Four Ghazal Maestros – My Perspective

One of my good friends had jocularly initiated a discussion in facebook about a Ghazal rendered differently by multiple stalwarts and how a particular version did not appeal to him.  I started replying which expanded beyond the norm of a “comment” and decided to write it as a separate note.  An aspect that unfailingly creeps into composing or performing is the character or personality of the artist.  In here I try to present my perspective of the 4 great ghazal maestros whose songs I have been most familiar with.

My interpretation for Mehdi Hasan ghazal is that his ghazals were “serious” business. Many ghazals like “khoobakhoo phail” (Apologies but I actually like Rajkumar Rizvi’s version of the same tune more than the Mehdi’s original itself !) and “abke ham” extol the seriousness of contemplation. Ideal for a ruminating listener with a glass of his favourite spirit in the solitude of the night, the intent of the delivery was to ensure that while the traditional raag system would be respected, delicious deviations lightening the scope would be an integral part of the embellishments.  This usually meant a certain level of “preparedness” was expected of the listener before he could indulge in the fine-wine world of Mehdi Hasan sahib.  Not surprisingly, I have found most ghazal aficionados beginning with the rivulets that the other artists are, gradually upping their ability to savor more expansive idioms and nuances thus enriching their preparedness before they finally ensconce themselves in the sea of Mehdi Hasan’s complex melodies.  And this is a confession.

    • [In Raag Darbari – The gentle touch approach and touch on ‘ga’ the third note is heart wrenching; he follows this raag with Raag Jaunpuri and explains the difference very beautifully] Masla mean first line;

Ku ba ku phail gai baat shanasai ki             – the news of our (secret) meeting spread like fire
Us ne khushbu ki tarah meri pazirai ki         – like a scent my name was on their lips

Kaise keh dun k mujhe chor diya hai us ne
Baat to sach hai magar baat hai ruswai ki

Tera pehlu tere dil ki tarah abaad rahe
Tujh pe guzre na qayamat shab-e-tanhai ki

Wo kahin bhi gaya lauta to mere pas aaya
Bass yahi baat hai achi mere harjai ki

Us ne jalti hui peshani pe jo hath rakha
Rooh tak aa gai taasir masihai ki


    • Abke Ham bichde by Mehdi Hasan – Set to a carnatic raga called Vasanti
    • Now we part, may be we will meet in our dreams ….


For Ghulam Ali it is all story-telling peppered with a lot of smiles. He has the uncanny knack of engaging the listener in a fictitious conversation where he makes the listener feel that the artist is presenting his art with all humility but constantly gently reminding him that the artist is always the more important contributor to that conversation. This is a beautiful balancing act which if goes wrong would generate revulsion from the listener. But he perfected it to such an extent that it resembles a guided tour into the world of the poet’s lyrics supported by just-enough vocal gimmicks to ensure that any listener – trained in music or otherwise – discerning or not- would feel the richness. One could liken his repertoire to a university where melodies of varying degree of difficulty are available depending on the seeker.

One good example is ” faasile” where he says “main use mehsoos kar sakta tha…(pregnant pause) choo sakta na tha”. Another one is “main tera kuch bhi nahin hoon..magar itna to bata. Dekhkar mujkhko tere zehan mein aata kkyaa hai ?” .


That “kyaa hai” is probably the most incisive question to the beloved rendered with the precision and smoothness of a surgical cut.  In many ways I have felt listening to a new ghazal from Ghulam Ali Saheb is like enjoying a multi-layer cake.  He reveals the poetry – usually unheard – so meticulously layer by layer that finally arriving at the central core of chocolate goodness the listener attains salvation.  Very measured in studio-recorded versions, he is mischievously adventurous when live, thus making him, in my humble opinion, the epitome of Ghazal singing.

  • Faasile Aise bhi by Ghulam Ali : (Note 5:3)
  • Distance between us would be so, you sit in front of me but you are mine no more …


  • Apni Tasveer by Ghulam Ali : (Note 5:44)
  • Why place my picture over your eyes; just glance towards me you fool ..

