Those who listen to the music of South Asia will not need to be told who Mehdi Hassan is. I am interested not so much in introducing him to readers as in discussing my experience of listening to a private recording of one his live performances, made available in the last decade on YouTube.

I have one ghazal in particular in mind, by Hasrat Mohani, Kaise Chhupaun Raaz e Gham, whose studio version I first heard when I was 15. It was on an album simply called Ghazals, a collection of the recordings – presumably 78 or 45 rpm releases – that had made Mehdi Hassan famous in Pakistan, and then in India. Kaise Chhupaun Raaz e Gham (“how do I hide this secret pain”: a tautology that works beautifully in Urdu) was, in this version, about six minutes long.


The recording seemed to be from the 1960s, possibly done in the Radio Pakistan studio. It was a song in which Mehdi Hassan sang to a baithak accompaniment, with no film-type additions: just a harmonium, sarangi, tabla and swarmandal.

Also, as was the case sometimes with traditional ghazal performances, the sthhayi (to speak in terms of song-structure), or matla’a, or the opening verse and its rhyming sections, was sung with the tabla, and the antara (the second bit of the structure) without.

Then, around six years ago, I discovered a live version of this song on YouTube that was more than 26 minutes long: the length, say, of a khayal, incorporating both vilambit and drut compositions, on a long playing record.


Ghazal performances – especially for Hassan, for whom the form is an opportunity for musical elaboration – can occasionally be around ten minutes long, or slightly longer; but when you see a figure like 26.38 (the playing time of a long playing record), you wonder if the ghazal as a musical form, not just as a poetic one, has the capacity to be expanded in this way and still hold the listener’s attention.

The answer, of course, is that, in the hands of a certain kind of improviser or creator, almost any form or raw material can explored through variations that one wouldn’t have thought it capable of accommodating.

To me, this particular recording is significant for one reason: it made me understand, for the first time, as I was listening to it again a few years ago, what improvisation in Hindustani classical music is. It is deferral. Elaboration or variation or improvisation – or whatever we wish to call the imaginative treatment of the raga – is no different from prevarication. Alankar is not simply adornment, or the addition of intricate detail, it is also the holding back of something: a note or a phrase. It involves the deliberate and pleasurable setting up, and disappointment, of expectation.

I became vaguely aware of this feature in khayal exposition when I was around 17. A cousin of mine (a singer, who was visiting my family in Bombay from Silchar) and I had gone to listen to singer Kishori Amonkar at the Tejpal Auditorium in Mumbai. Amonkar was singing Yaman, a raga. Early on, in the alaap, my cousin exclaimed “Ah!” and whispered, “See how she keeps avoiding the sa.”

Singer Kishori Amonkar. Credit: সায়ন্তন ভট্টাচার্য্য, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the form and progression of Yaman – its chalan, or gait – itself involves bypassing the sa, or the tonic, when the first three notes are sung. So, ni re ga comprise a beginning that is unlike the way the Kalyan thaat (on which, according to musicologist VN Bhatkhandhe, Yaman is based) is written down in music students’ notebooks – sa re ga and onwards.

Few ragas are linear in the way Bhatkhandhe’s thaats are: they are shaped by evasion. Yaman will ascend from ni to re and only return to sa later on in the descent, from a note above it: generally re, which itself will be approached by a note higher in the progression – ga, or pa. Its avoidance of sa is subtle, without, for instance, the extreme obsession that Marwa displays for eliding the tonic. But clearly Amonkar was repeatedly exploring routes in her exposition that ran askance to the sa in a way that caught my cousin’s attention.

This moment from 1979 receded from my consciousness, and has returned to me only in the light of my discovery of the deferrals through which Mehdi Hassan sang (in 1986, according to one YouTube upload of this performance) Kaise Chhupaun Raz e Gham. Hassan is, of course, known to have brought some of the expansiveness of what is vaguely called “classical music” – the term refers to khayal, I think – to the ghazal.

By this, people mean, I suppose, that he gave to the ghazal the largesse of modulation and elaboration that became a characteristic of the khayal from the 1930s onwards. They may also mean that he slowed down the ghazal without literally decreasing its tempo – as the khayal did in the long vilambit sections. But there is an ethos of the vilambit – a deliberate unhurriedness – in Hassan’s interpretations.

Part of the reason attributed to his expansion of the ghazal as a form for musical elaboration is imaginative necessity: the fact that he largely developed these innovations in former President and General Muhammad Zia ul Haq’s Pakistan of the late 1970s, where a programmatic Islamicisation saw the waning of classical music. Part of it has to do, perhaps, with temperament: a singer with a classical, and classicist (by which I mean poised, sophisticated, unsentimental), world-view practising a form that was driven substantially not only by its poetry but by romantic self-expression.

To this form Hassan would bring, contradictorily, an aesthetic both of tonal exploration and self-abnegating tranquillity: such contradictions can create a new kind of art and artist. The tranquillity was something he aimed for through classical tonality: the eschewal of vibrato, or, as he called it, “vibration”, an eschewal he speaks of towards the beginning of this interview as a musical-spiritual mission that defined his life.


