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Ghungroo Toot Gaye: A Tribute To Pankaj Udhas

Udhas spoke about his fascination with Omar Khayyam, the 11th century Persian poet, and how he roped in two scholars Zameer Qazmi and Irteza Nishat
Pankaj Udhas enthralled the audience for 45 years
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It was an August afternoon at a Taj Bengal suite, thirty-odd years ago. I was holding a BPL-Sanyo cassette recorder, interviewing my musical hero Pankaj Udhas for ‘Calcutta Skyline’, a city monthly. Dressed in off-white kurta-pajama, the soft-spoken ghazal maestro even offered to hold the recorder if I found it too heavy. Naturally, I declined. I was in no mood to spoil my fanboy moment. The interaction was 45 minutes of pure bliss. Post-interview, Udhas headed for the Calcutta Swimming Club to launch his new album “Rubayee” under his own label Velvet Voices. I followed him there for the press conference.

Udhas had a fascination for Omar Khayyam, the 11th century Persian poet, and he roped in two scholars Zameer Qazmi and Irteza Nishat to translate 23 of Omar Khayyam’s rubayees into simple Urdu
Udhas had a fascination for Omar Khayyam, the 11th century Persian poet, and he roped in two scholars Zameer Qazmi and Irteza Nishat to translate 23 of Omar Khayyam’s rubayees into simple Urdu

At the meet, Udhas spoke about his fascination with Omar Khayyam, the 11th century Persian poet, and how he roped in two scholars Zameer Qazmi and Irteza Nishat to translate 23 of Omar Khayyam’s rubayees (a genre of poetry) into simple Urdu. The project took two years to complete. As the spirits soared with the clinking of glasses, Udhas’ song offerings played on the speaker wafted through the room. Two songs still exist in my very own memory card:

Chalo peelen ke yaar aaye na aaye

and

Baharen agar tum se daman bachaye

Mere zakhm se taazgi maang lena.

Pankaj Udhas' friendly rivalry with fellow Ghazal artiste Jagjit Singh is well-known
Pankaj Udhas' friendly rivalry with fellow Ghazal artiste Jagjit Singh is well-known

That was 34 years ago. On Monday, Udhas, 72, died at a Mumbai hospital after a prolonged illness. He is survived by his wife and two daughters. Udhas was accorded a state funeral by the Maharashtra government on Tuesday.

His death has been mourned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the leading stars of the music fraternity like Zakir Hussain, Anup Jalota, Udit Narain, Anuradha Paudwal, Kavita Krishnamurthy and Shankar Mahadevan.

In a strange coincidence, Udhas’ peer, ghazal legend Jagjit Singh also died just after crossing 70, nearly 13 years ago.

Singh and Udhas were different in every possible way. The former with his baritone appealed to the mind while the latter with his silken voice appealed to the heart. They were the poster boys of rival brands HMV and Music India. Yet they deserve credit on two counts. From the early 80s, on the one hand, they offered ghazal as a listening option to the connoisseurs of non-filmi music. On the other, their popularity was something even film producers could bank upon.  

Ustaad Zakir Hussain was one of the stalwarts who came to pay his last tributes to the ghazal maestro
Ustaad Zakir Hussain was one of the stalwarts who came to pay his last tributes to the ghazal maestro

In the previous era, Talat Mehmood and Begum Akhtar were the most popular ghazal singers. Naushad, Madan Mohan, Roshan, Jaidev and Ravi were among the few composers who gave us some great filmi ghazals but there was never a ghazal wave. From across the border, ghazal legends Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali visited India occasionally and performed before sellout crowds. However, the success of Singh and Udhas inspired talented singers like Talat Aziz, Hariharan, Chandan Das, Ashok Khosla and Peenaz Masani to pick up ghazal as a career option. Even veterans like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle and Bhupinder Singh hopped on to the bandwagon. Ashaji’s joint venture with Ghulam Ali ‘Meraj-e-Ghazal’ and Lataji’s album with Jagjit Singh ‘Sajda’ were the biggest grossers of that era.

