I first heard Mehdi saab’s recordings on the radio and then on cassettes in the 1960s. I was mesmerised by his voice, and remained so for the next 45 years. The first time we met was in 1977 in Toronto at a friend’s house. He was wearing a beautifully embroidered kurta and chewing paan. There was a regal aura about him. Others had told him that I sang well. He told me to sing something, and I was petrified, but I sang. He didn’t say anything.
The next day at a private mehfil he took me aside and advised me, “You should not sing yet. Your voice needs to be trained.” He was never anything less than honest. I think that was a turning point in my singing career. He could’ve easily made polite noises about my singing and moved on, but he didn’t. He nurtured my voice. He was a strict teacher and taught me much.
In 1986 I went on a US concert tour with him. We did 24-25 concerts on the weekends. He did most of the singing. I would observe him in between concerts. Later, I met him in Pakistan in 2005. He couldn’t sit up properly and had to be propped up with pillows. He asked me to play some of my recordings with him, and smiled when I did.
The last time he sang in India was in 2000 when he had come to Kerala for treatment. I called him to Mumbai to attend my concert. He made it a point to be there in his wheelchair. After the concert he came to dinner to a friend’s house. There were many fans there, who insisted that he sing.
I intervened on his behalf and started singing instead. I sang Khan saab’s Dil-e-nadaan tujhe hua kya hai. And then he got into the mood and joined me. At first he was a bit rusty, and then he warmed up. It was a memorable evening. Even when he was ill, there was much to learn from him.
I remember that same evening, a female artiste just couldn’t get the rendition right. Khan saab patiently tried to explain where she was going wrong. He was a very giving, very generous artiste. When I completed 25 years of singing, he sent me a video recording of himself praising my singing and encouraging me. That video is my most prized possession.
A couple of years ago, I was singing at a mehfil in Mumbai. They demanded Mehdi Hassan numbers. I impulsively took out my cellphone and called up Mehdi saab’s son Arif. I requested Khan saab to come on the line and then asked my audience to loudly greet him. When Khan saab, in Pakistan, heard that roar of approval in Mumbai, he broke down.
Last year, I toured the US for concerts themed A Tribute To Mehdi Hassan. After that concert I recorded an album at my own expense of Khan saab’s ghazals in LA. No Indian company was willing to release it at that time. Now even if they’d be interested it would look like I am cashing in on his death.
I’m also writing a book where Mehdi Saab figures prominently. Some days before his death I got to know he was critically ill. We who loved him knew the end was near. Within one year I’ve lost both my mentors, first Jagjit saab and now Mehdi saab.
An era has now ended. There won’t be another Mehdi Hassan or Jagjit Singh. He was a great classical artiste and was respected by the greatest classical vocalists like Amir Khan Sahib, Vilayat Khan Sahib and Salamat Ali Khan Shib.