Who says ghazals are out of fashion?

Poetry and music have been an inseparable part of renowned ghazal singer PANKAJ UDHAS, who has just come up with an album In Search Of Meer, a collection of poems of the legendary Urdu poet Meer Taki Meer. "Ghazals will never go out of fashion - after the ebb, there is a flow," he tells SHABANA ANSARI.

"Nazuki us ke lab ki kya kehiye, Pankhadi gulab ki si (How do I describe the beauty of her lips; they are like the soft petals of a rose)," quotes Pankaj Udhas, the master of soulful ghazals, from a couplet written by Urdu poet Meer Taki Meer. Despite being one of the greatest contemporary ghazal singers, the man is charm and elegance personified. Clad in black jeans and a T-shirt and seated comfortably at his plush Carmichael Road residence, Pankaj Udhas seems unaware of his ability to set pulses racing with his ethereal voice.

How a man, who was born with a velvet voice came to hold a bachelor's degree in subjects such as Chemistry and Botany, is a mystery in itself... "My father insisted on a sound education," explains Udhas, "but I always knew that my true calling was music." Udhas started performing at a very young age, even as he was studying at St. Xavier's College.

Having released various ghazal albums from time to time, Udhas' most recent one is an album based on the poetry of renowned Urdu poet Meer Taki Meer. "The album titled In Search of Meer is an assortment of poems written by Meer about 250 years ago. It is actually my tribute to the poet, who has inspired and intrigued ghazal connoisseurs over the years," he says. It was during his early years of Urdu lessons from Maulavi Saeed Mirza, that the young Udhas was introduced to Meer's poetry. "What appealed to me the most is the simplicity, use of colloquial phrases and the Sufism, apparent in Meer's poems. Having read a lot of his work, I decided that I should sing his poems in my album," says Udhas, when questioned about his fascination for Meer.

Although his commitment to singing the works of contemporary poets kept him away from Meer, ultimately his love for the great poet's works prevailed. "The process of searching for his complete collection of poems started way back in 1999. With great difficulty I got my hands on Quliyat-e-Meer (the complete collection of Meer's lifetime works) - a rare book that was found in a library. Noted Urdu poet Zameer Kazmi guided and helped me in scanning and selecting the kind of poetry that could be put to tune. We spent long hours reading through 4,000 odd ghazals and short-listing them to 50 ghazals and 200 odd outstanding couplets. They were finally narrowed down to nine ghazals and 20 odd couplets for the album," says Udhas, about how In Search of Meer finally happened.

Pankaj Udhas, a celebrated singer though he is, has often been criticised for being instrumental in promoting the works of contemporary poets at a time when other ghazal singers were concentrating on the works of great poets like Mirza Ghalib. "I sang ghazals written by contemporary poets because I wanted to reach out to the masses instead of restricting myself to a niche market that only appreciated the works of the stalwarts of Urdu poetry," says Udhas, by way of justification. "Besides, the poets I worked with spoke the language of the common man and that is one reason why my ghazals have always been appreciated by the public," explains Udhas.

Having made ghazal singing a loved and recognised art, in a long career spanning over 24 years, Udhas has played a major role in the revival of people's interest in the Urdu language. However, he has been ridiculed by purists for popularising ghazals with words like nasha (intoxication), sharab (wine) and maikhana (tavern). Most of his works have found their way to the beer bars and have stayed there. Clarifying his stance on this, he says, "As an artiste, I never made a conscious effort to sing these kind of ghazals. I have sung in all moods and have my own reasons for selecting a particular ghazal. For example, a ghazal written by Zafar Gorakhpuri, Aye Gham-e-Zindagi Mujh Ko De Mashvara; Ek Taraf Uska Ghar Ek Taraf Maikada (Life, please give me advice on where I should go; on one hand is His house on the other is the tavern), refers to God Almighty and worldly distractions. The depth of its meaning appealed to me and I decided to sing it." Pointing out that poetry should not be taken literally, he says wine and tavern are metaphors for temptations and distractions in life. "I have been branded as a singer who promotes drinking. But I am not advocating alcoholism in any way. Everybody has his or her own interpretation. One can be intoxicated by love, happiness or power too!" Udhas says.

Hitting out at his critics, he says, "How many of them have actually given any thought to classic poets like Meer and Daag? I have atleast tried to be versatile in my singing and I am very happy and proud of the work I have been doing." Talking about his decision to stay away from devotional songs and also playback singing, he says, "Ghazal singing is my priority and has kept me away from all other forms of singing. I do playback singing only when I am particularly impressed by a song." Though he enjoys listening to spiritual music, singing bhajans is something that he does not look forward to. "I may do some devotional work in the future, for a charity perhaps," he adds.

Udhas' future projects include albums on the poems of other classic poets like Daag. Ghazals sung by Begum Akhtar and Mehdi Hasan are his favourite while among his own works he loves Deewaron Se Milkar Rona Achcha Lagta Hai.

On being told that ghazals seem to have lost their popularity these days, Mr Udhas says he feels hurt by insinuations that the golden era of poetry is over. "Ghazal as an art form will never die. After the ebb, there is a flow," he insists.