Obituary: Mehdi Hassan




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The Emperor of Ghazal bids adieu

Mehdi Hassan, who has died aged 84, was the Indian subcontinent's outstanding male exponent of the ghazal, a form of sung Urdu lyric verse, set to the appropriate raga melodies. Urdu poetry, which springs from the Persian, is filled with pathos, yearning, political and social injustice, loss, unrequited love and pleasure. Hassan evoked these with rare mastery, which is why devotees and eager students flocked to hear him from far and wide. It is claimed that he sang more than 50,000 ghazals during his lifetime, becoming known as the "emperor of the ghazal".

Born into a family of kalawants (professional musicians) in the village of Luna, now in the state of Rajasthan, he was taught by his father, Azeem Khan, and uncle, Ismail Khan. Dhrupad, an ancient, austere musical style, was their forte and they instilled it in the boy. While still in his teens, Hassan was recognised as a rising talent and was invited to sing for the maharajahs of Jaipur and Baroda. 

However, in 1947 came independence and the creation of Pakistan, and the future of the Indian princes, upon whom the musicians were traditionally reliant, became insecure. Hassan's family, who were Muslims, migrated to Pakistan.

The new country was in turmoil and there was no opening for a young man whose only trade was music. Hassan managed to get a job in a bicycle shop and graduated to become a tractor driver and mechanic. But at night, he persevered with his vocal exercises.

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