History of Ghazal Singing

This is a brief note on the evolution of ghazal from a poetic form into a genre of light classical music. The beginnings of this evolution can be traced to the early 20th century. Many of its early exponents were classically trained singers who specialized in Khayaal and Thumri style of singing. However, unlike classical music which to this day is perceived as elitist, ghazals have become popular with the common man. The magical combination of beautiful lyrics and dulcet voices have enabled ghazals and ghazal singers to leave an indelible mark on the hearts and souls of ghazal listeners everywhere.


The popularity of the ghazal can be attributed to a few stalwart names in the field of ghazals today. Jagjit and Chitra Singh, with the release of their album "The Unforgettables", pulled ghazals back from the very brink of extinction. Like a breath of fresh air, ghazals swept through the Indian music scene, with ample encouragement and support being provided by the great maestros from across the border - Ghulam Ali and Mehdi Hassan. Pankaj Udhas played a big role in making ghazals popular by selecting ghazals with simple words and catchy tunes. Whether this was good or bad, only history can tell. It did have the adverse effect of diluting the ghazal gaayaki style embodied by Begum Akhtar and other ghazal singers of that era.

Ghazal has come a long way and so have ghazal singers. The number of ghazal singers has grown exponentially in the past decade or so. Yet few have been able to leave a lasting impression on the ghazal scene. The old names endure - Begum Akhtar, K.L.Saigal, Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh, Talat Mahmood. Unfortunately, the recent years have seen a steady decline in the standard of ghazal singers and ghazal 'gaayaki'. Often, geets are passed off as ghazals and an uninformed/ignorant audience accepts this without qualms (for the most part). Serious followers of ghazals spurn the 'modern' ghazal singers like Anup Jalota who have made ghazal singing a farce. Ghazal singing is an art, albeit a dying one. In the words of Mallika-e-Ghazal Begum Akhtar - "Gazal sahii Dhang se gaa_ii jaaye to us kaa nashaa sar cha.Dh ke bolataa hai" ("If a ghazal is sung in the proper way, it can be very intoxicating"). This 'nashaa' is seen less and less nowadays as anyone and everyone tries to cash in the poularity of ghazals.

One can only hope and pray that the golden age of ghazals will return, bringing with it a fresh perspective, enthusiasm and talented artistes who will take ghazal singing to new heights without having to resort to cheap gimmicks or sacrificing the traditional ways.