Pankaj Udhas made his name as a singer of pop (as opposed to classical) ghazals in the 1980s. Along with Jagjit and Chitra Singh and Anup Jalota, he ruled the cassette sales charts all across the subcontinent and deep into the desi diaspora. His hits were numerous and his following huge.
All three artists (let’s consider Jagjit and Chitra as one) were purveyors of the ghazal to the masses. The ghazal, up to this point in time (early 1980s) had been, for the most part, either recited in poetry readings known as mushaira, or sung by serious semi-classical artistes. Its Persianised-Urdu lyrics were a challenge for the average housewife and taxi driver. Many of the concepts expressed by the ghazal’s literary poets, simply beyond comprehension. This was a time when classical and semi-classical music was the preserve of a rarefied (उच्च श्रेणी) elite; the middle class listener had no ear for the refined often spare instrumentation.
Even though a less contrived form of the ghazal had been used in Hindi films for many decades its mass appeal awaited a technological innovation, the cassette tape. This cheap, accessible, throw away means of enjoying music smashed open the staid Indian music industry with a force only equalled in recent days by the and bit torrent. For listeners hungry for non-film and non-classical music the ghazal proved to be just the tonic. The Singhs were able to blend contemporary, often western instruments like the guitar and piano, with more simple lyrics that resonated immediately with the middle classes. Jalota did the same, offering up both popular as well as what can only be termed semi-semi-classical interpretations of lyrics of significant poets.
Pankaj Udhas, who had tried initially to find work as a playback singer in Bombay, carved out a niche at the purely pop end of the newly emerging cassette ghazal market. Many of his arrangements were upbeat, fast paced and the lyrics unabashedly quotidian. While the motifs of the ghazal had always been unrequited love and wine, signifying spiritual longing and ecstasy, Udhas’ listeners wanted none of that. When he sang of the maikhana (tavern), sharab (wine) and saqi (wine bearer) he actually meant a peg of whiskey at the bar with your girlfriend. No metaphysical schooling or intention was required to enjoy a Pankaj Udhas song.
Over the years, as his audience matured, so too did the ghazal market. Udhas recorded more subtle and mellow ghazals, but he remained the king of the sharabi (wino) ghazal.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz, is universally acknowledged as the greatest poet of modern Pakistan, indeed of modern Urdu. An English educated intellectual and darling of the Leftist/Communist wing of politics and the academy his Urdu and Persian poetry is treasured by Pakistanis and Indians of all stripes. Many of his literary works addressed issues of political oppression, the individual’s struggle for freedom and took inspiration from the political events of his native Pakistan. Others, especially his ghazals, were more humanistic and traditional in their subject matter. Singers on both sides of the Pakistan/India border have recorded dozens of his ghazals. Indeed, releasing an album of Faiz’s ghazals is almost a prerequisite these days for a ghazal singer to be considered a ‘serious artist’.
And so, it seems, this collection of Faiz’s ghazals, Dastkhat, is Pankaj Udhas’ shot at artistic immortality. A singer’s attempt at Sanskritization: changing his caste from top 40 star to Brahminized artiste!
My first reaction when I spied this CD was to snigger. “Barry Manilow sings Dylan Thomas,” I said to myself. And though I put up the Rs 295 I never listened to it. The concept simply rubbed me the wrong way.
But in the end I gave it a spin. And I have to say there is much to commend here. Firstly, there is Udhas’ voice which is mellow like warm Manali honey. No matter what you think of his early hits, he would not have had a following without a great voice. The mellowness fits this material very well. It makes Faiz’s lyrics shimmer with a non-threatening sheen. Just as his early career led millions of listeners to more sophisticated tastes, I have no doubt this album will introduce a whole generation of music lovers to the genius of Faiz. And that can only be a good thing.
Secondly, the musical arrangements by Singaporean-Indian Amarjeet Bajwa are tasteful, if a bit unimaginative. But in keeping with the spirit of the popular ghazal the instruments are contemporary, a nice mix of western and Indian which altogether create a dreamy atmosphere, which is not entirely unappealing.
Thirdly, the selection of ghazals is spot on. Some are widely known via the recordings of others (Yun Saja Chand) and would be familiar to his listeners. Many of the others are straight-ahead love poems, with no political messaging (subliminal or overt).
Finally, he understands that many listeners would still be unfamiliar with poetic Urdu. In the booklet he provides not just the lyrics of each ghazal but also, very helpfully, translation of key phrases.
So all in all, I must now eat some humble pie and retract my initial dismissive thoughts about this record. Mr Udhas has pulled off his gamble. He’s made a fine record his fans (old and new) should enjoy. As to whether he is now a ‘serious artist’, I can only say: he always was, as far as I was concerned. He was just serious about making good music that appealed to millions.
01 Kab Tak Dil ki Khair
02 Yun Saja Chand
03 Sahel Yun Rahe
04 Naseeb Aazmane ke
05 Tere Gham Ko
08 Sheeshon ka Masiha