Mehdi Hassan, the icon who mesmerised ghazal lovers in Pakistan and India

Mehdi Hassan, who died in a Karachi hospital on Wednesday after a prolonged illness, will be remembered for bringing Indians and Pakistanis together in a shared passion for his songs of unrequited love.

Hassan, 84, died of multiple organ failure at the Aga Khan hospital, where he had been admitted a few days ago.

Known as the Ghazal King, Mehdi Hassan was a Pakistani. But to say he belonged only to Pakistan is like saying the legend of Heer Ranjha is Pakistani. The roots of Mehdi Hasan's music, which inspired generations of ghazal singers in India, lay in the ancient tradition of dhrupad. A representative of the 16th generation of the Kalavant clan, Mehdi Hassan went from dhrupad, through thumri to ghazal and popular film music, retaining the purity of the medium until the end. Hindustani classical music pre-dates the Partition of India; it stems from the soul of the subcontinent and it is to this shared past that he belonged.

His own family roots were in Rajasthan. He may have made his home in Pakistan but Rajasthan stayed with him. It was like love across the salt desert. And he made no secret of it. His concerts almost always featured Kesariya Balam, the timeless Rajasthani ode to the vastness of the desert. And his voice, especially in his classic Ranjish hee sahee conveyed the loneliness of a companion left behind in the desert.

He sought that lost companionship whenever he visited India. He was a good friend of legendary classical vocalist Pandit Mani Prasad, whose disciple Jitender Singh Jamwal told The Hindu that the two always conversed in Rajasthani.

“Once about 15 years ago he came to Delhi on the invitation of a business family. As soon as he arrived he called up my Guruji and insisted he come. When a few of us disciples and Guruji arrived at the venue, there were some 600-700 people there and the concert was on. We found a place on the far left side. Khan sahib turned towards Guruji, saying, 'Ab sangeet hoga, kyon ki sunnewale aaye hain (The real listener has come)'.”

The ghazal maestro, overcome by nostalgia, had even once expressed a desire to be buried in his own village. When Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, he tried to facilitate Hassan's home coming to Luna in Rajasthan where he was born. But even back then, he was too ill to travel and the plan had to be given up. Just a little before he passed away, the Chief Minister of Rajasthan, Ashok Gehlot, offered to bear the medical expenses of the star.

His music retained an Indianness throughout. Contrary to the Islamic injunction against prostration, Mehdi Hassan often gave blessings to upcoming singers who sought them by touching his feet. He was steeped in the traditions of his music gharana. That tradition was paramount for him, not any religious dictate.

Mehdi Hassan often sang the compositions of Delhi's resident poet Mirza Ghalib besides Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Mir Taqi Mir. His Urdu was untouched by any regional accent and stayed true to the true spirit of the language.

Pakistan's Army generals, its civilian connoisseurs of Faiz's revolutionary poetry; ghazal fans in India – he was loved by them all. If a fringe political element in India sought to reduce him to mere nationality, even calling for a ban on his concerts in this country, there were others more sensible, like the filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt and the poet Gulzar who saw him as an icon that could not be appropriated by any nation.

“Like the light of the sun, the direction of the wind, he cannot, and should not be limited to one country. Woh saari kayanat ke sitare thhe. He was the star of the universe,” said Gulzar.

A few years ago when the maestro was ailing, Gulzar composed a couplet to him: Ankhon ko visa nahin lagta, sapno ki sarhad hoti nahin, bund ankhon se roz chala jaata hun sarhad paar main milne Mehdi Hassan se.

“People like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mehdi Hassan, Lata Mangeshkar cannot be classified by their nationality,” he said.

Among his well-wishers in India was the noted ghazal singer Jagjit Singh, who passed away earlier this year. He had volunteered to foot the hospital expenses of the ailing ghazal exponent.

Bhatt said: “Let's not fragment his memory. Like Iqbal could be a poet of Pakistan but he is still sung in our schools for Saare Jahan se Achcha, Mehdi Hassan belonged to all of us.”

To Bhatt, Gulzar, Singh, and indeed to millions of his fans across the world, Mehdi Hassan was an artiste who transcended boundaries. His music had a certain universality that defied local specifics. A couple of years ago, Lata Mangeshkar and Mehdi Hassan collaborated for an album. Called “Sarhadein,” the two legends sang a duet “Tera milana.” Mehdi Hassan composed the song and recorded it in Pakistan. Lata recorded her part in India.

On such delicious ironies spread the life and times of Mehdi Hassan, who was almost lost to a bicycle shop where he once had to work to make ends meet. The ghazal legend who did not have a sani (peer) to match his craft in the Indian Subcontinent, then had a stopover at a tractor mechanic shop, before finally answering his true calling.

Many years later, during a concert tour, he repaired a harmonium which had been damaged in transit. He joked to the audience: “I was an auto mechanic once and assembled tractor engines. Assembling a harmonium is child's play.”

In Pakistan he came into the limelight in the early 1950s when he sang Gulon mein rung bharey baad-e-naubahar chaley by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

His elder brother, Ghulam Qadir, composed that ghazal and Hafeez Hoshiarpuri's Mohabbat karnewale kum na honge, which became synonymous with his concerts across India.

Mehdi Hassan has left behind countless fans grieving with those same words he made famous, Ranjish hee sahee…dil hi dukhane key liye aa, words that, alas, seem to epitomise the whole relationship between India and Pakistan.