Hariharan – A Great Musician Lost

Paths are not found in the distant lands, they exist in our hearts – Buddha

“Hari must be sleeping now thanks to his favourite ‘sharaab’!” A middle aged women sitting behind me loudly commented and a wave of laughter washed around. It was an evening many years ago at Chennai’s Music Academy Auditorium and it was past the time for the start of Hariharan’s Ghazal concert. The auditorium had filled up. Accompaniments like Sarangi, tabla, harmonium, flute and guitar were all tuned up and kept ready on the stage. But Hariharan had not arrived yet though one hour had already passed beyond the appointed time. The crowd was getting restive. Shouts of anger and disorderly expressions of displeasure were beginning to raise their heads in a confused hall. To pacify the crowd musicians arrived on the stage and started tuning the music instruments again. Half an hour later Hariharan walked in with his quick strides and sat on the stage. There was a collective sigh of relief from the audience, but very little of welcome claps. Hariharan in no mood to be apologetic for his late arrival, drawn the harmonium close to him and started singing. “When the loneliness of the night thumps like my heart….” ‘Jab Raat Ki Tanhaayee Dil Ban Ke Dhadakti Hai…’

A magic descended on the audience. Everything forgotten and they seemed to have been transported to their own worlds of musical bliss. It was a Ghazal written by Bashir Badr, the people’s Ghazal poet of Urdu and set to the musical score by Hariharan himself in his very first album, Abshaar-E-Ghazal means the waterfall of Ghazals. By the time Hariharan had reached the last landing note of the Ghazal, I was lost in an indefinable but overwhelming feeling which left me with moist eyes. I had not heard that Ghazal sung by Hariharan before that. What followed over the next 2 hours was undoubtedly one of the most amazing Ghazal concerts I had heard in my entire lifetime. That unforgettable concert proved to me once again that Hariharan is indeed a very rare Ghazal singer.

A few years later, I went to meet Hariharan at Chennai’s five star hotel Le Meridian. I too had played a small part in promoting and marketing some of Hariharan’s albums as our music company held the distribution rights of many of his albums of nineties, but this was the first time that I met him at close quarters. This meet was in connection with a music event to be held in Kuwait. He arrived well past the time he had allotted to me for the meeting. But my enthusiasm remained undiminished as I was to meet in person my much loved Ghazal singer. At the moment I saw him, I greeted him ‘Hariji’ and touched his feet. He smiled but appeared lost in some concerns.  At that time he was acting as the hero of leading lady Khushbu in a Tamil film, Power of women and his involved mobile phone conversations was around it.

On the lift to his room from the foyer of the hotel, he asked an attractive woman in modern dress,”Weren’t you in the flight from Mumbai, this morning?” After a short and definitive ‘no’ as if she did not know who he was, she got off at the next floor. Hariharan’s face showed his disappointment. I too felt embarrassed and I told myself about the woman, ‘what a wasted life oblivious to music’! Our meeting became an acutely disconcerting experience, rocked as it was by the combined effects of the complications of the film Power of women and the ‘beauty on the lift’. To my request that he may include some important Ghazals of him in the Kuwait music show, he said rather crossly, ”I will take care of that. I never discuss with anybody on the list of songs for my stage shows.” When I told him that I need to give the list of songs to the instrumental musicians in advance, his reply was, “I will see to it later.” I left the place without wanting to disturb my favorite singer anymore.

From the time in mid-eighties when I first started listening Hariharan’s Ghazals, I had a great crush on his out-of-this-world rendering style and the rare magnetism of his voice. Though I was a huge fan of Jagjit Singh at that time, till I was introduced to the Ghazals of Mehdi Hassan in the early nineties, Hariharan remained the Ghazal singer closest to my heart. I was wonder-struck and enthused that Hariharan, a South Indian, was so brilliantly and effortlessly handling a genre of music that Pakistanis and North Indians were dominating to the exclusion of almost all others.

