Wednesday 20 September 2023

Amit Chaudhuri on Mehdi Hassan

Classical music, as a performance, is modelled on rhetoric  whose mother is memory and whose purpose is creative recapitulation such that something which has always been known is given a canonical expression by way of excursions into what is wondrous or novel. There is a theme; there are variations on, or even inversions of, that theme ; and then there is a grand act of synthesis or resolution of discords.

 Rhetoric, of course, can come in different shapes and sizes and answer to different purposes. In India, the model par excellence in the medieval period may have become that of the Avadhanam- the 'mentalist' who demonstrates cognitive 'multi-tasking' regarding the posing and solving, in and out of sequence, of multiple unrelated problems while displaying memorious virtuosity of a mathematical or chastely expressive type. However, under the rhetoric and the ornamentation and the virtuosity, there was also the notion of 'para-vak' or 'nada-brahma' and Islam's 'vajd-e-sama' was not so different from the Hindu Sama Veda. Thus, in the end, there was always only the pure syllable pulsing with primordial energy or the pain of separation from it. 

Music may begin, as the lyric does, with what is passional and which belongs to the folk tradition. Vak, the goddess of speech, can't be kept pent up in the pious circle of high ritual but must become a vagabond led on by the melodiously plucked strings of the Gandharvas and the maddening percussion of nityapralaya- the drumbeat of dissolution . Yet, in the end, it is to the sacred All-Creative syllables that she returns refreshed from her adventures. 

This, at any rate, was the ancient view. Does it fit the music of our modern, increasingly technological and commercial, world?

 In an article in Scroll on Medhi Hassan, Amit Chaudhuri writes- 

In a mushaira, a poet reciting their ghazal will repeat a line for effect. But Hassan, in a performance of ‘Kaise Chhupaun Raaz e Gham’, previcarates. (sic)

The word prevaricates means to be evade the question, to equivocate or, to be blunt, to lie. Amit may have meant to write 'procrastinates'- which means to put off doing something necessary or vital.

The fact is, no Ghazal singer prevaricates. They may delay delivering the line everyone is waiting for. They may tease and build up the tension. But they always deliver the goods just when it will have most impact. They don't suddenly decide to sing a different song. Nor do they pretend that they aren't ghazal singers at all. They only came to the auditorium to sell insurance. 

Amit gives a link to a recordings of Mehdi Hassan singing a particular ghazal by a great freedom-fighter and Leftist intellectual, Hasrat Mohani whose ancestors came to India from the Nishapur of Attar and Khayyam. Just as we would expect, the lines have multiple meanings and combine wit with pathos. There is a paradox at the heart of the poem- viz. how to keep secret a secret which is not a secret- viz. that union is not possible in this life or this world where everything is going to destruction. Mohani had wanted to preserve the unity of India- the country in which he remained after Independence. Mehdi Hassan was from Indian Punjab, but gained refuge in Pakistan. The Radio, and a little later, the Pakistani film industry, brought his melodious voice to a mass audience at least some of which had been traumatized by the terrible atrocities committed in 1947. Add in the fact that Mohani was one of the founders of the Communist Party and you can imagine why Mehdi, singing this poem on Radio Pakistan, more particularly during military rule, might be considered to provide a voice for what it was dangerous to say or, indeed, dangerous to know. But allusiveness is not evasiveness. Mohani was not a poet who prevaricated and Mehdi was not a singer who didn't deliver the goods. 

Perhaps Amit doesn't know Urdu or has no interest in its poetic literature. But, if you are going to write about a famous singer's rendition of a famous revolutionary poet, surely it would be wise to find out what the poem means?

