Legendary Bollwood singer Lata Mangeshkar said that Mehdi Hassan sang with the “voice of God.” And there’s certainly a divine quality to his singing. But what’s always struck me about ghazal is how unabashedly secular the lyrics are. Ghazals are written in a strict form, and all of the songs are about love. And not just any love: ghazals celebrate illicit, forbidden love. The songs are practically dripping with erotic longing. And the type of love that’s being celebrated is kind of nasty. It’s the kind of crazy, obsessive, dangerous love that you’d associate with a Delta Blues ballad or a bloody Italian tragic opera. The love is described like an addiction, the lover a deadly assassin. No one brought these stories alive more than Mehdi Hassan, and millions in Pakistan and India adored him for it.
While the lyrics may be impure, they’re written in the style of high literature—and part of Mehdi Hassan’s genius was singing these words in a way that appealed to such a large audience— even in religiously conservative communities. “It’s actually the expression of the lyric through the music, through the voice, though the melody, that makes it acceptable in many ways,” according to Najma Akhtar, who lives in London and sings traditional ghazals and modern, jazz-inflected versions. “He had such a special voice, and such a very rare quality in his voice. He could communicate the very essence of sorrow and pain and at the same time happiness and joy and he could express that all in his voice quality—but not only the voice quality, it was what he did with his voice. It was indescribable.”
She says Ghazal has become increasingly popular because it hits a kind of “Goldilocks” spot: “It’s not as heavy as classical— Indian classical music can get really heavy and long and complicated— and then it’s not as commercial as Bollywood, or pop, or fusion, and not as simple as folk. So it sits somewhere in the middle, it kind of teases people, attracts people, tests people.”
Najma credits Mehdi Hassan with inspiring new generations of ghazal singers who, like her, experiment with the form. The fact that Hassan inspired so many to take Ghazal in new and varied directions ironically means there will never be another like him: the undisputed “King of Ghazal.”