During my recent trip to Lahore for a musical performance, I had wished that someone would sit with me, exclusively, and talk about art and music. Any genre, style or era. I would invariably have brought in Mehdi Hassan into the conversation.
It was not to be. Mehdi featured in conversations related to the gloom that grips Pakistan. Regular electricity failures, Taliban, corruption, fear of life. Mehdi was never alone; he was never a solo. He was brought in as a counterpoint, a saviour. ‘We have so many problems, but thank God for Mehdi Hassan’.
Whenever the conversation got uneasy or boring or out of context, I brought in Mehdi Hassan. It lit them up. I mentioned his name to the musicians who were rehearsing to accompany us. One of them shifted from talking about the state of education to tell me about “...this unknown facet of Khan sahab! Once he had an informal mehfil with Tufail Niazi...”. The incident may or may not be unique, but the enthusiasm was of a man who was happy with life. Momentarily, the attention was away from the bludgeoning electricity prices and unhealthy religious indoctrinations.
Then there were those - of all ages - who didn’t care for Mehdi Hassan. I didn’t care about them.
Whatever else Pakistan may be, for me, it is also the home of Mehdi Hassan. And you don’t ignore him in his own backyard.
His name has been my mother’s only autograph. Hailing from Jammu and Kashmir, she has faced the wrath of India-Pakistan wars and hidden in makeshift bunkers to avoid bombing. Yet, no love was lost for the “most brilliant” Mehdi Hassan.
“Pyaari Beti Seema ke Liye” on a piece of white paper, preserved till a few years back.
And despite a series of some God-damn arguments, when I had to compose a ghazal for her, she called to ask me if I could base it on a specific raga, and make it sound ‘unique’, something... “just like Mehdi Hassan”.
Mehdi was for us - my father, mother and I - the epitome of excellence. And the converging point of our interests. If, at the dinner table, we have different preferences for music, it is a safe bet to arrive at “The Best of Mehdi Hassan”.
During our recent weekly get-together for art and poetry, my friends and I discussed one of Mehdi’s simpler and popular ghazals. The next day, a member remarked that he listened to the ghazal several times, and knowing the meaning of the words and the crux of the poetry enhanced his pleasure. “Poetry requires personal experience. Knowing the meaning of the tough words, you can connect to your own life. And his voice conveys the pain. It’s more than singing.” The sher in focus was:
“Haath Uthate Hue Unke Na Koi Dekhega,
Kiske Aane Ki Karenge Wo Dua Mere Baad”
“Perhaps in every religion, we lift the hands to pray. But who will see the girl do so after I am gone”, he inferred in Marathi-Hindi.
Likewise, now that you are gone and people are praising you as a messiah, who will really take on the mantle to sing classical poetry, and who will sing it in the 'Voice of God'.