Amit says ' Kaise Chhupaun Raaz e Gham (“how do I hide this secret pain”: (is) a tautology that works beautifully in Urdu)'

This is false. The line is 'How do I hide the Secret of Sorrow?' This is not a tautology. A person may look sad and we may guess that he has a secret sorrow. Is it because he has suffered a financial reverse? Has his Doctor told him he has cancer? We don't know. Of course, in the Urdu poetic universe, grief in love can't hide itself no matter how hard the smitten person tries. Love is quite literally a medical malady and the great Doctor/ Saints like Avicenna had written about it. But this is also true of Love of God. The Sufi appears like a mad man or a deranged lover. Might not this also be the case for the Revolutionary whose heart longs for nothing but Social Justice?

When a Pakistani artist sings a ghazal in a concert he or she may simply be displaying her virtuosity. But there are certain poets, like Faiz and Mohani, whom everybody knows had a political message. The young idealists are saying to each other 'will the General Sahib sitting in front of us enraptured get it into his thick skull that Mohani is saying you and your secret police are the 'sitamgar'- the tyrant? The older fellows reply 'Arre! This is their 'sitam zarifi'- i.e. ironic perfection of torture- that we are forced to sit silently in the back rows while listening to the revolutionary anthem while the tyrants preside as guests of honour! 

Amit says-

Ghazal performances – especially for Hassan, for whom the form is an opportunity for musical elaboration

Nonsense! Patiala and other North West Indian gharanas had been doing so before any records exist. Mehdi, himself, came from a 'Dhrupad' lineage from the very soil of the Sama Veda. 

– can occasionally be around ten minutes long, or slightly longer; but when you see a figure like 26.38 (the playing time of a long playing record), you wonder if the ghazal as a musical form, not just as a poetic one, has the capacity to be expanded in this way and still hold the listener’s attention.

If Hassan was performing for a Pakistani audience, he knew very well which ghazals had extra shades of meaning. If a stupid Hindu was in the audience, some kind soul would explain some of those shades of meaning to the ignorant cow-worshipper. 

The answer, of course, is that, in the hands of a certain kind of improviser or creator, almost any form or raw material can explored through variations that one wouldn’t have thought it capable of accommodating.

But the artists who rose thanks to Z.A Bukhari & Pakistan Radio knew they had to be entertaining while touching on delicate matters in a delicate manner such that the Censors wouldn't twig. Faiz was a different kettle of fish. He was a Nationalist and ex-Army officer who was keeping a door to Moscow open.  He could get away with more though sometimes it was safer for him to do so from Beirut or London.  

To me, this particular recording is significant for one reason: it made me understand, for the first time, as I was listening to it again a few years ago, what improvisation in Hindustani classical music is.

It is virtuosity. If you are shit, don't improvise. Rattle the thing off in double quick time and then shut the fuck up.  

It is deferral.

Nope. The improvisation must have virtuosity. You can't halt proceedings and tell the audience about the cute antics of your cat Mitzi. That may be deferral but it does not descend from dhruvapad.  

Elaboration or variation or improvisation – or whatever we wish to call the imaginative treatment of the raga – is no different from prevarication.

It is completely different. If you are bad at telling jokes, you need to tell your joke quickly and hit the punchline hard. If you are a comic genius, you can start telling a joke and then break off and tell another joke before breaking off again but the result is that, when the punchlines come, they come thick and fast and are tied together by something which is even funnier- or sadder.

Alankar is not simply adornment, or the addition of intricate detail, it is also the holding back of something: a note or a phrase.

If one has virtuosity, we gain pleasure from the 'paltas' or vocal acrobatics. Sometimes the performer needs to add more of them because the audience is unsettled or unfocussed.  

It involves the deliberate and pleasurable setting up, and disappointment, of expectation.

No. If you disappoint your audience you are a shit singer.  Fuck! I now get why Amit studied Hindustani music. He thought it was his job to disappoint his audience. 

