In 2000, Talat Aziz was singing at a ghazal concert in Mumbai when Mehdi Hassan arrived on a wheelchair. Aziz paused for his guru, the most famous ghazal singer of the time. Born to a family of musicians in the Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan, Hassan had migrated to Pakistan after Partition. But his popularity was no less in the country of his birth. The crowd had turned away to look at Hassan. Everybody, including Aziz, requested Hassan to sing. But he refused. Later, at a dinner, he relented and asked for the microphone. He said he would only be an accompanist to Aziz because, given his failing health, it was hard for him to remember the poetry. But as he started singing, the words kept coming back to him. It soon turned into a Hassan evening. He never performed at a concert again.
Hassan, 84, is ailing and in hospital. Hopes of him returning behind the microphone are now remote. Jagjit Singh, the silken voice behind innumerable ghazals, died last year. His wife, Chitra Singh, has given up singing many years ago. Iqbal Bano died in Lahore in April 2009. The only heavyweights left are Ghulam Ali (70) and Farida Khanum (76). The younger lot hasn’t come out with anything noteworthy of late. Hariharan’s last collection of ghazals, Lafzz, released four years ago in 2008. Music companies are doing nothing to promote ghazals; they perhaps do not want to waste resources on a genre that is rapidly going out of fashion. Ghazal, which means a tete-a-tete between lovers, faces a bleak future in the land of poets like Mir, Momin and Ghalib, and singers like Begum Akhtar.
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The reason is the decline of Urdu in the country after Independence, and mushairas going out of fashion. The ghazal represented the best in Indian secular traditions. Firaq Gorakhpuri, one of the finest composers of the ghazal, was a Kayasth named Raghupat Sahay; Ghalib’s favourite shagird was Hargopal Tafta.
The decline has hastened in the last few years as people consume music “on the go”. Few have the time to appreciate the subtle nuances of Urdu poetry. “Aaj kal mausikhi bhi physical zyada, emotional or mental kam ho gayee hai (these days music is also more physical and less about emotions or thoughts,” says Ghulam Ali. But he hasn’t lost hope. “This is a phase we’re going through. Ghazal ka daur aayega (The time for ghazal will return),” he says adding that there are still listeners who want nothing but ghazals, “though their number has gone down.” Ghulam Ali is busy these days. “I have just come back after a performance in Dubai and a few days from now, I am going to the US for a concert.” He adds, “Koi achhi cheez kabhi khatam nahin hoti (a good thing never dies out).”
“The mechanics of the system have changed; society has changed,” says Aziz. “People who are in charge of the music industry today do not understand music. They are marketing people or managing people. What they see is profit alone.” And ghazal, which has a niche audience, will not get the profits or visibility which popular music, mostly film music, will, he adds. Like Ghulam Ali, Aziz too says that there are serious ghazal singers and poets but they are not being given a chance by the music world and television channels obsessed with popular culture and reality shows. “There was a time when a ghazal singer got a chance to compose and record two or three new albums in a year, but not anymore.” Aziz, incidentally, is bringing out an album of ghazals as a tribute to his ustad, Hassan, from his concerts across North America in September-October 2011. Along with his own ghazals from films like Umrao Jaan and Bazaar, it includes Hassan’s most loved ghazals such as Ranjish hi sahi dil hi dukhane ke liye aa.
Ghazal, says Saregama Managing Director & CEO Apurv Nagpal, has been overtaken by what can be loosely called Sufiana music. “Anything that is non-film is not doing well.” Of the music which the company brings out in a year, Nagpal says less than five per cent makes for ghazals. “It has come down drastically.” But, like the others, he too feels that this is a cycle. “There was a time when it was uncool to listen to film music. MTV and Channel [V] refused to play it. Now they do. And even with the onslaught of film music, independent music is finding a space. The same will happen with ghazal,” says Nagpal.
Determined not to look at commercial success as the benchmark of the success of a genre, lyricist Irshad Kamil says, “Should the success of ghazal be dependent on music companies? We can say ghazal khatm ho gayee hai (ghazal is finished) only if we relate it to commerce.” Ghazal, he says, has some requirements. “In its pure form, it needs some of your time, a little attention. It does not have groove which can immediately catch your attention. Ghazal ka talluq sukoon se hai (ghazal’s relationship is with peace and relaxation), which is a luxury today. Hence, we feel it is left out.” The lyricist who has won two Filmfare awards is also confident that ghazal will return to films, the way it did in Arth, “perhaps in a new form.”
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If there is a concern, it’s about the singers. “Sometimes we hear a great voice in a reality show and hope kicks in. But when you try that person in a recording studio, it doesn’t work,” says Kamil. That’s because what they are singing in the show is a borrowed song, with borrowed feeling, rehearsed over and over again. “If you don’t compose your own ghazal, you cannot even think of touching the heights which Begum Akhtar achieved,” says Kamil. Begum Akhtar usually composed her own ghazals based on ragas.
Begum Akhtar died in 1974. No one has since been able to bring out the grandeur and nuances of Ghalib’s poetry or express the personal conflict he wrote about in verses with as much finesse. Such was her passion for music that she fell ill when she could not sing for five years because of restrictions imposed by her husband. There was only one treatment which the doctor could prescribe: send her back to the recording studio. After that she never stopped singing till her death.
Ghazals have not always been about failed love; they have also spoken for social change. Iqbal Bano, born in Delhi and made popular by All India Radio, moved to Pakistan after marriage. She threw an open challenge to then Pakistan president Zia ul-Haq when she sang Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem, Hum Dekhenge, against military rule in Pakistan. Though General Zia had banned Faiz’s works, Iqbal Bano performed the until-then unsung ghazal in front of a crowd of 50,000 people in Lahore in 1985. By lending her deep voice to the poet’s words, she proved that ghazal also has the power to step into daring realms.