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Pankaj Udhas, Bollywood Singer and Maestro of the Ghazal, Dies at 72

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Pankaj Udhas, a singer from India whose soulful renditions of ghazals, or lyric love songs, were a cornerstone of many Bollywood films over his decades-long career, died in Mumbai on Monday. He was 72.

His death was announced on social media by his daughter Nayaab Udhas. She did not specify the cause, saying only that he had died after a prolonged illness.

Mr. Udhas moved generations of people in India and the Indian diaspora by singing ghazals, the lyric poems that have been written for centuries in Persian, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish and other languages. He also worked as a playback singer, the term for a vocalist who recorded tracks offscreen for actors to lip-sync over.

Mr. Udhas became a stalwart in the Indian music industry through both his discography of more than 50 albums and the enormous success of the movies in which he sang.

But his true passion, he said in a 2018 talk organized by Google, was the ancient lyric form.

“My heart was always with ghazals,” he said. “Cinema, though it was an attraction,” he added, “it was never the first choice.”

Padmashri Pankaj Udhas was born on May 17, 1951, in Jetpur, a city in the western Indian state of Gujarat, several Indian news media outlets reported. His father, Keshubhai Udhas, played the dilruba, a traditional Indian stringed instrument. His mother, Jeetuben Udhas, sang. And both of his brothers, Manhar and Nirmal, became professional singers.

Mr. Udhas, who was trained in Indian classical music, drew inspiration not only from his family but from hearing Begum Akhtar, an Indian singer and actress who popularized the ghazal, on the radio as a child, he said in the 2018 interview.

“Her voice and her style really appealed to me,” he said. “Then I started following this form of music religiously.”

While studying at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, he learned to speak Urdu, the South Asian language in which ghazals were often written, from a teacher who had been instructing his brother Manhar, a playback singer at the time.

He made his debut in India’s film industry in 1972 as a playback singer for the movie “Kaamna,” he said. The movie was not a commercial success. But his popularity as a ghazal singer rose when he released his first cassette in 1979, called “Aahat,” which is Hindi for “sound.” That year, he also met his wife, Farida, whom he married in 1982.

The Hindustan Times reported that Mr. Udhas is survived by his wife, his brother, and his two daughters, Nayaab and Reva. His daughter Nayaab did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Tuesday.

His career took off in earnest in 1986, when he sang several tracks in “Naam,” a blockbuster Hindi crime thriller. One of them, “Chitthi Aai Hai,” or “The Letter Has Arrived,” became one of his most successful songs.

His subsequent albums helped Bollywood fans learn about the ghazal. The Hindi film industry also became a major platform for poets and singers of the form, at a time when ghazal singers who were not involved in the film industry were relatively obscure.

Starting in the 1990s, Bollywood’s tastes changed, turning away from ghazals to other styles of music, including Indian pop. But in 2006, the Indian government recognized the enduring mark Mr. Udhas had left on the music industry by awarding him one of the country’s top civilian awards, the Padma Shri.

Even as Bollywood moved on from ghazals, Mr. Udhas continued to tour internationally, including in New Jersey in 2013.

“Music today in India is nothing but Bollywood,” he told the AVS TV Network during his tour.

“If we get out of this rut,” he added, “then maybe, not only ghazal, but there are so many other beautiful genres of music would prosper in India.”





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