I became vaguely aware of this feature in khayal exposition when I was around 17

 There is no such feature. Khayal exposition is generally quite good. My then wife was doing a course in Indian Musicology at SOAS in the early eighties and we often went to concerts arranged by a mutual friend. I also got to know a lot of Pakistanis at the LSE and, later on, in the wider Leftist diaspora. Still, this is not a field I know particularly well. Still, just by looking up Wikipedia, any writer could avoid writing the following- 

Part of the reason attributed to Mehdi's expansion of the ghazal as a form for musical elaboration is

that the leisurely Patiala style of the then King of the Khayal- Bade Ghulam Ali Khan- was in vogue. Anyway, Mehdi came from a traditional Dhrupad singing family. How else was he supposed to sing? No doubt, for the Radio, he was able to develop a unique melodious style with polished diction. But, the plain fact is, he was a great artist. Pakistan Radio did lose some senior Hindu or Sikh classical artistes because of partition and, quite naturally, there was more stress on the 'Islamic' and 'Persianate' Ghazal form but, to be frank, audiences preferred light classical to the Lenten fare served up on AIR by India's BV Keskar. 

imaginative necessity: the fact that he largely developed these innovations in former President and General Muhammad Zia ul Haq’s Pakistan of the late 1970s,

Mehdi had perfected his oeuvre by the mid Sixties. The Indians had gone crazy over him by 1977. That was when the '2 in 1' cassette recorder first appeared. 

where a programmatic Islamicisation saw the waning of classical music.

I think many Muslims on both sides of the border were turning to unadorned 'Samaa'. Still, my feeling is that once the Salamat Nazakat partnership broke up, there was nobody in Pakistan who could compete with the great qawwali singers. I may be wrong. Pakistan had plenty of great musicians.

Part of it has to do, perhaps, with temperament: a singer with a classical, and classicist (by which I mean poised, sophisticated, unsentimental), world-view

No. Mehdi and his generation were romantics who had experienced the trauma of Partition. Modernity had involved a shattering of dreams. That is why their sentimentality chimed so well with that of the diaspora.  

practising a form that was driven substantially not only by its poetry but by romantic self-expression.

What else could a romantic form of song be driven by?  

To this form Hassan would bring, contradictorily, an aesthetic both of tonal exploration and self-abnegating tranquillity:

Ghazals have been written by Islamic Saints and even by deposed, heart-broken, Emperors. I suppose, the thumri had a more rustic type of poetry and the ghazal moved in a direction of perfect enunciation (though Mehdi sometimes mispronounced words e.g. 'ta'mil' as 'taamil') and urbane diction. The highly sophisticated and aristocratic Tina Sani was, I recall, pointed out to me as a model for correct Urdu pronunciation. Since I don't know Urdu, I thought what the Aunty in question was suggesting was that I should become a hijra. I compromised by studying Cost and Management Accountancy.  

such contradictions can create a new kind of art and artist.

But Mehdi wasn't a new kind of artist. There had already been radio artistes and playback singers. Women, like Begum Akhtar and Malika Pukhraj had done things with the ghazal no man could. Men had to up their game. Mehdi Hassan was part and parcel of a pan-Indian movement towards a more melodious, urbane, light classical style which would appeal to the rising middle class rather than display its aristocratic roots. 

The tranquillity was something he aimed for through classical tonality: the eschewal of vibrato,

gamak? His gamak was elegant enough when called for. 

or, as he called it, “vibration”,

caterwauling. Pakistanis are convinced Hindus go in for this. Carnatic Music, in particular, draws their ire. In the case of T.M Krishna, they have a point.  

an eschewal he speaks of towards the beginning of this interview as a musical-spiritual mission that defined his life.

Avoiding caterwauling is not a mission that defines any life- even Amit's.  Mehdi Hassan worked hard, adapted to new technologies and tastes and always upheld the dignity and decency of his ancestral profession. Sadly, those lineages which took up the English language as their path to advancement failed to do anything similar. They were too lazy and too stupid. Indian musicians want to raise up their audience, not to shit upon it. That is why they will never neglect religion, patriotism or the pursuit of excellence. 


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