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Features |  13 Apr 2009 11:15 |  By chiragsutar

Is the ghazal disappearing?

The number of ghazal singers has come down exponentially in the past decade or so. The few great singers who left a lasting impression on the ghazal scene were Begum Akhtar, K L Saigal, Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Jagjit Singh and Talat Mahmood. However, in recent years, this genre has only seen a steady decline in the number of loyal listeners.  

The question is – Are Ghazals disappearing in this age of peppy beat music? "No one actually attempted to contemporize ghazals in India. While one can relate to Mehdi Hassan and Farida Khanum as someone who represented the traditional way of singing ghazals, Jagjit Singh, on the other hand, took the effort of bridging the gap and introduced western elements into ghazals," believes Big Music CEO Kulmeet Makkar. Big Music has, in its latest initiative, tried to bridge the gap between the ghazal and the young listener by making innovative videos of all the eight tracks of Jagjit Singh's new album Inteha.

"Films are a great medium to popularise ghazals, but very few music directors have accepted it. The music of today's age doesn't require much riyaaz. On the other hand, ghazals demand a strong base and constant riyaaz. This may be one of the several reasons why films are shying away from the ghazal," believes new generation ghazal singer Mohammad Vakil, who recently released his album Guzaarish on the Times Music label.  

Only recently, maestro Jagjit Singh sparked off a controversy soon after A R Rahman's Oscar win, by saying that if Rahman is a truly great music director; he should be asked to compose ghazals. Later, he had to clarify his stand by saying, "What I meant was Rahman, being an innovative award-winning composer who connects with Gen-Next, should also include ghazals written by stalwarts like Gulzar in his film repertoire. Of late, he has been confining himself to jazzy and folksy-fusion Indi-pop. Since he is versatile enough, he should be able to come up with fabulous ghazals and popularise them." 

But the legendary singer did have a point. Perhaps, the last film to have contemporary ghazals in a film was Tum Bin in 2001. Other films featuring ghazal were Sarfarosh (1999) and Joggers Park (2003).  

Music director Nikhil, of the Nikhil-Vinay duo, who had given a modern twist to ghazals thorough his compositions in Tum Bin says, "Modern filmmakers and music directors are not trying, they have been completely influenced by western music - most are making films by watching DVDs of western films and reproducing them - where is the director's contribution to the film? I don't think both producers and music directors are experimenting enough- I feel there's a lot of scope if they can present ghazals in a contemporary manner."  

But promotions are not the only factor which can help this genre as the issue has gone much beyond - like listening habits. Feels Makkar, "Today's music is on the move, anything which is soft and easy listening needs a mood and ambience. Unfortunately, the listening habits have changed and people are listening to music on the move- while driving or partying."

Apparently, the revenue streams are also pulling the genre down, feels Times Music CEO Adarsh Gupta. "It's a downward spiral for ghazal music. The current mood in the market does not support this genre, but having said that, if someone comes with an exceptionally good album, it will work" he says. On being asked if contemporizing the genre will give it a lift, Gupta says, "If you use cosmetics on an aging woman, it doesn't make her any good." 

Besides this, a common perception is that youngsters do not listen to ghazals. However, it seems there are many ghazal lovers among youngsters, who would prefer to remain its secret admirers. "They do not like to admit they like to listen to ghazals, because they feel it's not 'cool' to hear ghazals," says Makkar 

But the ghazal is obviously working at some level, if EMI India felt the the market was right for bringing out a compilation of hit film and non film ghazals just last month 
It's all about the mood. If I am in the mood, I'll hear ghazals. The kind of life we lead is stressful. After reaching home, I do not like to listen to anything that is sad, because, it's even more depressing. I will definitely choose to listen to a song that peps me up," says Aditya Bharadwaj, a media professional 

In earlier days, both films and radio played a significant role in popularising the genre. Not anymore. Musicians often crib that radio stations ignore the ghazal, citing listener preferences. "Radio stations are going mass and ghazals is certainly not mass music – it requires a refined taste," says Pralay Bakshi, Station Head of Fever Kolkata on being asked why radio stations don't support the genre. However, there are some stations like Big's Kolkata station that do play ghazals but only â€?film ghazals' 

Promoting ghazals and Hindustani classical music was predominantly done by state broadcaster All India Radio and anybody who wants to listen to ghazals can still switch to AIR. However, at this point, private stations don't look keen on following the example. "Probably when Phase III comes in, and when radio stations would be allowed to have multiple stations, probably then stations would devote time to a certain genre or cater certain audience. Even then, I don't think they will play it the entire day- nobody would like to commit commercial suicide," laughs Bakshi.  

It seems this sentiment also varies from cities. For instance, Delhi is a very contemporary music market compared to Kolkata, which still has an audience who would be open to listening to ghazals. Mumbai, needless to say, has the ever dominant Bollywood ruling the charts, while in Bangalore, its western music all the way.  

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 gimmickry. If we compare the current state of Sufi music to that of Ghazals, Sufi has fared far too well with the contemporary element- in fact, it has turned into the highest selling genre - why can't ghazal singers give it a similar lift through tasteful arrangements? After all, a few years back, no one knew what Sufi was, but now it's the only thing that works 

It's up to the musicians if they want to take the genre to the masses or keep it to the restricted audience. Taking the genre to the masses would mean tweaking and tweaking would mean killing the soul of the rich genre to a large extent – in the interest of music, it would perhaps be best if the thought of contemporizing ghazals more than what it is done now is kept aside – that way at least we will have a genre which has its own straight �back'.