The Week, April 2009
On March 24, 2009, all the important newspapers of India carried the news of Ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan’s ill health and his condition of penury and misery. It was very sad to read yet another story of a great musician in such a condition where the family is unable to pay his medical bills. In recent times, a similar situation happened in the lives of Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Shamta Prasad towards the end of their glorious carrers. Ustad Mehdi Hasan who is from Pakistan became a rage after the legendary Thumri and Ghazal singer Begum Akhtar rose to fame. What popularity and craze he had! His cassettes use to be smuggled into India at one point of time like pirated DVD’s are today. He had a very appealing and beautiful voice. He performed all over the world especially, in India. All the important musicians and film stars of India were great admirers of his, in fact Mehdi Saheb use to spend a lot of time in Mumbai. Many young ghazal singers of India became his disciples and followers.

Before Mehdi Saheb, there was another great thumri and ghazal singer, Ustad Barkat Ali Khan Saheb, the younger brother of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb, who unfortunately could not become very famous, but luckily, his recordings are with HMV (now Sa re ga ma). I personally use to listen to the recordings of Barkat Ali Khan Saheb and Bade Khan Saheb with equal interest. Mehdi Hassan Saheb was a great devotee and follower of Barkat Ali Khan Saheb and Begum Akhtar in his younger and struggling days.

Historically most of the Ghazal and Qawwali singers were all classical musicians, but because of a very strict discipline, dedication, commitment and struggle in the field of classical music, they took to Ghazal or Qawwali as that industry was booming in the eighties and also it did have quick commercial benefits and gains.

Begum Akhtar gave a very high stature and dignity to Ghazal singing. I remember listening to her 3-minute tracks on 78 rpm disc recordings, where musicians use to pronounce their own names at the end of the piece. Begum Akhtar used to address herself as ‘Mera Naam Faizabad wali Akhtari’ . What a beautiful voice she had! Full of classically rich ornamentations and appeal; amongst the other great Ghazal singers of Pakistan, the legendary Begum Farida Khanum Saheba is a symbol of beauty and grace with amazing vision and approach of music. Iqbal Bano, Malika Pukhraj, Ustad Ghulam Ali and Abida Parveen too have given a different dimension to Ghazal Singing.

I admired several songs of Mehdi Saheb. Once in Delhi he was singing at the residence of a common friend. My wife Subhalakshmi could not go so I went alone. It was a private concert. Many guests were already there; when I reached I was taken into the room of Mehdi Saheb. He met me very warmly and we got into the deep conversation of music and great musicians. In between, the host came inside to remind Khan Saheb that he had an audience waiting outside who wanted the concert to commence to which he kept on saying please tell them that I am getting ready. I suddenly realized that it was more then two hours that we were talking. Finally, he agreed to appear and I apologized for not being able to stay or attend to his concert as it got too late. I said my wife is not too well and I have to go back (though I use this line very often much to my wife’s annoyance, this time it was true!). It was truly a memorable meeting. However, I only knew him through his music but that evening, I realized that he had great human qualities and the deepest respect and love for other musicians.

After the twenty five years of a cultural silence, I was the first Indian musician to visit Pakistan at the time of Janab Zia-ul-haq Saheb. Our Indian ambassador at that time was Mr. Natwar Singh and Mr. Mani Shanker Aiyar was the Council General at Karachi. I had a great experience and I received a lot of love and respect. All the Pakistani musicians felt much happier and honoured to perform in India, because they all received so much adulation in India. In fact in Pakistan, they were more interested in our Indian films and great playback singers like Lata Mangeshkarji, Mohd.Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mehmood, Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar.

I am sure that the people of Pakistan and the Pakistan government will help and take care of all the medical bills of Mehdi Hassan Saheb which his family has to pay to the hospital authorities. It’s ironic that after partition the powerful people could only divide the land but they could not divide the Swar, music or the deep rooted age old ancient culture. For the refugees of both the countries money and power became their Gods and their greatest assets. After the attacks that happened in Mumbai on 26/11, I see things only get worse even for cultural exchanges, which truly is sad for the performing arts. The nations are blaming each other for what happened on that day and this is widening the divide between them. This will most certainly lead to depreciation in the art, cultural and sports exchanges that could have benefited people in both countries.

I sincerely feel that it should be the duty of all art and artist enthusiasts that they should come forward and either patronize or support any musician or a creative person of any country who is in need. I hope that the sufferings of a state of penury, of not only the artist, but also the family members of the artist would be less painful. I hope every creative artist of the world completes their journey of life with honour and dignity and always makes a back up plan for his or her rainy day. 

-Amjad Ali Khan