Pankaj Udhas: The Ghazal Singer who removed classicism of Ghazals to make the common person the aficionado of Ghazals

February 28, 2024
Pankaj Udhas should be given the credit to characterize Ghazals by its setting akin to a normal Hindi song, but with a topping of an Urdu finesse.

While Jagjit Singh was one of the proponents who in the later stages of his singing career deconstructed rendition of ghazals and initiated the process of incorporation of western musical instruments to popularize it, to Pankaj Udhas should be given the credit to broadband it, by giving it a new identity, characterized by its setting akin to a normal Hindi song, but with a topping of an Urdu finesse.

The year was 1981 and Pankaj Udhas’s ‘Mukkarrar’, the first album was released. It had eight songs, but the song which caught the imagination of the nation and continues to do is- Sabko maloom hai main sharaabi nahi, fir bhi koi pilaye to main kya karoon. If one was studying in the Universities and colleges around that time anywhere in India, the baptisation into the hostel paraphernalia as a part of the process of ragging began with this song. It had replaced the Mohammed Rafi song across. Worth mentioning in the lyrics were the lines- unko peen ana aaye to main kya karooon, sarcastically pointing towards the fence sitters to join the party, and there hardly would a fence sitter be left, and then the song would go into a loop to be played for next hour or so, till everybody was sozzled and then would start the walkathon to the nearby Dhaba to have bun with tea and then come back to sleep.

It was a protocol that I also observed when I stepped into the haloed portals of the hostel in Allahabad University and was the last of the fence sitters to join the revere. Such was the aura of Pankaj Udhas and his rendition the nights in the hostel would reverberate with his renditions.

I would not know whether any other ghazal singer has sung so many songs eulogizing the virtues of drinking, that Pankaj Udhas left behind- he had numerous songs dedicated to different nuances of drinking and the associated philosophies of life. At times he was criticized as well for this supposed fascination with liquor, and shut all the critics during one of his concerts, where he underlined that the use of the terminology- liquor- is a metaphorical one as for him it was symptomatic of intoxication by someone’s eyes, intoxication of life, intoxication of an ambience and after that he was never questioned about his fascination for liquor in his renditions and he went on to bring as diversified manifestations associated with liquor as one could imagine, each one celebrating life and he would perhaps be one of those rare singers whose oeuvre was permeated through and through with liquor or rather biased towards it.

After making his debut in 1981, Pankaj Udhas turned a new life and created through his rendition his immortality with the song – Chitthi aayee hai from Naam (1986). It was perhaps for the first time that a singer was used on screen, imaginatively by Mahesh Bhatt and the song set the cat among the pigeons in the diaspora as also among those in the country who were so much bogged down in the work life process to forget that they had a mother and a father who continued to wait. Remember, it was the time when the mobile phone had not made debut, communication was through trunk calls and even in the neighbourhood of the cities having a landline phone was considered an ultimate luxury.

Such was the emotional connect of this song, where Anand Bakshi seemed to have poured his heart out, that we used to go and watch this song in the late-night show in the cinema hall adjacent to our hostel. The usher in the cinema hall was also out barber at the hostel during the day. He had noted the timings when the song would make its appearance on the screen and had shared it with all of us and would allow us to sneak in surreptitiously, watch the song, wet our eyes, and go back.

Only things was that we would not go back to our respective rooms in the hostel, but we would go to the nearby railway station, have the cup of tea, and come back to the telephone exchange as the sun rose, bribe the guard at the exchange to allow us to make a trunk call to our parents, hear their voices somehow after two-three failed attempts and then go back to sleep. That one-month period, till the time Naam (1986) was on screened, it had become our rigour, and we had turned bankrupt, but Chitthi aayee hai triggered the connect with the parents on a level of frequency which even now cannot be emulated in this era of mobile phones. One could say with conviction that this song from Naam (1986) emerged as catalyst to trigger the visit back home to the motherland by the NRIs in droves and a few discussions where I was associated with the NRI friends, pointed that the Chittthi Aayee hai triggered the bewatans to come back home and see how the family was coping up.

Though his association with the world of cinema was quite sporadic, whenever he was given an opportunity he created a gem, savour these- Jiye to jiye kaise from Saajan (1991), Na kajre kee dhar from Mohra (1994) as also Aaj fir tumpe pyar aaya hai from Dayavan (1988), all of these are evergreen songs. Among the other ghazals which made him immortal include, Ghungroo toot gaye and Chandi jaisa rang hai tera.

The phenomenal popularity that his songs enjoyed was perhaps owing to the fact that he never attempted a musical rollercoaster in his rendition to display supposed mastery of his singing, but chose the meter which rarely dropped or pitch forked to the zenith and this was the reason the fans used to identify with his songs and adulate him, as the meter chosen triggered the urge in the bathroom singers to belt out the songs of Pankaj Udhas themselves.

He was an enlightened soul who lived his life following the philosophy that he had underlined in one of his ghazals:

Sab kuch hamein khabar hai naseehat na dijiye
Kya honge hum kharab, zamaana Kharab hai.

He may have left the mortal soul, but the oeuvre of intoxication that he has left behind would continue to mesmerize the drinkers- drinkers who celebrate life and are intoxicated with the intoxication of life.

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