Ghazal king Pankaj Udhas: A soft, reassuring emblem of diaspora yearning

For diaspora Indians around the world, Udhas became an emblem of their pining for their home back in India with his 1986 raging hit “Chitthi Aayi Hai” from the movie ‘Naam’, written by Anand Bakshi and composed by Laxmikant Pyarelal.

Mayank Chhaya Feb 27, 2024
Pankaj Udhas

Listening to Pankaj Udhas, who passed away in Mumbai on Monday at age 73, felt as if he was perpetually singing and the world had just fortuitously chanced upon his soft, reassuring voice.

The widely popular ghazal and occasional playback singer was at the vanguard, along with Jagjit Singh, Anup Jalota, Hariharan and Talat Aziz, of popularizing the ghazal genre of music during the last four decades and more.

Udhas chose his ghazals with a keen eye for their potential popular appeal and delivered them unencumbered by the showiness of his craft. His voice had a certain disembodied quality where it often felt as if he might as well have existed just as a voice.

Soft-spoken to a fault, Udhas brought to bear his long years of passion and commitment to singing and diction, the latter being honed as a young aspiring singer in the late 1960s under a maulvi. Since he already had two established older singer brothers Manhar and Nirmal Udhas singing came to him as a natural choice.

Coming of age at a time when the giants of Hindi cinema music such as Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh, Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood and Mahendra Kapoor dominated cinema music, a career in playback singing was a daunting task. Instead, he chose to pursue a non-film singing career via ghazals.

A household name

For diaspora Indians around the world, Udhas became an emblem of their pining for their home back in India with his 1986 raging hit “Chitthi Aayi Hai” from the movie ‘Naam’, written by Anand Bakshi and composed by Laxmikant Pyarelal. The fact that the song featured Udhas himself on the screen rather than an actor gave him remarkable visibility. Although he was already a well-known exponent of ghazals before that, this song made him a household name which propelled his non-cinema singing career to new heights.

More often than not, Udhas chose his poetry centered on the themes of joyous inebriation where the lyrics were not highly literary. That gave his albums a particularly strong appeal among the less than discerning admirers of pure poetry drawn by Udhas’ melodious singing. For instance, his hit the same year as “Chitthi Aayi Hai”. It went, “Hui Mehengi Bahot Hi Sharab Ke Thodi Thodi Piya Karo” (Liquor has become quite expensive, Drink in moderation) written by S. Rakesh or “Kabhi Mykhane Tak Jate Hain Hum Aur Kum Bhi Peete Hein’ (Sometimes I go all the way to the tavern and drink very little) by Mumtaz Rashid.

In a career spanning more than four decades, Udhas produced some 50 albums, most of which have had an enduring popular appeal. He formed a warm friendship with his contemporary Anup Jalota and Talat Aziz. Jalota in his tweet called Udhas “Music legend and my friend.” Hariharan said, “A 45-year friendship and legendary legacy that touched many. His music lives on, but he will be dearly missed.”

Udhas was fastidious about how he looked onstage. Frequently turned out in impeccable sherwanis and elegant stoles draped across his shoulder, he ensured that not a hair was straggled.  

A sought after performer

Born May 17, 1951, in Jetpur near Rajkot in Gujarat, music was in the air in his family as his father played the rabab. His two older brothers already being singers, Pankaj Udhas initially learned to play the tabla but soon switched to singing, training first under Ghulam Qadir Khan and then Navrang Nagpurkar.

Riding on the success of “Chitthi Aayi Hai” Udhas became a highly sought after performer across the world by the diaspora. There was perhaps no concert after 1986 where he was not requested to sing that song as many in the audience wiped their teary eyes.

(The writer is a Chicago-based journalist, author, lyricist and filmmaker. Views are personal. He can be reached at

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