Her disciple, Rita Ganguly, still feels the presence of ammi; she can still hear those prophetic words: beta ek din woh aayega jab har gawaiya ghazal gungunayega (One day every singer will hum a ghazal). It was ammi who literally led ghazal on to the road to popularity. Better recognised as the foremost exponent of ghazal gayaki, ammi alias Begum Akhtar, was the one who took this style of singing to the common man through her magical mehfils and baithaks. However, on her 25th death anniversary recently, ammi's innumerable admirers were caught in a reflective mood. "Is this the world of ghazal that ammi dreamt of?" wrote Ganguly in an article on the occasion. While its followers complain of low standards and decreasing popularity, the ghazal finds itself marginalised in the expansive world of music.
Ghazal gayaki has been a part of the light classical thumri-dadra repertoire. It is raga-based and also lays a great deal of stress on the written word, on the correct rendition of the feel and emotion of the poetry. "It is all about how the singer's voice interacts with the tarz (tune) and the poetry, how the meaning of each word is brought out," explains musicologist Vidya Rao. According to the late classical singer Naina Devi, the impression of a song should be such that wah nahin aah nikle - this somewhat untranslatable phrase emphasises that the music should elicit, rather than roars of approval, a cry from the soul. Begum Akhtar got that kind of a response from the crowd. "Her concerts were like a conversation with the audience," remembers her pupil Shanti Hiranand.
Her success paved the way for other acts. The geetnuma (song-like) ghazals of K.L. Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, Muhammad Rafi and Talat Mahmood became a staple of Hindi filmdom. Then the heady voices of Mallika Pukhraj, Mehdi Hassan, Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum and Ghulam Ali wafted effortlessly from across the border. In the '80s and early '90s ghazal turned into middle-class India's favourite expression of deepest feelings, thoughts and desires. There was a time when almost everyone was listening to ghazals: on the radio, in parties, in films. Leading the invasion were Jagjit and Chitra Singh, Pankaj Udhas, Talat Aziz, Anup Jalota, Hariharan, Peenaz Masani, Chandan Das, Neena and Rajendra Mehta who gave a new visibility and acceptance to ghazal in its more popular avatar. "Ghazal moved out of the realm of a select crowd. It was perceived as a more accessible form, became a marker of social status for the common man," says Rao. "If you appreciated ghazals, you'd arrived." However, the sound of music is rather different these days. On the classical front there're very few names who can be identified with the ghazal repertoire. Among them ammi's pupils - Shanti Hiranand, Rita Ganguly and Anjali Banerjee - are keeping the tradition alive. However, on the popular front the ghazal has virtually gone for a song. The common man is not listening any more and the music companies aren't interested. "It's a backburner genre, not a forerunner. It occupies a very small niche," says Mehmood Curmally, director of Mumbai's leading music retail store, Rhythm House.
But many aficionados dismiss the classification of the ghazal as just another musical form that needs to be marketed well. And perhaps a bit of history is necessary as well. The 'golden age' of the ghazal, primarily an Urdu form, coincided with the final disintegration of Mughal power in India - particularly in Delhi, where the likes of Mir and later Ghalib, Momin, and Zauq were witness to an entire culture and way of life being destroyed. In independent India, the ghazal, as an attendant of the politicisation of language, had to suffer further vagaries. But all through, the ghazal had retained its popular appeal. Perhaps because more than other forms of literature it was meant to be sung - from the confines of a courtesan's house to a wandering mendicant on the streets. This mass appeal continued even with later practitioners like Makhdoom or Faiz (to name just two), who were overtly political in their poetry. The declining 'popularity' of this genre then, could be seen as a direct result of the marginalisation of Urdu in India.
And that's where the ghazal stands now. With an invisibility enforced on Urdu, not many poets have attained national recognition - which in turn translates into an abysmal lack of new ghazal singers. Search hard and you'll find only two ghazal singers holding their own: Jagjit Singh and Pankaj Udhas. Remember any ghazal albums of late? Only four in the last couple of years have made an impact: Jagjit's successful collaborative venture with Gulzar called Marasim, and his Silsilay with Javed Akhtar and Pankaj Udhas' Stolen Moments and Mehak. There is just a trickle of new ghazal albums rolling out of our music factories, and in the last decade hardly any major artiste has been added to the roster. According to industry sources, on an average around four major ghazal acts come out every year, whereas in its heyday it was 12-14 releases a year - that too when there were a limited number of music companies in the business. The established ghazal artistes themselves have migrated to other realms of music, singing new tunes, working out new images. Anup Jalota has become synonymous with bhajans. Hariharan struck a chord with his ghazals in Muzaffar Ali's film Gaman but is now trying hard to look and sound hip as the classical half of Colonial Cousins.
