Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, lovelorn like a Pankaj Udhas ghazal - Hindustan Times
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Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, lovelorn like a Pankaj Udhas ghazal

Feb 27, 2024 09:11 PM IST

The burgeoning cassette industry in 1983, and the portable Walkman contributed to the flourishing of mass-produced music. Udhas catered to this new listener

When Pankaj Udhas passed away, his most offbeat ghazal, “Har Pal Hadsa”, ​sombre and thoughtful, written by Rajesh Reddy, came to mind. A stanza went: “Na bas mein zindagi uske, na kabu maut par uska / magar insaan phir bhi kab khuda hone se darta hai” (Neither is life in her possession nor is death in her grasp, / yet a human being isn’t afraid aspiring for the divine).

Pankaj Udhas (HT Photo) PREMIUM
Pankaj Udhas (HT Photo)

Mu-Kar-Rar, his second album caused quite a sensation when came out in 1981. It was largely because of “Sabko maloom hai main sharabi nahi” (Everyone knows I am not intoxicated), the first of many ghazals by Udhas treading the familiar trope in popular Urdu ghazals on the man who is drunk on wine, life and the beloved’s eyes.

The album also had some delicate songs on the many moods of love like “Deewaron se milkar rona” (To cry amidst the walls), and “Ishq insaan ki zaroorat hai” (Love is our necessity). As a friend from my hometown in Guwahati promptly texted after hearing of Udhas’ demise on February 26: “He made us feel separation even before we experienced love”.

This was true of Urdu poetry which bookmarked our adolescence. We were enraptured by emotions of love even before the beloved appeared on the horizon. In Mu-Kar-Rar, Udhas sang a host of poets, but the name that stuck with him was well-known poet and lyricist Mumtaz Rashid. Rashid’s “Pathar sulag rahe the” (The stones were in flames) was a personal favourite.

Udhas’ contemporary Jagjit Singh (senior by a few years), had entered the ghazal scene a few years before Udhas did, with The Unforgettables in 1977. We heard him in the films Prem Geet (1981), Arth (1982) and Saath Saath (1982). Singh’s albums were mostly available in LP Records and HMV cassettes, while Udhas sold in the more accessible T-Series. If Pakistani singer Nazia Hasan and her brother Zoheb, introduced pop and disco in 1982 with Disco Deewane, Udhas brought in the pop-ghazal, traditional ghazal in contemporary form. around the same time. While Jagjit Singh was middle-of-the-road, Udhas kept the tempo of his ghazals unabashedly high.

The audience overlapped in the public mehfils of Singh and Udhas. The young and middle-aged alike revelled in the sentimental platter on offer. But it was in the living rooms of the middle class addicted to popular Hindustani music, the cabs in Bombay, and Delhi’s auto-rickshaws that Udhas’ music truly resonated. His songs would waft from tiny radios sitting at paan shop counters, and blare from loudspeakers on festival nights. The few aspiring singers in my locality had found a new genre to emulate. Not everyone could be a Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi or Mukesh. But Pankaj Udhas-es mushroomed in mofussil towns.

The burgeoning cassette industry with Gulshan Kumar launching his T-Series company in 1983, and the portable Walkman that came to India in the early 1980s contributed to the flourishing of mass-produced music. A new kind of listener emerged. Udhas catered to this new crowd and the music industry encouraged and profited from this cultural symbiosis.

Udhas made his big Bollywood debut in 1986 with “Chitthi aayi hai” (A letter has arrived) in Mahesh Bhatt’s Naam. Even a snooty, high-minded Bengali uncle who visited us from Kolkata wanted to see the film because of the song. The whole theatre sang along with Udhas. It was a strange spectacle as a crowd of people imagined themselves to be “be-watan” — the migrant longing for one’s country, ecstatic for the letter from home. It was perhaps a deeper case of mimesis for a Partitioned nation that produced a generation of migrants. The letter, in Udhas’ sorrowful voice, was a metaphor for buried longings.

Both Jagjit Singh and Udhas popularised the ghazal in their own ways, though it was Singh who showed a remarkable sense of rendition when he took the popular genre of ghazal singing to a sublime level in Mirza Ghalib (1988).

However, it was Udhas, who trained under Ghulam Qadir Khan Sahab (an All India Radio vocalist from Gandhinagar), made a significant contribution to popular public taste and culture by introducing a host of Urdu/Hindustani poets — Qabil Ajmeri, Qaiser-Ul-Jaffri, Zafar Gorakhpuri — whose names we would have probably not heard if not for popular singers bringing them to us.

Consider Gorakhpuri’s ghazal that goes, “Aye gham-e-zindagi kuch to de faisla / Ek taraf uska ghar, ek taraf maikada” [O’ sorrow-filled life, help me decide / one way leads to her home, the other way leads to the tavern]. The poetry may not always be sophisticated or nuanced, but it spoke to ordinary people who were trapped within the gendered norms of traditional sentiments. Pankaj Udhas introduced the ghazal to people across regions and class. The Urdu ghazal is a crucial component of Hindustani tehzeeb that is kept alive not simply by its most “classical” practitioners but also by those who sing every day in popular concerts and are heard in ordinary social spaces. This unclassifiable crowd needed Udhas as much as he needed them. His music was a generational need.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of 'Nehru and the Spirit of India'. The views expressed are personal.

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