Born in Mumbai to renowned Carnatic vocalists Alamelu Mani and HAS Mani, trained in Carnatic and Indian classical music, and a veteran of Hindi film songs and Indipop, Hariharan might not be the most eligible candidate for the ghazal. But he considers it his forte, and has produced more than two dozen albums.
In fact, Hariharan’s singing career began with a ghazal. In 1977, after Hariharan won the top prize in a singing competition at the age of 22, music composer Jaidev signed him to sing for the movie Gaman (1978). Hariharan sang Ajeeb Sanehaa Mujh Par written by poet Shahryar, and it became quite clear from the very beginning that his Tamil roots did not come in the way of his fluency in articulating Urdu words.
“People were worried about my pronunciation,” Hariharan said about his formative years. He took Urdu lessons and trained under a guru. “I used to learn khayal gayaki from Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan,” he said. “I got a chance to learn some of his ghazals, before I started my journey in the genre. In the ’70s, I listened to some of Mehdi Hassan’s songs, and got really inspired by his style.”
This inspiration made Hariharan one of the leading composers of ghazals in the early 1980s. “One day, Ashaji called up and said, 'Main Asha bol rahi hoon' (I am Asha speaking). I was sitting on a chair and jumped up on hearing that voice. She asked whether I would be keen to do shows with her. And after that I worked with her for five or six years doing shows," he recollected.
Their collaboration culminated in the album Aabshar-e-Ghazal in 1985. The album was immensely popular, and gave Hariharan the impetus to pursue a long-standing career in ghazal singing.
Hariharan later came to create a new genre within the ghazal called Urdu Blues. He incorporated elements of jazz and blues music in the song Yeh Aaine Se (Kaash, 2000). Guitars and drums play on a slow beat alongside the sitar and sarangi moving into a noir space. Isn’t the mehfil (gathering) of the ghazal and the jazz’s club addressing the same set of music connoisseurs? This fusion piece achieves exactly that – a blend of ultra cool sounds with lyrics speaking of smoke and mirrors that is common to both forms.
In 2005, Hariharan released his ghazal album, Lahore Ke Rang Hari Ke Sang, in which he composed and sang the poetry of Pakistani poets Majeed Amjad and Nasir Kazmi, among others. The album received critical acclaim and was considered as one of his best works.
“There’s a sense of peace associated with ghazals,” Hariharan said. “No medium gives me as much freedom for creative expression as a ghazal.”