Even the attempts at talent promotion haven't generated any heat. Aadab Arz Hai, a ghazal-based programme on Sony hosted by Udhas, came and went with few taking note. Zee TV's TVS Sa Re Ga Ma threw up a new ghazal singer, Muhammad Vakil, but the market didn't exactly go ecstatic about him. It's this lack of a steadily growing repertoire that's the reason why ghazal is lowest in priority for the record companies. "The artistes are limited and buyers refuse to accept new acts," explains Gautam Sarkar, chief operating officer and director, Gas Music Pvt Ltd. According to Rhythm House, ghazal albums comprise a mere 4-5 per cent of their sales. They are estimated to form just about 1-2 per cent of the country's music market as compared to a share of 10-12 per cent in the late '80s.
So why isn't the ghazal moving the listener's soul any more? In the '80s film music was going through a low patch. "Listeners needed to supplement it with something else and so the pop ghazal came in," says Curmally. But film music is now back on top. Meanwhile, the niche for soulful, poetic music has been occupied by the sufi-qawwali blend of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and cheaper market versions like Ata Ullah Khan and Ram Shankar. With the change in taste, audience needs have also mutated. "Today everything is entertainment, including music," laments Shobha Deepak Singh, director, Sriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. "Listening to a ghazal requires total attention but for us music has become something that just plays in the background," says Rao. Youngsters prefer the beats of Punjabi pop, remixes, techno and rave. Parties are dominated by DJs rather than ghazal singers. "Buyers prefer thumping music tracks to dance to in the night clubs," says Sarkar. People are going in for modern, Western scores, so much so that even film music is witnessing an experimentation in sounds and rhythms. So where does this leave the desi, homegrown ghazal?
According to purists, the dip in the ghazal's fortunes is due to the 'pop ghazal' overtaking the real article. "Anybody could sing a ghazal - just wear a shawl and play the harmonium," says ghazal singer Rajendra Mehta. "The art is losing its essence, melody and philosophy. The rat race doesn't allow the artistes to have any loyalty to the ghazal," says Hiranand. In its popularity lay its own seeds of destruction. "The fall came when ghazal became a fad like a cricket match, when it became a big show organised in five-star hotels," says Mehta. "As a form of art music it became a bit too easily available," says Rao.
Earlier ghazals were sung to harmonium, tabla and sarangi, but the popular form brought in a lot of orchestration. The assault of sounds smothered the individual voice and drowned out the poetry. The ghazal has an independent existence as a literary form with a great play of irony and profoundly philosophical themes. "It's not larger than life but closer to life," says Mehta. "It is not just about husn-o-ishq (beauty and romance)," says TV producer and anchor Suhaib Ilyasi who's making a new series on Urdu poetry - an antakshari of sorts - called Bait-Baazi. Ghazal has also been a poetry of protest against orthodoxy and dogmatic, fundamentalist systems. Its uniqueness lies in hidden complexities behind a simple turn of phrase. "That layering, the hidden meanings are no longer there," says Rao. "The quality of poetry now is not too good and the singers are not selecting good poetry," says Deepak Singh. However, lyricist Gulzar thinks that the ghazal hasn't lost its charm. "Because of ignorance a lot of people think that anything in Urdu is a ghazal," he says. Lyricist and writer Javed Akhtar agrees. "Today anything passes off as a ghazal. It has a particular structure, an idea in a concise form and two lines of a ghazal are completely independent in the thought process," he says. According to him, people just want to buy a piece of culture and end up buying a song that is not in any way a ghazal.
So where does the ghazal go from here? Will it see glorious days again? Will the discerning audience opt for good lyrics and melody? Industry hands feel the form needs to modernise itself further, it must adapt to the changing mood and broadbase itself. "The art must have a modern sensibility. Jeans pahan kar gana padega," says poet Basheer Badr, a trifle ironically. Already singers are adapting to the visual medium. "The videos have younger images and a more contemporary feel," says Mandar Thakur, Channel V's head of music and artiste relations. According to Mehta, the lyrics will have to reflect contemporary times. "Devdas kind of themes won't do any more," he says.
The purists advocate a return to the roots. No doubt the market has to cater to the tastes of youngsters. "But I can't help feeling that if something deep and beautiful is given to them they'll accept it," says Ganguly. There's nothing wrong in improvising the performative style per se. "You need to reassess the traditional repertoire and sing in your own style," says Rao. However, the style has to be genuine for it to retain its appeal. "If the ghazal is good people will listen," says Mehta. He, along with Talat Aziz and Pankaj Udhas, is trying to work out some concrete steps towards a resurgence of the ghazal. Ganguly has set up bagh, Begum Akhtar Academy of Ghazal, to keep the tradition alive. She's training five youngsters and has involved eminent poets like Kaifi Azmi and Ashok Chakradhar to create a bank of poetry for the singers to choose from. Hiranand too has been training youngsters at Delhi's Triveni Kala Sangam.
Both firmly believe that you can't deny the genre its significance. Ganguly compares the ghazal to a sari. "Trousers, skirts may change with fashion but sari has a perennial beauty," she says. A few wrong notes today will, hopefully, not turn the melody into a cacophony.