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BOOK REVIEW: Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music/ Compiled & Edited by Asif Noorani

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, October 02, 2010 / under the title: National Treasure

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

(Thanks to Asif Noorani Sahib for the words of encouragement & Liberty Books for the signed copy)

13 June 2012: Rest in Peace Mehdi Hasan (1927-2012)

A quick perusal of Mehdi Hasan’s life will reveal that he was anointed the ‘Emperor of Ghazals’ and ensured that the earliest foundations of Pakistani music would also be the strongest, that his voice easily broke through the cultural barrier and that he was a mechanic before he was a legend. Anyone desirous of taking a closer look at the musical maestro who dominated radio, television and film and ruled the local airwaves for several decades would have been disappointed.

One man, however, will lament the fact that “no book, good, bad or indifferent, on the greatest exponent of ghazal gayeki (singing) of the late 20th century is available in Pakistan or elsewhere”, before setting out to correct this grave oversight.

Those lining up for a proper biography of our national treasure can settle for the next best thing in the form of a quick sketch heavily tinctured with nostalgia. Mehdi Hasan’s extraordinary career has now been transferred to canvas with a few masterstrokes in Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music.

Asif Noorani pays homage to a living legend in a now familiar format that invites members of the Mehdi Hasan fan club (contemporaries, journalists, actors, composers, writers, etc, from both sides of the divide) to come and reminisce with him about an exceptional artist and his phenomenal legacy. He adds rare images, a letter from the former Indian prime minister, a poem and excerpts of old interviews, along with a list of Hasan’s best known work to make this exercise more enticing.

Trying to fit a mega star’s extensive achievements into a petite little volume can be challenging. But this is the second time such a technique has been used. An insouciant approach — first tried with a cricketing legend (Shahid Afridi) — still manages to capture the essence of the subject.

Over the years, Mehdi Hasan’s music has dazzled the subcontinent, constituting an important pillar of the cultural bridge. He quietly conquered the Pakistani music scene with a steady flow of musical hits from the 1950s till the late 1990s and can be credited with hundreds of film songs and ghazals. Incidentally, Noorani sahib disagrees with the singer’s royal sobriquet and points out that his contributions have not been restricted to just one genre (ghazal) and he has explored both classical and semi-classical sides, including kaafis, film and folk music.

Praised for precision and lauded for professionalism, some try to explain the inexplicable effect the singer’s voice appears to have on those ignorant of the language but who were still carried away. One reasons that this may be because of a “voice that transports them to a world where meaning becomes subservient to the magic of the words”, adding that this voice comes as close as it is possible to a state of sama (trance). Another raves about his exceptional abilities and incredible range.

Mehdi Hasan: The Man & His Music relives the glorious days while dwelling on his craft; how he would compose in real time and frequently improvise in front of a live audience; how he could manipulate the meaning of the verses by knowing which word to stress and possessed a deep understanding of Urdu poetry; why he never sounds monotonous (because of extensive training and drawing inspiration from other ragas) when others of his generation do.

The sentimental journey into Mehdi Hasan land comes with two audio CDs, one of which features ghazals (live versions) as the compiler is convinced that Mehdi Hasan is best heard when ‘live’. Asif Noorani had the unenviable task of selecting a few stellar performances from many outstanding numbers but he also has the privilege of preserving the precious legacy. He explains that only six tracks could be included to retain the integrity of the ghazals (he refused to snip away originals) while 14 film numbers, a kaafi, an Urdu translation of Heer and a thumri are crammed in the second disc. Noorani sahib has recently compiled/edited a coffee table book on Shahid Afridi (Boom Boom Shahid Afridi) and previously co-authored Tales of Two Cities with Kuldip Nayar.

There are instances where the book lapses into Urdu and it would be helpful to include translations. Snippets of information provided within offer tantalising glimpses of a gifted boy who once performed for the Maharaja of Baroda while inches away from earning a title of his own, a singing sensation at the apex of his career, and an ailing man who is done playing national hero and suffers like the rest of his subjects at the hands of the KESC. Mehdi Hasan may have been silent for a decade but the subcontinent continues to reverberate with the exquisite sounds from a bygone era.

Available at Liberty Books; Pp 80; Rs 695

Can be ordered from Desi Store

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