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Sunday, January 10, 2010

A trip down memory lane with Pankaj Udhas

Tushar Bhatt        

The round face, topped by a mass of silken hair, did not show having put in any mileage at all,nor did it betray the hard struggle its owner had to wage to be accepted. Only the sparkling eyes spoke of late hours they have been accustomed to keep.On the forehead,partly covered by a lock of hair,there was a half-an-inch long scar,a memento of one of the numerous bleeding cuts he got as a boy in Rajkot while playing in the evenings,then mercifully devoid of the TV.The thick bush of his moustache,drooping a bit on both sides, stood out in the handsome face of Pankaj Udhas,the nice Gujarati boy next door till a few years ago,and now a renowned national ghazal singer ,the man with a velvet voice.
    Dressed in white kurta and chudidar,Pankaj,with his slightly diffident smile that revealed only a portion of his upper teeth,struck as a man who did not put on any airs of being a star.The unassuming nature had, in truth, given rise to a myth that he burst out like a meteor from nowhere, a fluke on the crowded firmament of ghazal singing, implying that he is a passing phenomenon. "This is not true",he said. "My victory in the eighties is built on many a defeat in the earlier period of my life."
    He vividly remembered how one evening in 1976,he stood alone,friendless and directionless at the JFK international airport in New York,with only dollars 150 in his pocket,a suitacase in one hand and a  harmonium in the other.He was there to try his luck in export business, setting up an office for a friend and manufacturer in Mumbai. Having failed to make a breakthrough in the career as a singer after struggling for nearly four years,he had decided to go in for business abroad. "I was 25,had cut a record for a film and had been successful as a ghazal singer in a small home circuit of
connoisseurs. But I was not progressing anywhere beyond, and not for want of trying."

