Pankaj Udhas’s singing career can be summarised as two roads diverging in the woods. On the right was his eldest brother Manhar Udhas, a ghazal singer of some repute. On the left was his second brother, Nirmal Udhas, also a ghazal singer.
Pankaj Udhas had little choice but to take the narrow middle path. The challenge was, who amongst them would be the torchbearer of the ghazal form in the family?
Pankaj Udhas not only surpassed his brothers in fame but he also came to be inextricably linked to a type of ghazal unique to him: the song dwelling on wine-inspired imagery to invoke the divine. The benign Udhas sought to clarify this in an interview in 2001. “Of the thousands of ghazals that I've sung, only about 25 are on the subject of sharab (wine). But unfortunately, those were the ones the music companies chose for the compilations. It was a bad marketing ploy. When I recorded them, I never thought this would happen.”
Born in 1951 in a family of landlords in Jetpur in Gujarat, Udhas’s initiation into music was through his brothers, who performed at events. Once a member of the audience gifted Pankaj Udhas Rs 51 for his rendition of “Ae Mere Pyaare Watan” (Kabuliwala, 1961) during the Indo-Chinese war and it struck him that he could pursue singing. He coaxed his brother Manhar Udhas’s Urdu teacher to teach him and that’s how the youngest Udhas was introduced to the ghazal and such poets as Mir Taqi Mir, Omar Khayyam and Mirza Ghalib.
His first break as a singer was for the movie Kaamna (1972), in which he sang a tune composed by Usha Khanna and written by Naqsh Lyallpuri. In the above song clip, Udhas sings with delectable earnestness that is described in musical parlance as a voice that has not yet been “broken”; it is still young and unripe. The film went unnoticed and Udhas migrated to Canada. He began singing at local gatherings and realised the popularity of the ghazal form, which brought him back to India.
He released his first album, Aahat in 1980. This song, Yeh Alag Baat Hai Saqi, shows a marked difference in the texture of his voice from his first film solo. Deeper bass and richly nuanced, it is a sign of his arrival.
With his cameo performance in the Mahesh Bhatt film Naam (1986), in which he sang “Chitthi Aayi Hai”, Udhas became a household name. The song was written by Anand Bakshi and composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal. It lead to several offers, but Udhas decided to stick to his genre and keep his film appearances to a minimum, having sung only for a handful: Ghayal (1990), Saajan (1991), Yeh Dillagi (1994), Phir Teri Kahani Yaad Aayee (1993) and Mohra (1994).
When the music channel MTV promoted non-film music in the 1990s, Pankaj Udhas felt completely at home. He appeared in several music videos promoting his songs and ghazals. Actor John Abraham credits his career to Pankaj Udhas, since the then struggling actor was cast alongside the singer in his videos. At a concert in 2012, Abraham said, “I look at Sir (Pankaj Udhas) as a mentor because when I came into this industry as a model, the first person who graciously accepted me in his music video was Sir.”
Through his videos, Udhas pushed the reaches of the ghazal from private gatherings to every house owning a television set. His visibility leveraged his popularity over his less media-savvy brothers. Fitfully enough, it trebled each time he sang about intoxication.