I have been an ardent fan of his Ghazals starting from ‘Daayam Pada Hua’ of the album ‘Ghazal Ka Mausam’, one of his early albums that came in 1983, ‘Kuch Door Hamarey Saat Chalo’ from the earlier mentioned ‘Abshaar-E-Ghazal’, ‘Ban Nahin Paaya’, ‘Saakia Jaaye Kahaan’, ‘Awara’ and ‘Hum Ne Kaati’ from the album ‘Horizon’, ‘Kab Tak Yoon Hi’ from the album ‘Reflections’, ‘Haat Mein Le Kar’ from the album ‘Sukoon’ to ‘Kaash Aisa’, ‘Yeh Aainey Se’, ‘Jhoom Le’ and ‘Maikade Bandh Karey’ from the album ‘Kash’ released in 2000. I was a regular listener of his albums like ‘Paigham’, ‘Dil Ki Baat’, ‘Gulfaam’, ‘Qaraar’, ‘Jashn’ and ‘Haazir’. I can keep on listing my favourite Hariharan ghazals like ‘Aa Chandni Bhi’, ‘Ahde Wafa Aahista’, ‘Jab Who Mere Kareeb’, ‘Mujhe Phir Wahi Yaad’, ‘Koyi Pata Hiley’, ‘Jiya Jiya Na Jiya’, ‘Koyi Saaya Jhilmilaaya’, ‘Phool Hain Chand Hain’ and ‘Shahar Dhar Shahar’.

His very first film song too is a spell-binding Ghazal. It was the composition of one of my favourite Indian film music composers, Jaidev. That Ghazal ‘Ajeeb Saneha Mujh Par Guzar Gayaa Yaaron’ was the highly noticed song of the Hindi film Gaman released in 1978. Hariharan won the Best Singer Award of the Uttar Pradesh State Government for that song. He was bestowed with the unique honour of singing ‘Kabhi Main Kahoon’ and ‘Yeh Lamhe’ for the film Lamhe by composers Shiv-Hari, a duo formed by Santoor maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma and the Flute legend Hari Prasad Chaurasia. Later, Hariharan gave hundreds of hit film songs in languages as diverse as Hindi, Marathi, Bhojpuri, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu. He won the National Award as India’s Best Playback Singer, twice.

Hariharan, whose mother tongue is Tamil, was born in Trivandrum, Kerala, on 3rd April of 1955. His father, H.A.S.Mani, was a native of Trivandrum. Emerging as one of the first graduates of Travancore Music College, H.A.S.Mani migrated to Bombay and ran a South Indian music school there. As a music teacher he had the distinction of creating many famous Carnatic classical singers like Bombay Sisters. A ten years old girl named Alamelu came as his student and learnt from him for nine years. Later, the 31 years old Mani wooed and wed his 19 years old student Alamelu. Hariharan was born a year later. Alamelu herself was a very gifted music talent. Hariharan grew up in an ambience that always brimmed with music. Unfortunately, Hariharan lost his father when he was barely eight years old.

Having lost her husband at the age of 28, Alamelu Mani lived only for her son. She grew in stature as a Carnatic musician learning from legends like Semmangudi and T.Brinda. She also served as the first Principal of the Music School owned by Bombay’s famous Shanmukhananda Sabha. Her disciples run to thousands. She taught Carnatic music to Hariharan as his first Guru. But, even as a child, Hariharan was attracted to Hindustani music than Carnatic music. And he was particularly partial to the Ghazals of Mehdi Hasan. He loved Jagjit Singh’s Ghazals as well. Having decided that Hindustani music was his destiny, even as a teenager Hariharan managed to become the disciple of the famous singer and teacher Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan.

Ghulam Mustafa Khan is the heir of the glorious Rampur-Sahaswan Gharana which was a branch of Saania music tradition established by Mian Tansen himself. Hariharan got completely immersed in this Hindustani music tradition by his music tutelage under Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan. His daily routine now included anything between 10 to 13 hours of practice and music training. Hariharan’s consuming ambition was only to live as a Ghazal singer and he was determined to learn Urdu, the language of Ghazals.  He consummately devoted his total attention to the subtleties, nuances and flourishes of the Urdu verses. Later his mastery in Urdu won admiration even in Lucknow, the capital of Urdu in India.

