Singer, composer and ghazal maestro Pankaj Udhas speaks to Swati Singh about his early years as a struggling artiste, his work in Bollywood, and his lifelong commitment to perfecting and popularising the art of the ghazal.
Q. How did you first discover your calling for music?
A. Well, it was a miracle of sorts. It was a genetic miracle, or a genetic wonder I would say. My entire family, the Udhas family, does not have any background in singing or music. We come from a family of traditional landlords. There was no music in the family. In fact, nobody even pursued music. So I guess in my case, it was destiny. It had to happen. My father, just out of interest, once started learning a stringed instrument called the esraj, which is also known as the dilruba. It has a tone that sounds like the sarangi. It is a very famous instrument in India. That got me interested in music.
Q. But when, and how, did you get involved in music seriously?
A. I remember when I was 6-7 years old, my father would come back from office, take out his dilruba from the case, tune it, begin playing and go into some kind of a trance. He was not a professional musician but he played with passion. So this was my first exposure to music. I liked the sound and I liked what he used to play. Also by that time, my two elder brothers were already singing, at various social functions in Rajkot, where we lived. So this was how I got pulled towards music. In those days, there was no source of entertainment except cinema or radio. There was a radio in our house, which we used to play all the time. We got to hear some good Bollywood music of that era. Often, I’d literally run to the house to tune into All India Radio and listen to Begum Akhtar. I used to love her music, and probably that was when I first got attracted towards ghazals. This was how I was introduced to music.
After seeing us in this kind of zone, my father sent us to the Sangeet Academy in Rajkot, which used to teach music. Initially, I enrolled myself in a tabla course, because I was quite fascinated by the tabla. But later on, I started learning Hindustani vocal classical music from Ghulam Qadir Khan Sahab in Rajkot. Then I came to Mumbai to learn from my guru, Master Navrang Nagpurkar—he was a very famous singer from the Gwalior Gharana.
Q. Whom do you consider your role models in music? Also, tell us about the ghazal singers you admire.
A. Well, I have many. First, my father. Then, I have been a huge fan of Lata Mangeshkar. She has been my role model. There is one more person whom I have admired all my life: Dev Anand. He worked non-stop throughout his life and never believed in retiring.
Among the masters of the ghazal, I have been a huge fan of Mehdi Hasan. I have always admired his music. I met him on many occasions and had wonderful interactions with him. He was a great artist. In India, Jagjit Singh brought his own revolution to the ghazal form. He brought in a tremendous variety and invented a contemporary approach, to ghazal singing. His voice was a unique trademark and his USP. He was also a great music composer.
Q. Last year in February, you released your new album, Madhosh, after a three-year hiatus. What took you so long to come up with this album?
A. I got really tied up in travelling the world because the entire music industry knows about me. I am an artist who is very passionate about the form of the ghazal, which I have been pursuing. Everybody knows I don’t give priority to anything in life other than to the ghazal. So I was spending some time promoting my kind of music across the world. I was doing live concerts and conferences. The other thing is that when I am recording a ghazal album, it has to be exceptional. I want to ensure it is not just another ghazal album.
Q. Tell us about Madhosh. How is it different from your previous work?
A. It is essentially a ghazal album. I am not doing anything out of the box in terms of the genre here. I am sticking to the genre, but maybe doing something very different with the music.
Q. How has the ghazal form changed since you started your career?
A. Ghazals basically have not changed much. It is the kind of musical genre where you can take a certain amount of liberty with everything, but you can’t go over the top. The music remains very much within a set of traditional boundaries, and the presentation, the singing style will all remain within this domain. I think the ghazal has more or less remained the same.
Q. You were among the first in this country to help mainstream the ghazal form, with your long and continuing association with Bollywood. When did you get your first big break in the Hindi film industry?
A. I shared a love-hate relationship with Bollywood. I sang the first song, which was recorded for a film, Kamna, way back in 1971. I got an opportunity to sing a song that was composed by Usha Khanna and written by Naqsh Lyallpur. The song became very popular and was appreciated by listeners. Obviously, that was the era of Kishore Kumar and Mohammad Rafi, all those great singers.
So there was a lot of competition in Bollywood, where I was a newcomer. It was not easy for me to make my way into the industry as a playback. So I struggled from 1971 onwards, and by 1972-73, I realised that I was up against huge competition. By that time I had already been singing ghazals, so I decided to shift my focus entirely to ghazals. Till 1979, I really struggled to get noticed. Then my first album, Aahat, was released at the beginning of 1980. Subsequently, there were other albums, Mukarrar and Nayaab. I think my style of singing matured, and my popularity really began to rise.
In fact, there soon came a point where my work was not only being noticed but also appreciated. There was Rhythm House in Mumbai, where they’d display a top-10 music chart; my albums were on the top here, above all the film albums. Since I’d reached that level of popularity, I was called in to sing a song, “Mitwa re Mitwa”, for the film Jawab. This song became very popular. By that time the actor Rajendra Kumar was making a film, Naam. They were looking for a singer who was very popular across India. So he suggested my name. He decided to have me sing “Chitthi Aayee Hai”, and even picturised the song on me. After Naam, my Bollywood career began in earnest. I haven’t sung many Bollywood numbers, I was very selective, but yeah, whatever I sang became very popular. After that, my equation with the entire industry was very different. I must say one thing: the film industry has played a major role in popularising the ghazal.
Q. Was there any turning point of your musical career?
A. As I told you earlier, my popularity was unprecedented for a solo non-film singer, because of my albums like Nayaab and Aafreen, which sold more copies than film music. But I certainly accept the fact my popularity reached its peak with “Chitthi Aayee Hai”. I think my appearance in that song took it to another level. “Chitthi Aayee Hai” took me across the world.
Q. Do you feel the ghazal has lost its ground in the contemporary film and music industries?
A. I know that ghazals are not as popular as they once were. But let me assure you that even today, the world over, when people are tired of listening to other kinds of music, the only alternative they look for is the ghazal.
Q. But only a handful of ghazal specialists are left today, both in India and Pakistan. According to you, what can be done to revive and popularise this form?
A. Actually, there are many young ghazal singers in India, whom I have great faith in because I have personally listened to their music. And soon you’ll be seeing many of these ghazal singers emerging like stars.
Q. How was your experience performing live for Manthan Kala in Delhi earlier this month?
A. It was unbelievable. First of all my compliments to Sulochana Mansi, who had organised the whole thing. I believe Manthan Kala is doing a lot of work in the social arena. Most striking part of the event was that Kamani [Auditorium, the performance venue] is not as big as Siri Fort. And on the day of the performance it was packed, with the same number of people waiting outside. So that kind of love and affection is amazing. People giving you so much of love and affection… I think that is the biggest gift one can really hope and wish for in this life. And that is the biggest gift I have received for my hard work and for my passion.