As several critics debated on the choice of his album and tour titles, Ghazal maestro Padma Shri Pankaj Udhas carries on the tradition with élan and confidence. In an interview with Anu Gopalakrishnan for Miindia.com, the living legend speaks about his stardom, the place of Ghazal in Indian cinema, his fitting reply to critics on wine endorsement and his grand Ghazal Festival Khazana. On a US tour for Madhosh, a series of enchanting Ghazals (both private gems and film- based), the legend is very confident about the future of Ghazal sans Bollywood. Here’s a special one for Miindia visitors.
Did you always want to be a Ghazal singer?
I come from a family of singers, I am the youngest of three and grew up in an environment of music. I was sandwiched between two brothers. On the right was my eldest brother Manhar Udhas, a Ghazal singer of good repute and on my left was Nirmal Udhas, also a Ghazal singer. One major influencing factor was the radio. That was the only source of entertainment when I grew up. And so, it was an artist’s dream to be featured on the radio. I was fascinated by Begum Akhtar since a very young age and that translated into the genre I got associated with. My brothers are singers as well and it is natural for me to pursue music. Ghazal had some depth in it and so I grew fond of this specific genre.
With rock and pop influencing Bollywood music, did you really think Ghazal (especially with Urdu overtones) would be accepted into Bollywood?
Sub-consciously as artists, we all want to be successful at the art. For me I followed this dream where poetry is mixed with music. I was enamored by Mukeshji. His songs were so meaningful and soul touching. Urdu was a great influence at home as we had this Urdu teacher coming home to teach my brother. Syed Mirzaji taught him Urdu with such delight that we all grew fond of that language. I was introduced to such beautiful poetry by Mir Taqi Mir, Omar Khayam and Mirza Ghalib. I became stubborn over time in my choice of music. I only wanted to sing Ghazals owing to the realistic and beautiful lyrics that can be blended with rich nuances of music that throws the audience into introspection and wonder.
What sparked your entry into Bollywood?
I never wanted to give up on Bollywood completely. From my experience when I look back, Naushad, Jaidev, Roshan – they were all musicians, composers who had tremendous influence of Ghazals in their lives. Madan Mohan – popularized the use of Ghazals. These talented legends gave Ghazals a tremendous platform in Bollywood that it became an integral part of cinema making. I did a few Bollywood films prior to Naam. In 1986 when Mahesh Bhatt and Laxmikantji and Pyarelalji were looking for something unique, they contacted me. The Ghazal number "Chithi Aayi Hai" took a lot of studio sittings. Many minds went into the making of this number. I have to give it to the music composer, lyricist Anand Bakshiji and Mahesh Bhatt – this Ghazal heralded a new audience in the form of NRIs – every single individual away from home still get goose bumps and tears in their eyes when they listen to this number. Such was the appeal of this Ghazal. It is complete music- composition, poetry, rhythm and substance.
And then, what went wrong?
Oh well after Ghayal (1990), Saajan (1991), Yeh Dillagi (1994), Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee (1993) and Mohra (1994), at some point, cinema took a complete turnaround. A contemporary flavor took over. We had the mix of so called college flicks with an obvious mix of Hindi, English and Urdu. There was no definite flavor. The entire landscape of the music industry changed. The more loud it was, the more popular. Ghazal has lost its place in cinema. As much as Hindustani music blended with International labels, the Ghazal genre somewhat lost out. We need solid film makers who are focused more on substance and meaning to bring Ghazal back to its form.
Ironically, contemporary and off-beat scripts demand music of substance, don’t they?
I agree. But, cinema is at a cross roads- either the film maker wants something real to an extreme or fiction and fantasy to another extreme. We keep comparing ourselves to Hollywood in terms of production and global appeal and somewhere in that journey, we have lost ourselves, our identity and our cultural strength.
Tell us about Madhosh and the critics viewing your titles as some sort of wine endorsement.
There is always controversy surrounding titles. People relate intoxication with just wine and alcohol. Seldom do they know that Ghazal is intoxicated with poetry and that is what my Ghazals do. Metaphorically, music is a kind of intoxication with the divine and that’s the reason behind Madhosh. I have done seven concerts so far. All sold out. When I sing for 3 hours, some of my briefings on stage with the audience talks about how drinking is not good. We as artists have a social responsibility and often times, we need to use titles to convey the positivity of the emotion. The marketing companies use these titles as a ploy to increase sales.
What do you do when not touring and making music videos?
I am very active in the Ghazal scene. I organize the biggest Ghazal festival in India called Khazana. This festival is usually scheduled in the last weekend of July. You should visit and experience all the beautiful luminaries coming together. It is quite a spectacle. The festival proceeds go toward funding Cancer and Thalassemia patients through the CPAA (Cancer Patients Aid Association). The idea and aim is to promote the genre, introduce new talent and bring the audience together for a delightful weekend of Ghazal. At any given point during this festival, we introduce 4 new ranked newcomers who are prepared to take this form further- to people across the world.
Your message for Ghazal enthusiasts outside of India.
To all the enthusiasts and students, there is talent all around. Today, there are lots of great opportunities. Singers go on You Tube and Facebook and instantly, good talent goes viral. Only one request for all of you interested in music and in Ghazals, “be your original self”. Let your poetry be genuine, real and straight from your heart. Nowadays we lack innocence in our work. If you are a true and real artist, do not sing any cover versions. If you want to establish yourself as a Ghazal singer, do something of your own. There is nothing wrong to be inspired but don’t imitate your inspiration.