Fans of Ghazal emperor Mehdi Hassan observed his 3rd death anniversary on June 13, 2017 with the tearful eyes. Ghazal maestro Mehedi Hassan breathed his last on June 13,2014 in Karachi at the Aga Khan Hospital. He was born in undivided India in 1927. Most refer to him as the 'King of Ghazals'. But I say, he was not a king, he was the 'Emperor of Ghazals'.
Born to a family of Kalawant musicians at Luna village, district Jhunjhuna in the Indian State of Rajasthan; he was trained by his father Ustad Azeem Khan and uncle Ustad Ismail Khan who were dhrupad musicians. After partition (1947) they migrated to Pakistan where the family faced severe hardship. Young Mehdi started working in a bicycle shop and later became an auto-mechanic.
His singing abilities, quite naturally, went unrecognised. An unexpected opportunity, however, came his way in 1957 when he was invited to sing for Radio Pakistan. Thereafter there was no looking back for him. By the early 1960s, he was acknowledged as a rising ghazal singer.
It was his mellifluous voice and emotive music that not only catapulted left-wing poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's well-known poem "Gulo mein rang bhare baad-e-naubahaar chale" to fame but also firmly established Mehdi as a leading artiste in Pakistan.
He sang many popular songs for films, as well as many Pashto, Sindhi, Bengali and Punjabi songs. He recorded "Harano din-er kotha", which won the hearts of Bengalis. The Ghazal Emperor's career spanned 50 years. Legendary Indian nightingale Lata Mangeshkar once called his "the voice of God".
Mehdi was an icon who mesmerised music lovers in Pakistan and the subcontinent for decades. He cut back on his performances in the late 1980s due to serious lung and urinary infections. The severity of his illness forced him to give up singing completely by the late 1990s.
In 2010 however, he recorded a duet with Lata Mangeshkar, a long time admirer, which was released in 2011. An era of ghazal singing came to an end with the sad demise of the legendary songster. The demise of the maestro was an irreparable loss to the world of music and left a void that can never be filled.
Now let me come to my own story of how I came across the legendary singer. It was 1967 and political unrest had not yet started in the then East Pakistan. Mehdi Hassan came to Dhaka to record Bengali songs. He was slated to sing songs written by late Nayeem Gahar (a noted poet, lyricist, and BBC newscaster and commentator) who happens to be my first cousin.
One day Gahar told me that Mehdi Hassan had come to Dhaka to sing and he was residing in a building near Pak Motor (now Bangla Motor). I could not miss this chance of meeting the icon. The opportunity came at last. It was perhaps 10:30 or 11 am when we went to meet him. He was staying on the first floor of a building that still stands near Concord Tower.
When Gahar knocked, a gentleman smilingly opened the door and warmly greeted him in Urdu. I was standing behind Gahar. Gahar introduced me to Mehdi Hassan. Having heard my nickname 'Badal', the singer was so amused that he began to hum that popular Hindi film song "Dheere dheere aa rey badal".
Singing these lines, he hugged me as if he had known me for ages. Renowned artiste Shahnaz Rahmatullah (Begum at that time) was quietly sitting there in a red sari. What attracted me most was that Mehdi Hassan did not have a hint of vanity despite his enormous stature. Wonderstruck, I thought to myself, "Am I dreaming or really talking to the great Emperor of ghazals?"
Gahar told him that I could sing Rabindra Sangeet very well. He seemed pleased to hear this and patted me on the back. There are many artistes all over the world but I have never come across one as unpretentious as Mehdi Hassan. He was a perfect gentleman.
His kind words still ring in my ears. His warm smile I still remember. And I will remember as long as I live. May Allah rest his soul in peace. Finally, I recall the words of famous English poet John Milton: "Death is the golden key that opens the palace of eternity."
The writer is Associate Editor The Dainik Dhaka