November issue 2010
Better Late Than Never: A Book on Mehdi Hasan
It was a case of love at first sight when I browsed through the slim volume of Mehdi Hasan: The Man and his Music, compiled and edited by Asif Noorani. The wide variety of articles, comments and anecdotes about the legendary vocalist, the diversity of pictures — mostly unpublished — and the list of tracks which are a testament to the singer’s versatility and virtuosity are all major attractions. So, in this instance too, I was hard put to find faults with the book. But after a thorough examination, I did have one grouse with this well-designed book: while the compiler/editor and the writers are generous in their praise of Mehdi Hasan’s invaluable contribution to ghazal gayeki, film songs and folk music, there is no mention of the few but highly inspiring national songs that he had recorded. Maybe in the second edition, Noorani will make amends.
However, on the plus side there is a lot that you can say about this mini coffee table book. In the foreword, the editor, who has contributed three pieces to the volume, rightly points out that it’s a pity no book — “good, bad or indifferent” — on the musical icon is available and that the neglect symbolises the way we treat our icons. On the other hand, there are at least five volumes on Lata Mangeshkar in English alone. This effort should somewhat fill the void.
Variety is the spice of this volume. Raza Ali Abidi remembers Mehdi Hasan as being a stickler for perfection and recalls how one afternoon the singer made an appearance at the Karachi Press Club merely to confirm the pronunciation of a word in a ghazal that he was to render for the first time at a concert that evening. He had travelled in a rickshaw from a remote suburb of the city. Those were the days when telephones were rare.
Anwar Enayetullah remembers his first meeting with Mehdi Hasan, sometime in the 1950s, when he had to audition the confident singer. He sang a khayal, a semi-classical ditty, and a ghazal based on the same raga before a small but appreciative audience in the studios of Radio Pakistan, Karachi. Runa Laila recalls how he encouraged her when she, a teenager, was recording her first duet with him. Robin Ghosh talks about the efforts that the singer made before recording a song for the film Aina. Rakhshanda Jalil writes about Mehdi Hasan’s immense popularity in India.
The book is filled with interesting anecdotes that throw light on the singer’s life. Tributes are paid by several celebrities from Dilip Kumar to Nadeem, Noor Jehan to Lata Mangeshkar and Abida Perveen to Jagjit Singh. Also reproduced is the letter that A.B. Vajpayee, then prime minister of India, wrote when he learnt about the stroke that Hasan suffered in 2001. Gulzar’s poem on him is moving, but it is Asif Noorani’s epilogue written after his meeting with the bed-ridden singer that brings a lump to your throat.
Finally, one can’t overlook the bonus that comes with the book — two EMI Pakistan CDs featuring Mehdi Hasan’s hits. The first disc carries six unabridged ghazals recorded at a concert in 1976, while the second features a kafi, an Urdu translation of Heer, a duet with Nazakat-Salamat, a semi-classical number, some hit film songs and comments on the great singer by Jagjit Singh. Singh rightly says that if someone wishes to learn how to sing a ghazal, then the only way to do that is to listen to Mehdi Hasan’s renditions. He is the finest ghazal singer that the subcontinent produced, and Noorani’s book is a small tribute to the maestro.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She also works at Hum television.