manner as the mother tongue in the process of growing up. So, being aware of the sur is an inescapability, but in one sense it is more difficult because the evolution of an individual style then becomes the true test and benchmark for the artiste.
Like his elders, Mehdi Hasan, too, was meant to be a dhrupadia or a kheyalia. However, as he grew up, it became apparent that the melodious intent in the intonation and the range of his voice was more suited for, what was then called, the semi-classical forms. Thumri and dadra had gained acceptance in the late 19th Century in the avenues of music. Many were switching to these due to a greater patronage extended by the princely states.
The kheyal was considered to be the most prestigious form of music. It took other forms a long time to establish themselves among the connoisseurs of music. The ghazal, initially the vocal accompaniment of dancing women in the salons, rose gradually, gaining popularity during the course of the century and gained prominence and then some prestige among the musicians with a lineage with Akhtari Bai Faizabadi and Barkat Ali Khan. KL Saigal, who became famous and popular because of the film geets, was actually the first male super start of film vocalisation. He gave a shot in the arm to ghazal gaiki. Prestige followed popularity. This was not really the case in feudal patronage where prestige hinged upon the taste of the patron and not necessarily the larger populace.
Mehdi Hasan’s forefathers were well-known musicians and had been associated with numerous courts in what is now Rajasthan. His father, Azeem Khan, and uncle, Ismail Khan, too, were court singers. He was trained by his father and uncle, but the most definitive influence on him was that of his elder brother, Pandit Ghulam Qadir. Nevertheless, he had a tough beginning. He worked as a tyre fixer, then a motor mechanic and worked the land for a living.
In music forms where the lyrics play an important part, the greatest challenge for the vocalist is to break through the limitation of meaning that the grid of words impose. The significance of the sur has to dominate and take over. In the classical forms in the Indian sub-continent, the lyrics were kept to the minimum and totally subordinated to the tonal pattern of the melodic formations, usually expressed through the combinations and permutations of a particular raga or even a subtle mixing of two or more ragas in various tempos.
This has to be distinguished from recitation or cantillation, which in various cultures, including our own, have had an equally old and venerated tradition. The recitation, or cantillation or what is generally known as tarannum, is only a musical illustration of the lyrics. Its virtue, too, is supposed to rest there. The moment it liberates itself from the limitation of the word to assume a definitive tonal form, it is supposed to be assessed from a musical point of view rather than finding a relationship between the note and the word.
In the last seventy odd years, one has seen a steady decline of these forms that dwell on the purity of the note and move away from the meaning-driven comprehension of the word. Many vocalists have tried to reach some kind of a compromise and have taken bits from both to survive and create an expression that stays relevant to the changing environment of the times or era.
Many in this Land of the Pure are content with appreciating art as a handmaiden to either religion or some political ideology with the autonomy of the arts not given due consideration. This tepid understanding was further reinforced by the introduction of the film song which generally is understood as furthering the narrative or fulfilling the requirements of the scene. However, one has seen that with the passage of time, the song has had a longer shelf life than the film itself and it can be surmised that the song had the potential of outgrowing the immediate reason(s) for its coming into being.
The tacit promotion of the ghazal and subsequent gaiki were also the cultural imperative of the new state of Pakistan and the connections with a Persianate culture that ensured continuity with the older cultural expressions. They were being poached upon to establish a cultural identity for the new political identity. It may be interesting to note that the painters trying to establish themselves and find a place in the cultural matrix, too, were treading the same course by painting verses from famous poets. Abdur Rahman Chughtai is a good example; he switched from painting mythological figures to the imaginative representation of the verses of Ghalib and later of Iqbal. Sadeqain, too, tried to do that though not to the extent of Chughtai, who wanted to connect to the art of the book – a miniature was supposed to be an illustration on the margins of a book with the text or the story in the middle.
The greatness of Mehdi Hasan was that he did no let himself be buried under the huge veneration attached to poetry, but emerged as one using the lyrics or the poetry for greater musical relevance. This would have been difficult to achieve for a lesser vocalist as the words would have dominated to claim the credit. However, he was able to transcend the poetic content and is celebrated by the gawaiyas for this very reason. Mehdi Hasan’s barsi is on June 13.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore