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Niranjan Sarkar

In Urdu, the ghazal was originally a form of written or spoken poetry. However in the subcontinent, the ghazal is also popular as a musical form. Both in India and Pakistan, there have been great artists who have sung the ghazals. Ghazal when sung in the proper mizaaj (mood) is said to inspire even the most hard hearted person to get moved with it. Ghazal as a song, is mostly sung in a soothing and melancholic style. One thing to note is that ghazal is no way related to the traditional Hindustani classical music. The singers who sang it initially used the format of traditional raag’s and khayal components of the classical music. There is no “rule” that states that ghazals need to be sung in one style or another.

History of ghazal singing can be traced into the times of the late 1930s, and the earliest available recorded versions of ghazal as musical form is that of the famous Kundan LaL Sehgal ( K. L. Sehgal). K. L. Sehgal was a very famous artist of the Hindi movies of those times. The movies of the subcontinent have always had this peculiar tradition of containing songs in them, based on situations, and getting them picturised too. As was the concept in those days, actors had to be good singers too, since dubbing was still not in use then, K. L. Sehgal was a fine singer as well. Apart from acting in movies, he also sang a number of ghazals. One of his famous ghazal is:

Laayi Haayaat aaye qaza le chali chale,
Apni khushi na aaye na apni khushi chale. — Zauq

[Life brought me here and death will take me away,
Neither did I come on my own wish nor would I leave on my own]

There was another popular ghazal singer during this period. Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, had migrated to Pakistan after partition. He was a master in classical music and was initially trained by his father Ali Baksh Khan and his elder brother Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. He experimented with the lighter form of classical music and therefore chose ghazals as a way to express those. He was admired all over Pakistan and India. One of his famous renditions is:

Hasti apni hubaab ki si hai,
Ye numaaish saraab ki si hai. — Meer

[My existence is like a bubble,
This exhibit is like a mirage]

Other names of this time include, Master Madan, C. H. Atma and Habeeb Wali Mohd.

Ghazal till this time was considered to be a piece of singing usually confined to the niche audiences of the society, who understood the technicalities of classical singing and the finer forms of Urdu poetry. However, it was Akhtaribai Faizabadi, or Begum Akhtar (1914-1974) as she was popularly known, who broke the ghazal from the classical clutches and truly brought it to a more semi-classical Thumri format. She was probably the first singer, who realised that ghazal was more a form of Urdu poetry, than it was a part of the classical component. It was not that she did not face criticism for such a daring act initially. However, she understood the poetry very well. Her renditions reflect the true mood of the poet and her selection of poetry goes par excellence. She sang other forms of music, such as Daadra, equally well. Almost all her compositions were based on some Raag. She is truly the “Mallika-e-Ghazal” (Queen of ghazals). It is difficult to chose one of her best, but one such ghazal is:

Kuch to duniya ki inaayat ne dil torD diya,
Aur kuch talkhiye haalaat ne dil torD diya. — Sudarshan “Faakir”

[Some was the world’s favour which broke my heart,
And then some was the bitter conditions which broke my heart]

Begum Akhtar’s presence in the music scene, inspired many young female singers of that time to adopt a style similar to her. Some famous ghazal singers of that genre include: Malika Pukhraj, Iqbaal Bano and Farida Khanum.

During the 1950s, a diesel tractor mechanic was given a chance to sing Thumri’s for Radio Pakistan. He soon became famous and also started rendering ghazals in his own inimitable style. This young man, was none other than the now famous Mehdi Hassan aka Khan Sahib. Mehdi Hassan (born 1927), was trained in Dhrupad style of classical music. He was well trained in the other forms of classical singing too. He has a deep bass voice, which suits the ghazal singing perfectly. His compositions and renditions are purely driven by the mood in the ghazal as portrayed by the poet. It can be said that he further simplified the ghazal singing and brought it nearer to the masses.

It is interesting to note the differences and similarity between Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hassan. Both had a great sense of Urdu poetry. Their ghazal selections were fantastic. Begum Akhtar had a more full throated style of rendition, often raising her pitch of voice. However Mehdi Hassan had a bass and deep sound in his renditions. The two singers were equally popular in both India and Pakistan, in contemporary times.

It is again difficult to chose one of the finest ghazal of Mehdi Hassan, but one such would be:

Aaye kuch abr kuch sharaab aaye,
Uske baad aaye jo azaab aaye. — “Faiz”

[Let clouds gather and some wine flow,
After that, let there be agony and anguish]

Around this time (1960-1970), ghazal also started to feature in the movies produced in India and Pakistan. Many playback singers sang and notable amongst them would be Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. Mehdi Hassan too was a very successful playback singer of his time.

What was probably lacking in ghazal singing, till this time was that final punch, which could push it to a commercial level and bring it totally to the masses. This was finally achieved in the year 1976, when “The Unforgettables” was released by HMV in India. The artists of this ablum were a young husband-wife combination, a first of its sorts. Jagjit and Chitra Singh gave ghazals that last push, and brought in new sounds into ghazals. They used musical instruments like the santoor, guitar, synthesizer and violin, which were not used previously for ghazal renditions at a commercial level or even during concerts. The tunes in which they rendered the ghazals were simple, light and hummable. The poetry they chose was simple and close to daily life. The younger generation virtually drooled over this duo in India. They are clearly the saviors of ghazals as a music form. The purists were aghast. They simply could not stand this virtual westernisation of ghazal singing. Even to this day, Jagjit Singh is criticized for “polluting” ghazals in India.

Jagjit Singh was born in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan India in the year 1941. He belongs to the Sainia gharana (school) of classical music, the same as that of Mehdi Hassan. He struggled during the initial days to make his mark as a playback singer in Mumbai, the capital of Indian Hindi cinema.

Here in India and Pakistan, apart from the singers releasing their own albums, we have a huge parallel market for songs which are picturised in the movies. The actors of today, are not singers, they lip-synch the songs sung by the artists (known as playback singers here), which are then dubbed during production. It is almost every commercial singer’s dream to become a successful playback singer.

He sang for advertising jingles, and it is here that he met the then, Chitra Dutta. After they got married, their first big success came with the release of “The Unforgettables”. There was no looking back afterwards. They kept recording and performing at a frantic pace. However what is amazing is that the quality of ghazal singing and its selection always kept on increasing. They never compromised on the purity of the ghazal. When one does diagnose the compositions by Jagjit Singh, it is often found that these have been derived from a Raag or the other, or even a mixture of two or more.

Their magical musical journey was however cut short by the cruel fate of destiny, when their only child, Vivek perished in a car accident in the year 1991. Chitra Singh went into reclusion and refused to sing any further. Jagjit Singh returned after a short gap, and has been since active. His voice is even better and his performances even more soulful. A very famous of duet of the duo:

Kiya hai pyaar jise humnse zindagi ki tarah,
Wo aashna bhi mila humse ajnabi ki tarah. — Qateel Shifai

[The person whom I loved more than my life,
That friend also met as a stranger today]

The popularity of Jagjit and Chitra Singh opened a flood gate for the younger generation in India, to take up ghazal singing as their music career. This also ultimately let the quality degrade and the artists to fade out of the music world in a jiffy. However some names still endure: Pankaj Udhas, Bhupinder and Mitali Singh, Rajkumar Rizwi and Hariharan. Hariharan has a distinct style of his own and is the most popular of the young brigade.

While all this was happening in India, another ghazal singer was creating waves in Pakistan. Ghulam Ali is a classically trained singer under the great masters like Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali and Ustad Barkat Ali Khan. His singing style is very authentic and his voice suits the ghazal format very well. He is extremely popular, both in Pakistan as well as in India. His knowledge and selection of Urdu poetry is good. He has an unique ability to modulate his voice mid-way during renditions, which adds beautiful effect to the ghazal. There have been numerous concerts in India, featuring both Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh.

Below is a video clip featuring Ghulam Ali, reciting the famous Ameer Khusro ghazal, which started it all — Zihaal-e-miskin.



The ghazal singers never write ghazals. They only select the ghazals from the published works of the poets. For instance the “Waseem Barelvi” ghazal that is included in the article, might get published in a book by Waseem Barelvi. Jagjit Singh might get hold of that book, like the ghazal, and then compose it as per his mood and style. He would then contact Waseem Barelvi for all the necessary copyrights and then proceed to record and release it in his album. Similarly, Ghulam Ali may also read this ghazal, like it and proceed in a similar manner to record it for his album. All the ghazals of the traditional poets (such as Ghalib, Meer, Zauq etc.) have been sung by different singers in their own style. It often raises the question, as to whose version is the best, which in my opinion is not correct, since each artist has his or her own style of singing.

Usually, the ghazal singers compose the music on their own. Though there is no rule on the same. For instance, Begum Akhtar has a lot of ghazals which she did not compose on her own. In Jagjit and Chitra Singh’s case, it was Jagjit ji who composed the music for the ghazals which Chitra ji rendered. In fact, many hold the opinion (including Chitra ji) that Jagjit ji is the best composer of written poetry, anyone has heard till date.


Nazm is the natural form of poetry, which we know as poems in English literature. They do not have the matla-radif-qafiya rule to be followed, and they are written in stanzas unlike couplets in ghazals. Whereas the couplets of ghazals are not tied to each other in thought or theme, nazms are always on a particular topic. The discipline of beher remains the same for both formats, though. The Urdu Poetry Archive has an excellent article on nazm.


Gino: My familiarity with classical Indian music is limited to raga, and isn’t profound there. I take it that raag is your transliteration of raga. (I don’t propose that you change it; I just want to be sure.) Perhaps we can provide a link to a good site on Indian classical music for those readers who’d like more background. Most Westerners, if they know anything about the subject, know about Ravi Shankar who influenced the Beatles and played widely with Western musicians. Perhaps readers like that would like more information.

Niranjan: Yes, as per pronounciaton in Hindi, it is Raag. When romanised, it is transliterated to Raaga, the a at the end simply denotes the implicit a sound every consonant has at the end, in these languages.

Indian classical music is divided into 2 distinct forms:

  1. One is the Hindustani classical music, which is prelevant in north India and Pakistan. The best starting point for it would be the Wikipedia entry.
  2. The other is the Carnatic music, which is prelevant in south India. Hariharan is the only popular artist of the South, who has a distinct touch of Carnatic style of rendering ghazals. The Wikipedia entry for Carnatic music is a good starting point.

Pandit Ravi Shankar belongs to the Hindustani classical music form.

About larrygates

Web developer of Ghazal Page. Sometime pseudonymous ghazalkar.