Talat Mahmood birthday special: A voice that tugs at the heartstrings

Way back in 2007 in Lahore, Pakistan, I had an opportunity to interview Mehdi Hassan, the Shah'hanshah-e-ghazal. Always full of gratitude and quick to acknowledge the influence of others on his gaayki, the maestro told me, “Ek aawaaz ibtidai daur mein mujhe nihayat mutasir karti thi aur who dilkash aawaaz thi Talat Mahmood sahab ki” (During my early days, one voice used to cast a spell on me and it was Talat Mahmood's voice). At a public performance in Karachi in 1957, Mehdi Hassan sang Talat’s Ek Main Hoon Ek Meri Bekasi Ki Shaam Hai from Tarana (1951) composed by Anil Biswas and Husnwalon Ko Na Dil Do from Babul (1950) composed by Naushad. And his career just took off from there.

It's worthwhile to mention that only two male voices from the sub-continent had a musical tremble (larzish/kampan) in their voice: Talat Mahmood and Mehdi Hassan. But Talat's quivering voice had a marked difference. It was softer than Mehdi's. That quiver in Talat's voice was unique to him and is still next to impossible to imitate that. That's the reason you find Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar, Manna De, and Mukesh clones, but hardly a Talat clone! But it's very interesting to know that the quiver in his voice was not innate.

In other words, Talat wasn't born with a palpable kampan in his voice. Listen to his Bangla songs (basic album) sung as Tapan Kumar and even a couple of Rabindra Sangeet (now lost) in his early days, you feel the silken and euphonic touch of his mellifluous voice but cannot discern the quiver so easily. That was accidental, rather serendipitous, to put it in perspective.

Talat hailed from Lucknow, a city of Urdu poetry known for its exquisite nazakat and soft-spoken rendition of not only poetry, but also of speech. Talat told a film critic in an interview for an Urdu daily in 1974 that, “Uss daur ke har Lakhnavi ki aawaaz mein iss tarah ki ek halki larzish hoti thi jo masnui nahin thi, ban jaati thi; meri bhi ban gayee” (the ultra-refined Lakhnavi of that era spoke in an identical quivering manner which was not artificial, it came naturally, mine too). So, when Talat began to sing Hindi songs, which were often laced with Urdu words, his Lakhnavi quiver automatically surfaced and it was cashed in on by Anil Biswas and other composers of that era.

Just listen to Talat's 'Ae dil mujhe aisi jagah le chal...' (Film: Arzoo, 1950). That distinct quiver will mesmerize you. With the passage of time, a quiver in voice became Talat's identity and his trademark. “That trademark immortalised Talat as the hallmark of an unparalleled voice,” to quote a film critic.

Since Talat rendered scores of film and non-film-ghazals, his trademark tremble helped him sing a ghazal on a desirably low pitch. Remember his immortal ghazal, 'Teri aankh ke aansoo pee jaaoon' from the film Jahan Ara or 'Ashkon mein jo paaya hai woh geeton mein diya hai' from 'Chandi ki deewar'. The flawless enunciation from a pathos-filled heart and emotion-laden voice will emplane you to the stratosphere of gossamer grandeur of finest Urdu poetry.

Here lies the greatness of Talat Mahmood. The class that he emoted through his songs and ghazals shall remain etched in the hearts of the connoisseurs. His spiritually ascending (Talat generally means prayer) voice becalms the frayed nerves like a hymn. By the way, there's an Arabic adage that almost every individual does at least a semblance of justice to his/her name. The meaning of Talat in Dari (Afghan variant of Persian) is shivering (thithuran in Hindi)! Isn't it interesting?

(The writer is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, cultures, religions and civilisations. He teaches linguistics, psycho-linguistics and philology at world’s premier varsities and contributes to world’s leading publications and portals in various languages.)

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