Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Khan Sahib" Mehdi Hassan - Some Immortal Pieces by the Legendary Musician

Writing about some of the cultural influences of my childhood and adolescence was one of the reasons I started writing this blog a couple of years ago. In part, it is an exercise in nostalgia but it is also a desire to share the treasures that I feel I was unusually fortunate to be exposed to from an early age.

One such indelible influence has been the sublime singing of Mehdi Hassan. I have long wanted to write something about his life and craft but have not found myself equal to the task. A performer of his caliber, I have long believed, needs an in-depth and first rate evaluation. Sadly, to my knowledge, no such effort has emerged, at least in English or on the internet. Finally, a recent conversation with Adil Najam has prompted me to at least share some of my favorite Mehdi Hassan pieces in this post. These can at least be my humble personal tribute to one of the greatest sub-continental singers of the post-partition era.

It is deeply sad that even though his music still has many passionate devotees only the bare bones of Mehdi Hassan's biography are documented. The most comprehensive facts on the internet have been collected by Mr. Anis Shakur whose biographical sketches (even if somewhat unsystematic) of many Pakistani artists and musicians are an invaluable contribution for the preservation of Pakistani cultural memory.

Mehdi Hassan was born in 1927 in the town of Luna, district Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. Luna is about 100 miles from Jaipur. He was born in a family of musicians and his father Ustad Azeem Khan and uncle ('chacha') Ustad Ismail Khan were notable classical singers of their time. Mehdi Hassan started learning at a very young age from his father. It is said that his first public performance was at age eight at the palace of Maharaja of Baroda. Mehdi Hassan moved to District Khushab in the Sargodha region in Pakistan after partition and worked as an automobile mechanic for some time. Eventually, to pursue his life's calling and seeking a career in music he moved to Karachi. Here he debuted from Radio Pakistan in 1952 singing one of his best known ghazals (by Faiz Ahmed Faiz), "GuloN meiN rang bhare baad-e-nau bahar chale". The composition is by Pandit Ghulam Qadir, who was Mehdi Hassan's older brother and an exceptionally talented composer. I have not been able to find even rudimentary information on Ghulam Qadir other than Mehdi Hassan's statement in a TV program that his older brother was also the composer of two other masterpieces; Hafeez Hoshiarpuri's ghazal "Mohabbat karne waale kum na hoNge" and Razi Tirmizi's "Bhooli bisri chand umeedeiN".

Update: September 20th, 2012
I found a great detailed PTV interview with Mehdi Hassan from the 1980's on YouTube the other day. The interviewer is the well-known compere Yasmin Tahir. In this interview Mehdi Hassan provides a lot of rich biographical detail about his life including the fact that he was likely born in 1934/35 not 1927 as is commonly reported. I am including this interview here:

And now for my selection of five personal favorites. For the embedded videos below, with one exception, I have tried to choose some of the lesser known gems in the Mehdi Hassan oeuvre. The last video is the only non-ghazal piece I have included. That semi-classical composition in Raga Tilak Kamod demonstrates Khan Sahib's virtuosic brilliance like few other performances. The effortless beauty of the vocals are mesmerizing and for those who enjoy Hindustani classical music this is the piece de resistance of my selection.

First off the most well known of my selections is Ahmed Faraz's "Ranjish hi sahi":
Ik umr se hooN lazzat-e-girya se bhi mehroom
Aye rahat-e-jaaN mujh ko rulane ke liye aa

Next is Aziz Hamid Madani's ghazal "Taaza hawa bahaar ki":
Taaza hawa bahaar ki dil ka malaal lay gayee
Paa-e-junooN se halka-e-gardish-e-haal le gayee

A ghazal by Hakeem Momin Khan Momin, "Navak andaaz jidhar deeda-e-janaaN"
Phir bahaar aayee wohi dasht nawardi hogee
Phir wohi paaoN wohi khaar-e-mugheelaN hoNge

Khan Sahib's divine singing of Razi Tirmizi's ghazal "Bhooli bisri chand umeedeiN" mentioned above:
Bhooli bisri chand umeedeiN chand fasanay yaad aaye
Tum yaad aaye aur tumhare saath zamaane yaad aaye

and finally the marvelously executed semi-classical number, "Dukhwa meiN kaase kahooN moray sajni" in Raga Tilak Kamod:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Security of Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons

In the cloak and dagger world of military affairs and espionage it is particularly difficult for journalists to penetrate the surface and to get to the essence of a story when it is in every side's interest to obfuscate or even lie. On this tough beat I have always had tremendous respect for Seymour Hersh, who has broken more than his fair share of explosive stories which have been extremely embarrassing to the powers that be (e.g. My Lai Massacre, Abu Ghraib prison abuses).

His latest story in this week's New Yorker titled "Defending the Arsenal" on the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons is incredibly illuminating. It exposes the profound lack of trust in the relationship and how both sides clearly do not believe a word of what they say to each other. The relationship is fundamentally transactional; the rest is rhetoric.

Today, Hersh did an interview with Terry Gross on her NPR program Fresh Air discussing this topic. I thought the interview was excellent and clarified some things that are not in the New Yorker article. For anybody interested in the US-Pakistan relationship and the nuclear issue this interview is a must-listen.

The link to the Terry Gross interview is here.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Some (Morbid) Fragments After a Hiatus

Several months have passed since I wrote something in this space. There was nothing in particular that held me back other than the routine, ordinary distractions of life but often it is a work of literature or art that, as the Quakers say, "moves one to speak".

Recently a friend and a colleague died at a young age and I had the subject of death on my mind when I came across W.H. Auden's poem "At the Grave of Henry James". How well it expresses the finality of death, the utter despair that even the "great and talkative" Master will forever dwell in eternal silence! A unique mind and his particular novelty gone forever just like all those others under those "rocks named after singular spaces" in that Cambridge municipal cemetery.

While rocks, named after singular spaces
Within which images wandered once that caused
All to tremble and offend,
Stand here in an innocent stillness, each marking
the spot
Where one more series of errors lost its uniqueness
And novelty came to an end.

To whose real advantage were such transactions,
When worlds of reflection were exchanged for trees?
What living occasion can
Be just to the absent? Noon but reflects on itself,
And the small taciturn stone, that is the only witness
To a great and talkative man,

Has no more judgement than my ignorant shadow
(excerpt from "At the Grave of Henry James" by Wystan Hugh Auden)

While on the subject of death, I recently revisited one of my favorite Phillip Larkin poems and I would be remiss if I did not share his great but terrifyingly dark poem "Aubade" (pronounced 'o-baad').

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

This past summer's great pop culture anthem has been the Black Eyed Peas' wonderful song "I Gotta Feeling". The catchy track is in their latest album titled "The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies)". Every time I see the title of that album I think to myself: "But it does, it inevitably does".

Photograph: Phillip Larkin