Mohabbat karne wale kam na honge, teri mehfil mein lekin hum na honge. (There will be no shortage of those who will cherish you, but in this gathering of your admirers, I will not be there.)
For more than half a century, this Hafeez Hoshiarpuri ghazal has been led by Pakistani ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan. He presented it with so much nuance and tenderness that for years the pangs of separation in this play transcended even the geopolitics of the subcontinent. The ghazal has become so popular that it has been sung by other big names such as Farida Khanum, Iqbal Bano and Jagjit Singh. But it was Hassan who etched this ghazal – along with “Ranjish hi sahi” – into our common consciousness. For “Mohabbat karne wale”, he used Tilang, the raga from the folk melodies of Rajasthan, where Hassan was born and learned music.
So when Brooklyn-based Pakistani musician Arooj Aftab walked away with a Grammy earlier this month – a first for a Pakistani woman – in the Best Global Musical Performance category for the “neo-Sufi” version of this ghazal that she calls “Mohabbat” in her 2021 album Vulture Prince (New Amsterdam Records), it has become a moment to cherish for the subcontinent.
The ghazal was first read in 1929 by Hoshiarpuri at the famous Government College in Lahore.
But for “Mohabbat“, which has musical influences from various worlds of jazz, Hindustani music, Sufi and folk music, Aftab does not acknowledge – either in the digital versions of the album or in his acceptance speech – the poet or the composer, even though the basic tune is used in its entirety. The only difference is the rhythm, orchestration and of course, Aftab’s voice and style. The Recording Academy award is for his interpretation of the ghazal, but it is incumbent on Aftab to acknowledge its origins.
Vulture Prince, Aftab’s third album, was released after years of struggle in Pakistan among a family who enjoyed musical baithaks at home but preferred their daughter not to make music. She combines the pain of the famous ghazals with felted orchestral arrangements created with the harp, the flugelhorn, the double bass, the violins and the synth. She sings “Diya hai” by Mirza Ghalib, where the poignancy of the poet’s lyrics are released through her voice – the last song she and her brother shared before he died during the making of the album. The elegy and its pain are not lost on the listener. There is also “Kuch toh duniya ki inaayat” by Sudarshan Fakir, who ended up with Begum Akhtar at the time. Ghalib, Fakir and Begum Akhtar are also uncredited. It gives new air to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s famous “Suroor”, but Anwar Farrukhabadi, the poet, is nowhere to be found in the seven-track album. The album, however, advertises a perfume oil created by Dana El Masri, inspired by the music. From now on, the oil is exhausted.
Barack Obama chose “Mohabbat” as one of his favorites for 2021 and the piece was named one of the best songs of 2021 by The New York Times. But I prefer to listen to Hassan’s version. Mainly because of its quality but also because of its sincerity. He almost always credited the poet. “Ye Hafiz Hoshiarpuri saab ki ghazal hai…”
Aftab has not issued any statement or explanation. But she shared a message from a friend on her Facebook page which read: ‘For those who ask Arooj Aftab for credits… either they are jealous or they don’t understand that you can take any old poetry and compose it yourself, then there is no more coverage. This is not a new composition. It’s the same tune sung with a different orchestration. Because she is trained in Western forms of music, she stripped the ghazal of classical ornaments and created a new framework for it. Hoshiarpuri’s words give context to his pain. This is why credit is necessary.
In 2018, at the Gurmani Center for Languages and Literature in Lahore, 89-year-old Farida Khanum sat in a wheelchair and sang the same ghazal, immersed in Hoshiarpuri angst and sarcasm. Musician and author Ali Sethi, who was in conversation with her, was visibly impressed. So were those who were present. But before Khanum started, she said, “Ye Mehdi bhai (Hassan) ne gaia hai. Aur badi gayaki ke saath gaia hai. Maine isko light music ki tarah gaaya hai”. (Mehdi bhai sang this. And sang it with great dexterity. I sang it like light music). Even if Khanum’s version is impeccable, she does not let the moment pass without this mention.
Although Khanum’s reference is respectful, all we expect from Aftab is courtesy.
This column first appeared in the print edition of April 15, 2022 under the title “The courtesy of credit”. The author can be contacted at [email protected]