In the meanwhile, having graduated from college, Hariharan started giving small concerts. His innings with television started from its Black & White era. Composer Jaidev, who officiated as a judge in an All India music competition in 1977 noticed Hariharan who had won it. That was how he was called upon to sing his number in Gaman. But for years thereafter Hariharan did not get any opportunity worth mentioning in films but he was singing now and then a few film songs in Hindi.

But those times were the golden years of Hariharan’s Ghazals. That was when most of his albums I have mentioned earlier in this article were released. He himself composed the music of most of his Ghazals. He took up the Ghazals already popular in Pakistan and India and totally recomposed them in different ragas and sang them. It was no ordinary feat that he succeeded hugely in this labour of love. He acquired a huge fan following all over India and Pakistan through his Ghazal albums and concerts.

We could list many things as special musical qualities of Hariharan. His voice counts as a principal specialty. It has a unique romantic touch to it. The indefinably heart-warming nuances of music that he imparts with his voice are inimitable. The fund of his imagination and the depth of his knowledge of music aided by very many years of the most rigorous practice enabled the effortless flow of musical flourishes that are spell-binding. With his grasp of the minutest details of Hindustani classical music on top of an already sound foundation of Carnatic classical music, he commanded absolute felicity in any kind of notes of creative musical expressions.

It was only after the release of more than ten much acclaimed Ghazal albums, he got to sing the ‘Tamizha Tamizha’ number in Maniratnam's 1992 superhit film Roja under a debutant A.R.Rahman’s baton. In the Hindi version of the Roja he sang the same song as ‘Bharat Hum Ko’ and the Tamil ‘Kaadhal Rojavey’ number as ‘Roja Jaane Man’. It was only from then on that Hariharan came to be known as a full-time film playback singer. Hariharan is reported to have sung over thousand songs in Hindi films but he had very few hit numbers there. These were mostly Hindi versions of A.R.Rahman’s Tamil songs.

Hariharan won his first National Award in 1998 for the song ‘Mere Dushman Mere Bhai’ in the film Border, with Anu Malik as music composer. I have to mention that there was nothing great about the composition and rendering of the song other than the lyrics which placed upfront the idea of national integration and the philosophy that life alone is important and not war. The second time around, he won the National Award in 2009 for the song ‘Jiv Dangla Gungla’ in the Marathi film Jogwa. He has won the Best Singer award from Government of Tamilnadu, twice, and once each from Governments of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, apart from countless awards like Filmfare, etc.

It was in Tamil that he received the opportunities to sing many songs that had quality music which also became super hits. It is true to say that it was in his mother tongue Tamil alone that he was recognized as a full fledged screen playback singer. Hariharan’s parade of hugely successful Tamil songs is quite long such as ‘Nila Kaaigiradhu’, ‘Konja Naal Poru Thalaiva’, ‘Vidukathaiya Indha Vaazhkai’, ‘Rosappoo Chinna Rosappoo’, ‘Kaadhali Kaadhali Kaadhalal’, ‘Kuchi Kuchi Raakkamma’, “Uyire Uyire’, ‘Telephone Manipol’, Kalloori Saalai’, ‘Malargale Malargale’, ‘Kannai Katti Kolladhey’, ‘Oru Mani Adithal’, ‘Minnal Oru Kodi’, ‘Anbe Anbe Kolladhey’, ‘Ennai Thaalaatta Varuvaallo’, ‘Yedho Oru Paattu’, ‘Mazhai Thuli Mazhai Thuli’, ‘Nee Kaatru Naan Maram’, ‘Irupadhu Kodi Malargal’, ‘Pachhai Nirramey’, ‘Kandu Kondein Kandu Kondein’, ‘Chuttum Vizhi Chudar Than’, ‘Nilavu Paattu’, ‘Yaar Solvadho’, ‘Oru Ponnu Onnu Naan’, ‘Oru Poyyavadhu Sol’, ‘En Mana Vaanil’, ‘Vennilavey Vennilavey’, ‘Manjal Veyil Maalaiyiley’, ‘Mudhal Mazhai’, ‘Vaaji Vaaji’, ‘Nenjukkul Peidhidum Maamazhai’ etc.

