He looks tired, very tired, as his wheel chair is pushed into the room at the Aga Khan Hospital, Karachi, where he is admitted for diagnosis. Though an ardent admirer of his style of ghazal rendition, I had met Mehdi Hasan only once before. That was in 1993. He had disembarked from the PIA aircraft in Bombay, which was to take me back on its return journey to Karachi. He had looked hale and hearty and so he was until last year when he had a massive stroke in November. Partly because of the negligence on the part of the family members, partly due to the doctors they consulted, but mainly due to the vagaries of fate, his condition worsened.
Somehow, Dr Saira Khan of Medical Aid Foundation, one of the innumerable fans of the maestro learnt about the great singer’s condition. She got some monetary help from Infaq Foundation and some concession from the management of Aga Khan Hospital and began his treatment. Dr Sonawalla, a noted neurosurgeon, who is treating him says the singer had had more than one mild stroke in the past which affected his condition.
Every day, the Medical Aid Foundation’s ambulance carries the singer for speech therapy and physiotherapy. The right side of his body has been affected. The recovery is there but it is painfully slow. As if all this was not enough, he has developed hernia problem and needs to be operated upon. The doctors are more than happy to waive their fees. “He is our national heritage,” says Shams Lakha of Aga Khan University Hospital.
Where have all his earnings gone, no one knows. Arif Mehdi, his son, who holds the purse strings has no answer to that. He merely says “Ours is a large family and our expenses have been large Photo by the author too. We are 14 brothers and sisters and then we have our children also,” he says as he tells me that his father married twice. His son from his second wife, Shahzad, who is based in Lahore is doing a great job looking after his father. “Imagine all this happening to me in my twilight years,” Mehdi Hasan says in what may seem a hushed tone, when I go to interview him, a week later.
He can’t speak loud enough to be heard. “But then I also thank the Almighty for the name and fame that I’ve enjoyed,” he says. Shahzad helps me decipher his words. He is lying down in a room which is unbearably hot in the afternoon, particularly when there is power failure. It’s on the first floor of his house in the far-flung Alnoor Society. He had to be removed from his third floor room because it was difficult to take him down every afternoon while driving him to the hospital for his physiotherapy sessions.
I talk to him about his early days. He remembers his house in Luna a village near Jaipur fondly. “I still dream of it and the lanes, where I used to play with my friends,” Shahzad continues to act as an interpreter when required. He is propped up against a couple of pillows. He asks for a cigarette, the request is declined politely. He settles for a pan. We talk of the lovely Rajasthani folk music. On my request he tries to hum Kesarya Balama. He is not too audible. “He has just had his nap so he is not very clear. Otherwise he does sound clearer than he did before the treatment started. Look his swelling is
reduced. There is some movement in his fingers too,” says Shahzad.
Mehdi Hasan resumes, “Kesarya is in Raga Maand.” It fits into both genres of music, classical and folk. You know, the tunes of all my ghazals are based on ragas,” he says. “Can you recall some?” he queries. A smile appears on his face for the first time. There is something impish about him. He wants to test my knowledge. Sholasa jal bujha hai is in Raga Kirwani, I say, he nods in agreement I then give him more such examples, but fumble when it comes to another immortal ghazal of his Kaise chupaon raz-e-gham . Later, I learn that it’s based on a rare raga Charukesi.
The reason why Mehdi Hasan, unlike most ghazal singers, doesn’t sound monotonous is precisely that he is steeped into classical music and draws his inspiration from different ragas. There is no ghazal singer who can add so many nuances to ghazal singing,” says Nayyara Noor, as she sings the first line of Mir’s ghazal Patta patta, boota boota, haal hamara jane hai. “Believe me, it’ s so difficult to render it and Mehdi saheb does it so effortlessly. Only the other day, Indian singer Hariharan, speaking on the art of ghazal singing on ZeeTV, said ‘No one can come close to him’. He is such an accomplished singer,” says Nayyara, who has nothing but praise for Mehdi Hasan, the singer and the person. “I have never heard him speak ill of anybody,” she adds.
Music aficionado S.M. Shahid has a point when he says that Mehdi Hasan knows exactly where to stress a word. By doing so he brings out the meaning of the verse. He certainly has a flair for poetry too. His selection of ghazals also proves that his knowledge and understanding of Urdu poetry is head and shoulders above many other ghazal singers. His pronunciation is also impeccable, says Shahid.
What most people seem to forget is that he also excels in rendering light classical numbers and kafis. I remind the singer of his excellent rendition of Bhulley Shah’s Ki janan mein kaun bulleya, which he had recorded almost 40 years ago for Radio Pakistan. The radio songs had become quite popular but no number could match the popularity of Gulon mein rang bhare… This was the ghazal which brought him into the front rank. Later, the number was used in a film. While on movies, one can say that some of his film songs were much in demand in his concerts too. In fact Ranjish he sahi… and Ab ke hum bichre… sounded sweeter in his concerts. There were no distracting and jarring interlude pieces that film composers add to the songs.
The 1930 born singer drifts back to his early days in Rajasthan, as he chews his pan, “My village is Luna, and the district is Jhun Jhuno.” I can’t catch the name. I offer him my pen and ask him to write it. He tries to hold the pen but the sad realisation dawns on him — his right hand is not working. I feel guilty. I shouldn’t have made such a request. I change the subject and ask him to mention five of his favourite ghazals. He ponders for a while and then mentions them. Zindagi mein to sabhi pyar kiya karten hai, Gulon mein rang bhare, Too ne ye phool jo zulfon mein chupa rakha, Mujhe turn nazar se gira to rahe ho and Pyar bhare do sharmeele nain.
Talking about those who preceded him he makes a special mention of Begum Akhtar. “She was a consummate singer of ghazals and thumris. I have great admiration for her,” he says. When I ask him to mention his favourite film singer, he answers without batting an eyelid “Lata Mangeshkar. She is a complete singer.”
“But she is an Indian,” someone in the room says. “So what? Music and poetry know no boundaries.” He says and one can’t disagree with him. It’s like someone asking you who is the greatest dramatist and you mention Shakespeare, knowing fully well that the playwright has become a citizen of the world.
“Jo haq Pakistanio ko meri ghazlon pe hai, wohi Hindustanio ko bhi hai. Unho ne mujhe kam pyar naheen diya,” Mehdi Hasan tells a young research scholar from India, who answers to the name of Nandita Bhavnani. She had joined me and Dr Saira Khan when we were going to see Mehdi Hasan last week. Nandita tells him “I can’t believe that I am seeing you in person.” He pats her head affectionately, as tears glisten in his eyes. Mehdi Hasan’s last performance was deep down in South India, where very few people know Urdu. He sang in a large hall in Kerala. “There were as many listeners outside as there were inside,” recalls Arif Mehdi. “Why don’t you sing your newer ghazals in concerts?” I query. “It’s not my fault, I get so many requests for my older numbers that by the time the requests are over, the time for the concert is over too,” answers Mehdi Hasan, but not before he catches his breath in between.
I don’t wish to put a strain on him so I leave him after taking a few pictures of his for my personal record.
This article, written by Asif Noorani, appeared in the May 24, 2001 edition of The Review.