Jagjit singh abhorred that technical expertise which would compromise and sometimes even corrupt the intended meaning of the poetry being rendered. To him, every ghazal was a meditative and -safe to say – a spiritual experience where he imbibed each word of the poet and enunciated it as if he were the poet himself! The primary difference between Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh- i feel – is that with every Jagjit ghazal the listener felt that the listener was central to the conversation. Given some tunes were eminently hummable for everybody (” honthon se”) irrespective of the pedigree, it offered even a musically-challenged listener to “own up” the song and helped him in his contemplation. In other words, Jagjit’s renditions just became the listener’s where the latter’s “mind-voice” could traverse the relatively nuance-free passages and allowed him to vicariously be the singer himself. (Mostly) simple tunes elegantly composed within an octave and delivered in a laid-back manner with no vocal gimmicks or high-octane singing ensured no distraction to the listener from the central theme of the song. What, as a performer/composer, I found was that this simplicity was a facade. The emotive renditions of these relatively “simple” tunes are quite challenging when actually attempted because Jagjit had actually perfected the art of vocal-dynamics and enunciation and enshrined them in each of these songs. Portrayal of emptiness in “Aakash ka soonaapan” – the contemplative “let go” in “sochta hoon ki kahoon tujhse se magar..(pause) jaane de” (apni aankhon), or the beautiful advice given in “baat niklegi” to weather all criticism (“log zaalim har ik baat ka taana denge”) and hold on to the central thread of life (“unki baton ka zara saa bhi asar mat lena”) without ever giving away your state of mind (“varna chehre ke taasur se samajh jaayenge”) to the lumpen and sundry.  Of course, there is this general criticism that he over-simplified the ghazal tunes, but what the detractors must remember is that it is through him that Ghazal as an art form came to be known to many in India.  Thus his service in popularizing this artform is unrivalled.

While Jagjit Singh and Ghulam Ali are the “gentlemanly” singers whose renditions resembled sophisticated conversations, many of Hariharan’s renditions portray the teasing romantic.  In many ways, Hariharan is to Ghazals what S.P. Balasubramaniam is to playback especially in the romantic genre.  There is always this “Hey baby..Look at me..Will ya” kind of youthful exuberance that is distilled and delivered in the songs like “Mujhe phir wahi yaad”. His subtle smile at “sunaa hai hamein wo bhulaane lage kyaa hum unhein yaad aane lage hain” is more a youth’s tease than a “matured” gentleman’s mellowed reflection.  With youthfulness at heart comes the brash audacity to experiment and this is best encapsulated in his penchant for vivaadi swaras in most of his ghazals – the epitome being “dard ke rishte”.  I have personally noted he favors the peppering of “teevra madhyam” in many of his ghazals.  His ghazal “log kehte hain” and its associated sargam phrases, his delectable detour in the “jinhein bhoolne mein zamaane lage hain” to caress the teevra madhyam note and revert to the soul of the preceding line, his  tantalizing riddle to the listener who looks lost finding the shadjam in “kyaa khabar thi ke main is darja badal jaaoonga” – all embody that restless experimental spirit.  The album “Kaash” with its title track was sort of a revelation.  If Jagjit was the first artist to understand and accord the weight of modern orchestration to back up the ghazals (Jagjit Singh’s violinist-arranger Deepak Pandit deserves a special mention here), Hariharan can be safely claimed to take it to the more experimental level (“Urdu Blues” as he called once) ably supported by his long-time arranger friend Jolly Mukherjee.  Of course, with experiments come some results which are not entirely pleasing to the ears traditionally trained towards savoring a melody in a particular fashion. For example “patta patta buta buta” delivered by Hariharan while showcases his extreme capacity for “murkis”, does not offer as much justice to the lyrical aspect as does Ghulam Ali’s.  The ghazal – a reflection by a forlorn lover – must ideally be delivered with pathos whereas Hariharan’s  rendition is bouncy and appears to be simply a display of singing talent.  It is indeed surprising to note that it comes from the same artist who has displayed beautiful sensibility to lyrics in another ghazal which has a similar mood : “Hamne kaati hai”