May be the acclaim and success that attended his Tamil film songs and the disappointment at not becoming a super star singer at all India level disoriented and transformed him! Little slip by little slip he let slip the reality of his Ghazal moorings. It appears that post-nineties he saw Ghazal singing as a side line that did not attract the big crowd and began concentrating on becoming a famous playback singer and the most successful pop star of India. In the beginning he appeared to be succeeding in it.

His album ‘Halka Nasha’ in pop music mode was a success. His first album partnering Leslie Lewis as ‘Colonial Cousins’ was a huge success. But all his efforts at pop music that followed were unmitigated disappointments. After the no show of two succeeding albums, Colonial Cousins were practically lost. He made an effort to resuscitate the Colonial Cousins as a composer duo by scoring music for the two failed Tamil films Modhi Vilaiyaadu and Chikkubukku.

He has been losing his place as a topnotch Ghazal singer from the end nineties onwards. Today he appears standing forlorn with nothing worthwhile to contribute in Ghazals. His later albums like ‘Atma’, ‘Dil Aisa Kisi Ne Mera Toda’, ‘Lahore Ke Rang Hari Ke Sang’ and ‘Waqt Par Bolna’ will make us shake our head in disbelief and make us think that how could he descend to such levels from his own extreme high standards of yore!

For his ardent fans like me, his Ghazal concerts have long since become parodies that are disappointing in the extreme. His shows on stage have become a stage to demonstrate his gladiatorial narcissism where he sings elaborations that nobody else can sing. Now, he has taken this unbecoming demeanour even to stage shows of film and pop music where he concentrates on proving that he stands way above his fellow stage singers.

If the composer is not strict in keeping him faithful to the score during recording, he apparently takes that as a licence to indulge in such exaggerated flourishes which are totally graceless. Over the years he has developed the habit of shooting himself in the foot by appearing on the stage, taking after some flambuoyant and outlandish western singers, in weird costumes and weird hairdos ill-suited to his appearance. It appears that he believes in enhancing his appeal with all these!

Obviously, no Ghazal singer whose forte is to sit in absolute peace behind his harmonium (read behind his music!) and lose himself in the overwhelming flow of soulful music from his own vocal chords, can indulge in such demeaning gyrations! Who will tell Hariharan that even the likes of Lionel Richie, whom he claims to be his pop music idol, never appeared in such absurd costumes and make-ups?

Hariharan’s out of this world music talent and his music training beyond human endurance have vanished in his all consuming love of ‘Hari’ as can be seen in his albums like ‘Colours of Lahore in words of Hari’ and ‘Hari and I’. With the arrival of this new and bloated ‘Hari’, the soulful Ghazal singer called A.Hariharan was totally lost. As his Ghazals took the back seat, Hari simply has got too far ahead of his music! Today he is on an ego trip appearing in the reality music shows on television channels. There he terrorizes the already wilted young talents by demonstrating his impossible to reproduce strings of music notes.

Recently Hariharan won one more award in a Malayalam film awards function conducted by a Malayalam channel. It was no surprise that he got this award for such an average song sung by him for the Malayalam film Snehaveedu under Ilayaraja’s baton. It goes without saying that he is an important judge in the ‘Music Reality Show’ of that channel! During this show, Hariharan called to the stage the lyricist and singer of last year’s runaway viral song ‘Why This Kolaveri’, actor Dhanush with a bouquet of praise. Hariharan praised Kolaveri to the skies! Dhanush, who was reluctant to sing or even speak in Hariharan’s presence, was his humble self. He said, “Kolaveri is not a song nor am I a singer. The song is a mistake. Please do not embarrass me by praising in this fashion a song which got ready in mere thirty minutes for the publicity of a film.”

Hariharan would have none of that. He kept on praising the song and Dhanush’s singing of it calling it a ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ song. If it was a mistake, he went on to say, make that mistake again and again. All this came about just because the song had an unbelievable success! Hariharan sang along Kolaveri with Dhanush on that stage! To me, Hariharan today is totally divorced from his true music, separated from his roots and claims to be something which he is not! Hariji, please tell me how should a simple fan of your music like me face this deep darkness and immeasurable loneliness of this endless night?
When the loneliness of the night….
Thumps like my heart….
Jab raat ki tanhaayee…
Dil ban ke dhadakti hai…