Unniham' ya' vighaaz ul'-afiqat
Ya mazd ghazal unniyaaz guluan sadaqat
(One who has the passion and depth in his voice and who's true to himself, can sing a ghazal).
--A pre-Islamic, 4th century, couplet in nascent Arabic, describing the qualities of a ghazal singer; British scholar of Arabic, Sir Hamilton Gibb found it in Najaf, Central Iraq
Imagine, ghazal is such an old, or should I say ancient, genre of poetry that it existed before the advent of Islam and the earliest practitioners of it laid down certain rules to sing ghazals soulfully! Prevalent in both Iranian (Persian) and Arab (Arabic) cultures simultaneously, a ghazal (conversation between two lovers in Arabic and a sigh-aah-in Persian) is a symphony of words and imageries that can mesmerise a listener.
Though originated in Persia and Arab peninsula, ghazal blossomed on the soil of the sub-continent when Amir Khusro experimented with its form and structure nearly eight hundred years ago. Great Urdu poets like Mir Taqi Mir, Momin Khan 'Momin', Daagh Dehlavi and of course, the redoubtable Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib wrote exquisite ghazals which were rendered by great ghazal singers in their fabulous voices. Yet, one name hasn't been touched even with a barge pole and that name is: Mehdi Hasan Khan, the Shahanshah-e-ghazal or the Emperor of ghazals.
Now the question is, what made him so great that he became a benchmark for the ghazal singers of his era as well as for the singers to come. Well, Mehdi Hasan was the one and only genuine exponent of ghazal in the sense that he never flirted with the form, finesse and fluidity of ghazal and retained its sacrosanct structure and sacred stature. He once famously said in a programme in Lahore, 'Ghazal meri ibadat hai, meri zindagi, meri aqeedat hai' (Ghazal is my worship, it's my life and my faith). Well-versed in classical music, Mehdi could do complete justice to the semi-classical performance of a ghazal through his raag-based renditions. He had a baritone that didn't grate on ears. It was booming and soothing in the same breadth and breath.
Mehdi could imbibe the spirit of a ghazal and (re)-produce it in a manner that was incredible. Listen to his 'Ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhane ke liye aa...' penned by Ahmad Faraz or his deathless 'Gulon mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale...' by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The simultaneously seamless flow of twists, turns, pauses, pains and pathos can spellbind the connoisseurs. There's a kind of ultra-refined and majestic elitism about the way he rendered a ghazal. His renditions had three As: Accent, Adagio and Andante. That's why, he could create such mellifluous cadences whenever he addressed his learned listeners.
He never commercialised or relegated ghazals from the highest pedestal to the floor. And that was the most important aspect of his ghazal gayaki. Vocal stunts and gimmicks were not his métiers and playing to the gallery was against his poetic conscience. He didn't sing to please the public. His Urdu was bereft of Punjabi and local intonations and influences. In short, there was nothing plebeian about him and his sublime art of presenting a ghazal. He understood the soul of a ghazal to stir the souls of the listeners. The desirable huskiness (Izakhat in Arabic) in his voice transported his ghazals to a different realm. To encapsulate, Mehdi Hasan embodied and anthropomorphised his ethereal ghazals and on this count, none could ever dare challenge him. He was and shall remain unparalleled as the finest ever ghazalgo (Urdu for a ghazal singer). And, Rohtak-born legendary ghazal-singer Iqbal Bano summed it up quite aptly, 'Mehdi Hasan sahab ne ghazal ko ghazab ki bulandi bakhshi' (Mehdi Hasan lent a stupendous height to ghazal). There can't be two views about it.