DURING recent India Week celebrations in Saudi Arabia, a number of music-lovers from the Indian Subcontinent had a rare opportunity to watch the 51-year-old ghazal singer Talat Aziz perform at various functions in Riyadh and Jeddah. Talat Aziz, whose career spans three decades, hundreds of performances, and dozens of hit records and Bollywood soundtracks, was well received not only by the South Asian community in Saudi Arabia but also by Arabs, many of whom were experiencing this distinctly Subcontinental musical form for the first time.
Following a concert in Jeddah, Talat Aziz took some time from his schedule to talk about ghazal, his long career and his start in the 1960s in Hyderabad, when his father, Abdul Azeem Khan, and his mother, author Sajida Abid, instilled in him a love of the arts. “As a child, I remember how we had literary gatherings — I will not call them mehfilen; adabi nashisten is more appropriate — at home,” said Talat Aziz. “I’m talking about the 1960s. There were no formal invitations to such gatherings. They just happened.”
Such gatherings exposed him to a variety of artists, from poets and humorists to musicians and composers. “Among those who came to our old-style house on Hyderabad’s Liberty Road were famous Urdu poets such as Shaaz Tamkanat and Jan Nisar Akhtar (lyricist Javed Akhtar’s father) and famous Bollywood singer Talat Mahmood,” Talat Aziz said. “In addition to the regular meetings, famous guests in the city who were there for mushairas would come to our house. One of my relatives donated all his property for the promotion of Urdu and, in fact, one of the buildings came to be known as Urdu Hall. It was there that grand mushairas were organized. It was in such an environment that I grew up. I sang at my parents’ literary meetings and they encouraged me. And the guests would invariably say: ‘Oh, he has a good voice.’”
Ironically, the young Talat Aziz had career aspirations other than ghazal in those days. “I was a cricket fanatic. Cricket was my passion then. Everybody had some kind of interest in the game,” said Talat Aziz. “I really wanted to make cricket my career. But there were things that made me lose interest and become disillusioned. I became a victim of nasty politics. I got so frustrated that one fine morning, I gave up on cricket completely and so ghazal singing became my only passion, my only creative outlet and my only refuge. I started pursuing music seriously and by the mid-1970s when I was in college I had attained a measure of fame in the city.”
In 1975, his fame increased after he sang ghazals for more than 10,000 people at an international Urdu conference organized by Siyasat newspaper in Hyderabad. “When I went on stage, I had the fright of my life,” he said. “It was both scary and challenging. It was like throwing a non-swimmer into the sea and telling him to swim. I swam.”
An abortive move to Bombay, “the city of dreams,” once again put Talat Aziz in a dejected mood, but when a relative invited him to move to Canada, things began to change for the better. He also got the opportunity to meet one of the men whose ghazals first drew his attention, the Pakistani legend Mehdi Hassan, who is also known as the Shehenshah-e-Ghazal.
“In Canada, I met Mehdi Sahab for the first time. A friend of my father’s told me to accompany him to where Mehdi Sahab was staying,” Talat Aziz said. “I didn’t want to, but finally I gave in and went. My father’s friend said to him, ‘This is Talat Aziz. He has a good voice. Please listen to him.’ Mehdi Sahab was dismissive. ‘OK, sing,’ he told me. I sang one of his famous ghazals, ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi Dil Hi Dukhaane Ke Liye Aa.’ He kept quiet for some time and then said: ‘You’re still a kid. First learn and then sing before your elders.’ I felt awfully bad. But when Mehdi Sahab came to India in 1978 he specifically asked for me. And then we became very, very close. Then in 1986 we toured 22 countries together for concerts. That was the high point of my career.”
After returning to Bombay in 1978, Talat Aziz was determined to give recording career a try. Although he was unable to negotiate a deal with either of India’s two primary music labels, EMI and HMV, he signed with Polydor (now Universal Music) for whom he recorded a string of hit records. This led to soundtrack work in Bollywood films, television appearances and international tours.
“My first album was titled ‘Jagjit Singh Presents Talat Aziz.’ All the numbers from that album, especially ‘Kaise Sukoon Paaon Tujhe Dekhne Ke Baad/Ab Kya Ghazal Sunaao Tujhe Dekhne Ke Baad,’ ‘Chahenge Tujhe Par Kabhi Ruswa Na Karenge/Saaye Se Bhi Apne Tera Shikwa Na Karenge,’ became instant hits. Then came my ghazal in the classic Bollywood film, ‘Umrao Jaan’: ‘Zindagi Jab Bhi Teri Bazm Me Laati Hain Hamen, Ye Zameen Chaand Se Behtar Nazar Aati Hain Hamen.’ It was followed by this ghazal from ‘Bazaar’: ‘Phir Chidi Baat, Baat Phulon Ki.’ I sang it along with Lata Mangeshkar. It was a glorious and very rewarding period.”
Talat Aziz has had an illustrious career, and his fans will stay with him for life. He notes, however, that the glory days of ghazal are behind us as grinding beats and sometimes-coarse words have replaced the gentle, melodic sound.
“Ghazal is popular; only times have changed,” he said. “This is the era of remixes, hip-hop and pop. Ghazal is very popular in India in comparison to Pakistan. Yes, they have good poets. But nobody is singing ghazal in Pakistan these days. Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali — they are the only two names. But yes, ghazal has its followers. Ghazal singing is very much alive,” he said and signed off with his favorite couplet: “Ahista Ghazal Padhna, Ye Reshmi Lehja Hai/Titli Ki Kahani Hai, Khushbu Ki Zabaani Hai.”