Pankaj Udhas: The King of Mass Ghazal

He took ghazals to the next level with lyrics that were often user-friendly to the point of being prosaic.

5 min read
Hindi Female

As I mulled over the contribution of Pankaj Udhas to the evolution of the ghazal as a popular musical form, I noticed that an erudite friend had tagged me on a social media site with an Urdu couplet that struck a different chord.

Bahut aazad hoti ja rahi hai

Ghazal barbaad hoti ja rahi hai

(My translation:

It is becoming much too free

The ghazal is decaying for us to see)


Those lines by 1973-born Bihar poet Imran Rakim offer a telling insight: Every time something creative touches a new high, there is always some mournful note from a purist who thinks things should be the way things used to be.

But the ghazal is today alive, kicking and is an art form for the masses precisely because some rules have been broken and new frontiers conquered. You could always argue who made it popular, but there is little doubt that one person who significantly widened its reach could be Pankaj Udhas, who died earlier this week after a prolonged illness at the age of 72.

To understand his importance, one must step back and see the ghazal's origins and evolution. Though it has its roots in seventh century Arabic poetry, it took another 500 years for the ghazal to break free and find its own rhythm in the Indian subcontinent, thanks to mystic Sufis. As an orthodox form, the ghazal has at least five couplets, with a strict set of rules for metre and rhyme. But in its heterodox variations, it reached new highs, or, as the purist would say, plumbed new lows.


An eager ghazal aficionado may even correct you if you describe Udhas's most famous song, Chitthi Aayi Hai (which was adopted for the Mahesh Bhatt movie Naam in 1986) as a ghazal by citing some rules.

Because each of its couplets was not really independent of the other (as a ghazal should be), that song was more of a nazm, with a single theme, the loneliness and longing of an emigre celebrating the arrival of a letter from his distant homeland. Never mind the rules. This was precisely the number that made legendary filmmaker Raj Kapoor tell him, "Pankaj tu amar ho gaya." (Pankaj, you have become immortal). As the singer played himself on the screen in a cameo, the song struck a million chords across the planet.

Classical ghazals were more about romantic love or deep philosophy. In bringing the modern emigre's homesickness into the ghazal's fold, lyricist Anand Bakshi had pushed new frontiers in a globalised world. Non-resident Indians discovered an empathetic soul in Udhas and internal migrants in India were not too far. Most of them were ordinary lower middle-class workers or traders earning a living in a faraway land, not yesteryear's ghazal-loving nawabs brought up with an orthodox education in Urdu, Persian or Arabic. But the feelings stirred in their hearts were good enough for them to themselves feel like poets.

About a decade before Udhas, Jagjit Singh had made ghazals cool for Indians with a formula that was, when it hit the scene, unbeatable. If parallel cinema with thought-provoking and realistic themes by directors like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani charmed India's emerging middle class, Singh's ghazals formed a parallel music to Bollywood's wide array of musical numbers in nurturing a new class of discerning art-lovers from less privileged sections of the society.


Singh added the guitar and the piano to the harmonium base into ghazal singing in a big way, and packaged everyday middle-class emotions like urban angst in his choice of lyrics and poets. Singh was a rebel of sorts for those brought up on the orthodoxy of Begum Akhtar singing chaste Urdu lyrics with profound thoughts penned by exalted poets to the accompaniment of a deep-stringed sarangi's plaintive tones.

Between these two, we may place Pakistani singers like Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali, who played the harmonium as they etched out their soulful ghazals to eager audiences. Hasan and Ali were in their typical element more like singers crooning to a limited number of folks in a baithak (sitting) or a mehfil (gathering).

Jagjit Singh made audiences go beyond the murmured wah-wahs and applause to singalong modes in large auditoria like London's Royal Albert Hall and the Sydney Opera House. He blended Punjabi folk songs with ghazals and nazms.

The NRI angst was something he fed on three years before Udhas when he sang the 1983 hit penned by Rahi Masoom Raza, Hum Toh Hain Pardes Mei, Des Mei Nikala Hoga Chaand (I live now in an alien land/the moon must have risen now in my homeland).

Singh's soulful voice and orchestral array of instruments made the ghazal popular, while Udhas took it to the next level with identifiable lyrics that were often user-friendly to the point of being prosaic.



Aayiye baarishon ka mausam hai/In dinon chahaton ka mausam hai

(Come, this is the season of rains/These days mark the season of attractions)


Chandi jaisa rang hai tera, soney jaise baal

Ek tu hi dhanwan hai gori, baaki sab kangal

(Your skin is like silver, and your hair shines like gold

You are the rich one, fair maiden, the rest are paupers, behold!)

This was stuff even India's ubiquitous truck drivers painting streetsmart poetry on the back of their inter-state vehicles could appreciate.

Udhas also sang a series of numbers for Bollywood, compared with Jagjit Singh, whose movie outings were rare. In cricketing terms, these two singers took the ghazal from Test match styles to T-20 levels, with strokes that hit new highs, never mind the purist critics like Imran Rakim. You can't please them all, can you?


Both Udhas and Singh perhaps owe part of their success to not just the rise of an expanding middle class, but also to increasingly affordable forms of recorded music. If All India Radio made Lata Mangeshkar popular across Indian homes, the Long Playing Record was something that helped Jagjit Singh reach a relatively smaller but discerning audience.

The arrival of the cassette player and later, compact discs, made music producers more willing to bet on off-Bollywood music, and none fitted this more than singers like Anup Jalota, known more for his devout bhajans than ghazals, and Udhas, whose blend of the ghazal with filmy nazms and clap-along audiences made him a cult figure. Udhas rounded up the act with his clean looks and fine dress sense, throwing a carefully worn shawl over an immaculate kurta.

It is significant that Udhas's first album, Aahat, hit the stands in 1980, precisely when more affordable cassettes were hitting the market to suit lower middle-class budgets.

The lyrics of the first album, featuring heartbeats, heartbreaks, self-respect, and a social lack of integrity and humanity in a sense retained the philosophical purposes of the seventh century ghazal. But the choice of simple words, with the occasional digression into heavier tones, was just the stuff that made the masses feel they were elevated into a classical sphere. In that sense, Pankaj Udhas, did not dumb down the ghazal. He raised a new audience by lowering the entry bar.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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