“Vibrato” emerges in Western music in the Romantic period as a means of underlining human emotion, and it’s this underlining of the self that Hassan, and khayal, in their meditative quest, wish to put to one side.

The quasi-vilambit structure of Hassan’s 1986 live version of Kaise Chhupaun Raaz e Gham is of interest to me because of the room it makes for elaboration and improvisation in a way that not so much mimics the khayal’s badhat or progression, but throws light on the process of elaboration it has been influenced by. I mean listening to khayal helps us to understand how Hassan fashions his approach to improvisation; but, equally, his approach throws light back on what improvisation in raga and khayal comprises.

The song is set to Pilu, whose notes are sa re ga (komal or flat) ma pa dha ni (both the natural and komal or flat varieties). The two gandhars (both the flat and the natural third) in Hassan’s rendition create departures and shifts in register and mood (from around 1.08 minutes in the original recording; 1.12 minutes in the live one).

Pilu is a favoured raga for the thumri, which at once puts it in the “light classical”/ romantic slot. The question for Hassan would be: what kind of elaborations might spring out of these notes that remain true to the thumri’s romantic intricacies and yet recall the khayal’s unpredictable evasions, delays, and expansiveness?

The first thing to note is that Hassan sings the song in the original recording at an unusually high key (for him, and indeed any male singer): F# on the record, close to G in the live performance. This means – in contrast to a thumri or even a khayal composition – he dwells mainly on the raga’s first five/ six notes (sa re ga (both flat and natural) and ma) and dips frequently, with ease, into the lower pa dha ni sa.

Occasionally, he will leap up and touch the upper flat seventh, or komal nishad: but the higher notes are generally ignored. Unlike a khayal bandish – whose style it makes reference to in the repeated downward-moving taan on karu – the song makes no attempt to attain the upper tonic. As in the first half of a vilambit alaap, it remains content with approaching the first five notes of the raga (and the notes in the lower octave) from a multiplicity of perspectives.

Then there is the suspense created by the word “kaise”. The word means “how”: “how do I hide my secret pain?” Part of the suspense would seem to derive from the word itself, which, even as a standalone, implies a mystery or problem. After giving his audience the initial information of the first two lines (kaise chhupau raaz e gham/ deedaye tar ko kya karu; How do I hide this secret pain?/ What should I do with these tears?), Hassan then goes back to the word kaise and, from 2.43 to 4.00, revisits it and raaz (“secret”) and, later, chhupaun, and puts off coming to the second line for a minute and a half.

The listeners’ sense of being on tenterhooks and their delight no longer have to do with what the second line of the ghazal might be; they know what it is. It has to do with the slowing down which kaise and raaz participate in. The third line, dil ki tapish ko kya karu, comes at 5.37 minutes; the fourth, soz e jigar ko kya karu, almost a minute-and-a-half later, at 7.02.

Notice the listeners’ delight each time a forward movement from the third line to the fourth is frustrated. Impeded movement has greater creative energy than onward movement. Thus, the first four lines in the live performance. Bear in mind that the studio recording through which I first became acquainted with this song is, in its entirety, 5.47 minutes.

In a mushaira, a poet or shair reciting their ghazal will repeat a line for effect, to increase its impact. Hassan is not really repeating; he is prevaricating. His cue is not the mushaira; it is the raga and the khayal. To repeat is to emphasise; to prevaricate is to create beauty. A raga is an unfolding. It is also coterminous and synonymous with (especially in a khayal) the holding up of that unfolding. The audience knows this, and is also learning it afresh as they listen; their fulsome responses make that abundantly clear.

Where do the suspense and surprise come from, then, when, in many instances, the audience may already know the ghazal? Similarly, with the raga and the khayal: it is only very rarely that the audience is presented with a raga that is wholly new. The listeners know the raga; the suspense has to do with their anticipation to do with how its treatment, its coming-into-existence, will be delayed, sidelined, and fulfilled by the singer.

The gasps we hear intermittently from an audience listening to alaap are not do with developments akin to narrative twists, like the identity of a murderer being revealed. Plot details are familiar already to Hindustani classical audiences – in Yaman, they are ni re ga ma# pa, ga ma# dha ni sa, sa ni dha pa, pa re sa. These coordinates will now seem to be ignored while being, at the same time (in the interests of the raga’s propriety), scrupulously adhered to.

It is this balancing act (rather than the disclosure of new facts or new information) that brings with it excitement and surprise. It is on these principles that Hassan allows himself to expand Kaise Chhupaun Raaz e Gham radically. I wonder if he would have done this if he had not had Hindustani vocalist Ustad Amir Khan somewhere in his consciousness. But Hassan’s performance also makes it possible for me to understand what Ustad Amir Khan and the 20th-century khayal are up to.

Amit Chaudhuri is a writer, a Hindustani classical vocalist, and a composer of crossover music. Listen to his music here.