And for a comparison of the same ghazal rendered by all the three.  Patta Patta Buta Buta by :

Digression: One general criticism on Hariharan is that his pronunciation is not “good”.  I consider this a slander by all those who throw this comment without understanding some of the most subtle points in pronunciation.  Anybody who is familiar only with Bollywood Hindi has absolutely no standing to cast any aspersions on Hariharan’s pronunciation simply because the diluted Urdu of Bollywood is far from the original pronunciation.  The gold standard of Urdu (and Hindi) pronunciation is Jagjit Singh.  The many aspirated consonants that are part of Urdu are best heard in Jagjit’s renditions where he makes the subtle distinctions between ka and kh  or  ga and ‘gha’ crystal clear.  For example – haya yak-lakhhth aaee aura shabaab aahistha aahistha. 

These distinctions are important since they could paint a totally different meaning.  For example saagar is sea whereas ?saghar is wineglass. Hariharan correctly sings saghar hai mera khali which means the wineglass (and not sea) is empty.  However, I do agree there is some inconsistency in his pronunciation. For example in “mujhe phir wahi yaad”, there is an occasional destressing at the “jhe” of “mujhe” which makes it sound like “muje”. 

There is also this issue of musical inflections and language intonations being misconstrued as issues in pronunciation.  While in these globalized times with the advent of artists like Shankar Mahadevan and Hariharan, the strict boundaries between Carnatic and Hindustani inflections are beginning to loosen up in popular hindi songs, a heavy Carnatic inflection in hindi / urdu song or an intonation which is characteristically South-Indian still reminds a listener of sambar even if he cannot really “smell” it – as in even if the pronunciation is correct he feels it is not.

The attempt here portrays some general characteristics of the Maestros.  This in no way means they have cocooned themselves into a particular style to the extent of becoming predictable – especially Hariharan who is synonymous with surprises.  All were capable of stretching beyond their norm comfortably.  For example Jagjit Singh’s  rendition of “Tum Nahin Gham Nahin” could easily be mistaken in style for Ghulam Ali’s.  Similarly the style of composing in “Dil mein ik lehar” of Ghulam Ali – I have felt always  – is similar to a Jagjit Singh’s simpler tunes like “Honthon se”.  Hariharan’s “Dar-o-Deewar” rouses in me the same sadness that Mehdi Hasan’s “Ab ke Ham Bichde”.  “Rafta rafta wo mere” of Mehdi Hasan and “aks chehre pe” of Hariharan open the same vistas in my mind where a measured “gentlemanly” romantic expression in the praise of beloved is delivered.

Thus while the personality of the artist largely looms over their works, it is in no way an “objective” criterion to classify them since most of these eminent artists have also done songs that defy the popular perception.  What I however insist is that while the spectrum of their contributions may be wide, the weightage over the entire spectrum is not uniform. Of course, this depends on the listener’s perspective as well.  For example one may wish to associate Salil Chaudhary with a penchant for carefully structured jumps between successive lines of a song without compromising on the continuity as a signature.  However he was also capable of “aajaa re aa..nindiya tu aa”.  Yodelling and fun songs – the signature of Kishore Kumar ?  How about the pensive “Wo sham kuch ajeeb thi ?”  Only classical / comedy songs by Manna Dey ? How about “Hasne ki chaah ne” or “kasme vaade” ?  Thus this caveat is important while trying to analyze artists.


And then there are other stalwarts like Pankaj Udhas, Anup Jalota  who I have not mentioned anything about.  Nor have I attempted to mention anything about the female singers like Farida Khanum whose contributions are just as valuable.  The above passages derive strictly from the list who I dote on – almost on a daily basis.. if not every moment of my life.