In the previous era, Begum Akhtar (above) and Talat Mehmood were the most popular ghazal singers

The 80s also marked the return of Khayyam, who hit the bull’s eye with his scores for ‘Umrao Jaan’, ‘Bazaar’ and ‘Razia Sultan.’ At the same time, Khayyam, Singh, Udhas and his ilk were pitted against a phenomenon called Bappi Lahiri. Riding the disco wave, Bappi-da was the biggest influencer on the 80s generation. If Jagjit Singh hit the jackpot with his soulful numbers from ‘Prem Geet’, ‘Saath Saath’ and ‘Arth’, Pankaj Udhas swept spectators off their feet with ‘Purab na jaiyo’ (‘Jawaab’), Chitthi aayi hai (‘Naam’), Aaj phir tum pe (‘Dayavan’), Chandi jaisa rang hai tera (Ek hi Maqsad) and Jiye toh jiye (Saajan). Chitthi aayi hai became so popular that ‘Naam’ director Mahesh Bhatt attributed the film’s success to Udhas and Raj Kapoor blessed Udhas, saying “this song will make you immortal”.

But as the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day,” Udhas went through a decade of struggle before scaling the peak. Born to Gujarati parents in Jetpur, Udhas did his schooling in Rajkot. His father Keshubhai, an accomplished dilruba player, was an inspiration to all the three brothers Manhar, Nirmal and Pankaj. The latter’s singing skills were first put to test during the Navratri festival at Rajkot in 1962 when as an 11-year-old he sang “Ay mere watan ke logo” and earned Rs 51, then a princely sum, from a music lover. Udhas shifted to Mumbai in 1969 and studied at St Xavier’s College and took part in college fests. Among his classmates was Anuradha Paudwal. Around this time, he started taking music lessons from Master Navrang, who was also Asha Bhonsle’s guru. He and his brother Manhar learnt Urdu from a Maulvi from Hyderabad, Syed Mirza Saab.

Noted singer Anuradha Paudwal was a classmate of Udhas at Saint Xavier's College, Mumbai
Noted singer Anuradha Paudwal was a classmate of Udhas at Saint Xavier's College, Mumbai

Throughout the 70s, Udhas did concert tours in India and abroad but the big break proved elusive. In the late 70s, he stayed in Canada for a year and did concerts across the cities for 10 months. Around this time, Vijay Lazarus of Music India got wind of Udhas’ exploits and asked him to return to India and cut a disc for his label. ‘Aahat’, Udhas’ first ghazal album, hit the stores in 1980.

It was with the second album ‘Mu-Kar-Rar’, released in 1981, that Udhas gained nationwide fame. Suddenly, songs like ‘Deewaron se milkar rona’, ‘Sabko maloom hai mein sharabi nahi,’ ‘Zara ahista chal’ were on everybody’s lips. The next album ‘Paimana’ (1984) with chartbusters like ‘Na samjho ki hum’ and ‘Ek taraf uska ghar’ lifted the spirits of all music lovers. ‘Nayab’, ‘Aafreen’ and ‘Shagufta’ followed in quick succession.

The final journey
The final journey

In a career spanning 45 years, Udhas cut 50 non-film discs and collaborated with renowned shairs like Sheikh Adam Abuwala, Anwar Farukkhabadi and Mumtaz Rashid. He was also an ardent lover of the Beatles. Among his notable concerts abroad were the ones at Royal Albert Hall, London and Madison Square Garden, New York. Even last year, he took part in the Timeless Tour in Johannesburg and Durban, South Africa. He got the Padma Shri award in 2006.

Despite a busy schedule, Udhas actively took part in two major initiatives. He was the founder of Parents Association Thalassemic Unit Trust (PATUT) that took care of thalassemia patients. He, along with buddies Anup Jalota and Talat Aziz, also founded in 2002, the Khazana Artist Aloud Talent Hunt, to spot the ghazal singers of tomorrow.  

All Images: Google

Abhijit Sen spent nearly two decades as a senior journalist for a renowned English daily. He now divides his time between writing columns, listening to music and watching movies of his choice. He also likes to sing songs composed by Rabindranath Tagore.

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