    Earlier, he could not get admission to a medical college because he had not scored enough marks in the Inter Science examination. " I had dreamt of becoming a doctor because it was a career that carried a great prestige and work-satisfaction." The, he had graduated with Botany from Bombay and decided to pursue an MBA in the U.S.A. "I secured admission to the Illionois university in around 1970,but our middle class family did not have enough funds to finance my education there."
    He said he has come to believe that he was destined to become a ghazal singer. "Look at the happenings in my life and you will realise that through each setback my destiny was pulling me to become a full-time ghazal singing artist. It was ,as if,every defeat was designed to lead me on to build for my eventual success in ghazal singing."
    If destiny was playing a part,Pankaj too provided it enough support."I have toiled like a maniac,spending eight to ten hours a day,listening to ghazals sung by others such as Mehdi Hasan,learning Urdu ,trying to understand the finer nuances of words in a ghazal,or learning classical music from Master Navrang who has trained many a noted voice of yesterday and today."
    If he were not determined to pursue music as a passion, Lady Luck would not have smiled on him ever; "I could have ended up in a nice,cosy executive job or as a businessman,with interest in music,with an amateur's voice." His rigorous training made the difference and how could that be dismissed as a fluke success ?
    Destiny had earmarked for a singing career,right from the tender age of six,when he went to school No.20 in Bhaktinagar in Rajkot in the fifties.Hailing from a solidly middle class family of Mr.Keshubhai,a central government official in textiles department,Pankaj inherited an interest in music from his father. Keshubhai,himself a son an administrator in the erstwhile princely state of Bhavnagar,played Dilruba very well.His grandfather,Dosabhai,was one of the early graduates in Saurashtra, having got his 1902 from Ferguson college in Pune and got a job as a top official in the Bhavnagar state which had good musicians in the court.Pankaj's elder brothers, Manhar and Nirmal,too got this interest from the father.
    His memories of his childhood in Saurashtra are green,and happy.Pankaj was born on May 17,1951,in Jetpur,famous for its sarees,while his father was posted there.Although the family shifted to Rajkot by 1955,Pankaj has in mind imprinted forever some sweet memories."You would not believe,but I remember Motibai,the old woman who used to look after me as an infant. Our house was in an area where there were many houses of Memon families and I also remember Zubeda,an 18 to 20 year old girl from a family where I used to go to play as a child,showing great affection ."
    There is no history of music in the family of Udhases,except that Keshubhai learnt Dilruba from Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, the been player in Bhavnagar."I can see only two factors that may have contributed to music in me,and my brothers,Manhar and Nirmal.One,the Udhas family belongs to the Charan clan,who have traditionally been called Deviputra,sons of the goddess of learning and arts,Saraswati.Two,the father had a life-long passion for his Dilruba.My father would play the instrument whenever he found time,especially in the evenings as a hobby.Life was a slow-paced affair then and he would mostly be home only in his spare time.By the time we came to Rajkot,when I was hardly four,my brothers had already started in music;both are noted singers today."
    Pankaj went to the municipal school No.20 in Bhaktinagar,where the family came to live.The ghazal singer affectionately remembers his teacher Shardaben and the school principal,Vyassaheb,who used to organise a school assembly every Saturday. "Boys and girls,from families in all strata of society from rich to modest,would be asked to make a speech ,or to do solo acting or sing. Then hardly six ,I would sing whatever I had heard and could remember-- one of these was: Aai gori Radhika,brijbala balkhati ...". The school assembly performances gave tremendous confidence to the boy ,who could sing in a thin voice songs both by female and male voice
    In 1962,during the Navratri festival,the family had gone to watch a garba programme in Jagnath plot in Rajkot.Someone spotted them and hailed the boy,clad in shorts and a shirt ,to come up on the stage and sing. Nervously,and without any preparation or accompaniment,Pankaj sang a song,which was a rage then in the aftermath of the Chinese aggression,Ay mere watanke logon...There was a thunderous applause from the crowd of more than 5,000,the first of the big audiences Pankaj Udhas was to face in his singing career.There was a roaring demand for a once-more and the dazed boy had to be re-assured by the organisers that all was well. He sang again; an overjoyed listener gave an on the spot prize of Rs.51 to him,which his family gave back to the festival fund.
    "As a youth,I hoped to become a doctor,and was disappointed when inadequate marks in the inter-science could not get me an admission." His family had now shifted to Bombay where elder brother,Manhar,was trying to get a break for himself in playback singing addition to working as a mechanical engineer. Pankaj went to St.Xaviers, studying botany and chemistry for his degree,but his passion for singing continued.He won the first prize in an inter-cllegiate singing competition."Circumstances were such that I had not put much store by playback singing. My brother,Manhar,had been by then trying to emerge as a playback singer and had got several breaks.The field was already crowded with such singers as Mohammed Rafi,Mukesh,Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar,and I did not see much chance for another Udhas." Perhaps,it was the plan of the destiny that I should go for ghazal singing,he says rather simply and yet philosophically.
    Pankaj used to spend hours listening to ghazals sung by Mehdi Hasan,Begum Akhtar and others when the Maulavisaheb,who used to come to coach Manhar in Urdu,encouraged him to do something on his own in ghazal singing. The Maulavisaheb was something of a phenomenon in the Bombay film industry; he had been teaching Urdu to many a famous people such as Saira Bano,and Pankaj's brother had started learning from him on a suggestion by Kalyanji,the music director,who insisted that one should learn proper Urdu pronunciation to make a mark.The Urdu teacher started coaching Pankaj in 1969,introducing him to the treasure trove of Ghalib.
    In the closing days of January,1971, another happy accident took place.All the noted singers ,including his brother Manhar,were out of town and Usha Khanna needed to make a recording of a song urgently.She telephoned their house and spoke to Nirmal,asking him to bring his younger brother to the recording studio the next day for an audition on the microphone.He was selected to sing a nazm by Naqsh Lyalpuri for the movie,Kamna.It was recorded a day later."I felt as if a hope had been rekindled." But,nothing came his way as 1972, 1973,1974 sank into history.Maxmium,he could do was to sing in a close circuit of people who would gather at a house on a Saturday night to listen to ghazal singing.Pankaj was as if stuck.
    In 1976,he thought of migrating to the west,going in for business.He left Bombay with a suitcase and a harmonium,not sure what he will be doing,if he would be returning home.
    Fate again intervened.During a stopover in London,he sang at a friend's place,was booked for some small parties and landed in New York,still directionless,but with some more confidence.The friend with whom he was to stay in New York was himself away and Pankaj, as he stood forlorn at the airport,made a reversed charge call to another friend, Ramesh Sahaney in Toronto.Ramesh told him to take a plane to Canada,where in a few days Pankaj became famous as a singer from India. Theree were a number of Indians who had made tracks to Canada,having fled Idi Amin's Uganda.Culturally starved,they lapped up the offerings by Pankaj hungrily. He stayed on for eight months,got a lot of self- confidence at concerts,but also with a realisation that ghazal singing in Canada would never take him anywhere. He would stuck again in a rut.He was also homesick and came back to his brothers and parents in Bombay. "Ours is a very close-knit family and we three brothers have an especially close rapport." On his way back,he met Mehdi Hasan in London and spent a month with him,listening to his singing.Some say there is more than a trace of Mehdi's style in Pankaj.
    Homecoming was comforting,but it was as if, "I was back to square one." He took up learning music again, noting that ghazal was becoming popular.The years between 1977 and 1980 slipped even as he debated with himself what to do."But this time ,I was more determined than ever to pursue ghazal singing as a career.I had a lot of confidence gained abroad,could sing for three hours at a stretch, was willing to toil and learn more.The competition was tough and there was a peculiar attitude about my being a Gujarati : 'Are yaar, yeh Gujarati ladka hai,pata nahin kya gayega or kya nahin.' Very patronising--also very demoralising. "I wanted to break this myth.I am proud to be a Gujarati.I applied myself with vigour."
    In 1979 only,another happy accident took place when at a neighbour's place,Pankaj met Farida Variawa, a parsi girl,whom he married in 1982."She has been a very positive and major influence in my days of struggle to establish myself in ghazal singing."
    A new music recording company was toying with an idea to manufacture pre-recorded cassettes in 1979.Pankaj got an offer.Destiny took a hand in the matters again.
    Even as the proposal was being discussed,the brilliant Gujarati poet,Sheikh Adam Abuwala,came to their house,to spend a few minutes with his brother Manhar,heard Pankaj and sat for three hours.Sheikh Adam stayed on for days,and together they pored over a large number of ghazals. The first recording Pankaj made was that of a ghazal by the late Sheikh Adam: Tum aye meri zindagi men to barsatki tarah...
    Some seven-eight ghazals were chosen for the recording.Pankaj's first album,Aahat, was made in December,1979.The poet,says Pankaj,introduced him to poetry in a different perspective.He had a vast repertoire of ghazals;" we must have read more than ten thousand ghazals and other poetry together,just so that a Gujarati youth could make a grade." He would stay with us,talk about poetry for hours,laying a solid foundation.
    "When my album,Muqarer,was released,I had finally arrived,being accepted as a ghazal singer of substance." Mehfil, which came thereafter,re-inforced his position further.By now,Pankaj has completed more than 25 albums of ghazal singing.His album,Aman, was premiered on TV,drawing applause.He was working on a new idea."I have an ambition to reach the younger generation  of,say 14 or 16 years old people. The kind of music that is popular among them is rap,disco which has neither meaningful poetry nor any music,save the beats. I want to reach out to this segment with my kind of music-- not at all loud,full of poetry and melodious.”

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