Because he fared badly in studies, Mohammed Zahur ‘Khayyam’ Hashmi shifted his attention to cinema and music, in particular. His uncle, realising the young boy’s passion for songs and films, took him to Pandit Husnlal Bhagatram and Pandit Amarnath. Initially, the teenager learnt music under their tutelage and later, with the stalwart Baba Chishti. Born into a Punjabi family in Jalandhar, Khayyam’s early years were spent bouncing between Delhi, Bombay and Lahore as he tried to get a foothold into Bollywood. In the beginning, he wrote music under the screen name ‘Sharmaji’ as part of the duo Sharmaji-Vermaji. That was for Heer-Ranjha in 1948.
He changed his name back to Khayyam in 1953’s Dilip Kumar-Meena Kumari black-and-white Footpath. The film contains what is quite clearly one of thespian Kumar’s finest performances as an idealist newspaperman gone rogue. But it’s the melancholy-tinged, Khayyam-composed number “Shaam-e-gham ki kasam” shot on the future Devdas that became the fledgling music director’s first major breakthrough. Much of the people associated behind the making of the song are long gone (singer Talat Mahmood died in 1998), but it’s still a major late-night radio draw and has the magnetic power to move a listener. Years later, Dilip Kumar, walking down the memory lane, said, “With his silken voice and vibrato, Talat Mahmood gave the maximum effect to my earlier tragic image and pathos-oriented songs.”
In a career spanning more than five decades, Khayyam, who died at 92 on Monday due to a cardiac arrest, orchestrated a legacy that remains unparalleled. Lata Mangeshkar, “Aye dil-e-nadan” from Razia Sultan and “Phir chhidi baat” from Bazaar under Khayyam’s tutelage defined a high-point for Hindi film music, mourned the personal loss, calling his death the “end of an era” on Twitter. The veteran composer, she Tweeted, considered her as a ‘chhoti behen,’ underlying their personal bond. His favourite raag was Pahadi, she recalled fondly before noting his fine ear for poetry that resulted in Mir Taqi Mir’s “Dikhayi diye yun” that the duo immortalised in 1982’s Bazaar.
One of the last links from Hindi cinema’s glorious golden age, the music maestro has been described by the Hindi film industry as one of the greatest ghazal exponents to ever grace its screen. Indeed, Khayyam is remembered even today for his timeless ghazals in Umrao Jaan, Bazaar and Noorie in the late 1970s and ’80s. “If there was no Khayyam saab, there would be no Rekha,” declared Umrao Jaan’s alluring leading lady at an award function some years ago. “You gave me an identity,” an indebted Rekha said to Khayyam, amidst loud cheer.
Muzaffar Ali’s much-celebrated love letter to the Awadhi culture, Umrao Jaan remains one of Khayyam’s most towering achievements. Set to tune over Shahryar’s soulful poetry, Umrao Jaan features the unbeatable team of Rekha and Asha Bhosle. Rekha’s elegant kathak-inspired mujras, whether it’s in “Dil cheez kya hai” or “Justuju jiski” have reigned supreme in the imagination of millions of movie-goers. However, if music writer Raju Bharatan is to be believed, Khayyam was not the first choice. It was Jaidev who was first called upon to work on Umrao Jaan but a fallout with Lata Mangeshkar opened the door for the often-overlooked younger sister Asha Bhosle and Khayyam.
Understandably, when Khayyam took on the mammoth task of scoring for Umrao Jaan he was nervous like a child, he recollected with a child-like laugh in later years. The first challenge was to fend off all the attendant comparisons with the iconic Pakeezah, a 1972 Meena Kumari tragedy that had covered some of the same ground in its script and especially, music. Spearheaded by such mega-names as Kamal Amrohi, Naushad, Ghulam Mohammed and Kaifi Azmi, the jinxed, long-simmering Pakeezah was a one-of-a-kind musical spectacle that Bollywood hadn’t witnessed in a while. The last such colossal event was perhaps the magnum opus launch of Mughal-E-Azam in the 1960s. “Pakeezah’s music was a huge hit at that time. It was a big challenge for me to make a mark. So, I read the history of Awadh and Umrao Jaan and tried to grasp the essence of that time. I’m glad I managed to do justice to it,” Khayyam told Hindustan Times in 2016.
No doubt that with Umrao Jaan Khayyam introduced a fascinating new aspect to Asha Bhosle in the form of ghazals (adding new octaves and textures to her voice) but few know – at least Khayyam claims so – that it was he, way before OP Nayyar and RD Burman, who gave the versatile singer her first “cabaret song” in Footpath (1953). His relationship with Bhosle was long and creatively fruitful, beginning in 1948. The music master also got a rare chance to work with Raj Kapoor in the reformist Phir Subah Hogi in 1958, nearly causing a rift between Kapoor and his regular collaborators Shankar-Jaikishan. (In his Tweet, lyricist Javed Akhtar said that Khayyam has many great songs to his name but the Sahir Ludhianvi-penned “Woh subah kabhi to aayegi” from Phir Subah Hogi in 1958 would have been “enough to make him immortal.”)
Lore has it that Khayyam had composed all of Sahir Ludhianvi’s anthology of poems. Impressed, the volatile poet recommended him for Phir Subah Hogi. Sahir was close to the Chopra brothers (BR and Yash Chopra) and worked frequently with them. Khayyam’s most famous pairing happened with Yash Chopra in the 1970s. Their partnership produced Trishul, Noorie and Kabhi Kabhie, whose Sahir’s award-winning title number and “Main pal do pal ka shayar hun” (both sung by Mukesh) shot on the brooding Amitabh Bachchan are enduring cornerstones of the Hindi film music. Decades later, reflecting on the film that he famously described as his “most enjoyable” to date, no less than a “picnic,” director Yash Chopra admitted that in hindsight, Khayyam was the right choice, a decision endorsed by none other than the musically-minded Shammi Kapoor at the premiere. Khayyam had a great relationship with Chopra’s elder brother, the legendary BR Chopra, too, who had helped him in the beginning of his career. However, the composer’s partnership with Yash Chopra soured when he turned down Silsila, which was eventually immortalised by the classical legends Shiv-Hari.
Khayyam was a product of a time when great music was never in short supply. Though he expressed nothing but deference to the musical greats of his era, working in the industry at the same time as SD Burman, Naushad, OP Nayyar, Madan Mohan, Shankar-Jaikishan, Salil Chowdhury, Jaidev, RD Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal must have been as exciting as challenging. Khayyam admitted in many interviews that he looked up to Naushad, who was at his peak then and felt “honoured” at the comparison. What set the young musician apart was his passion for literally living the scripts and films he was working on, his ear for authentic sound and divine interventions. He often played scratches of work-in-progress melodies to wife Jagjit Kaur and sought her nuanced opinion.
Given Khayyam’s penchant for quality and uncompromising attitude, he ended up doing fewer films compared to other composers of that era. His IMDb credits reads a meagre 41 titles. 1983’s Razia Sultan, a soundtrack that Khayyam has listed as one of his “personal favourites” and which contains the Lata gem “Aye dil-e-nadaan” was probably his last big hit. After that, the filmography was passable at best. In 2016, he made news once again, this time not for his music but for philanthropy. With wife Jagjit Kaur as a trustee, he pledged to donate his wealth to the cause of struggling artistes. The film industry never forgot his gesture. Today, with Khayyam gone, the outpouring on social media is a testament to his self-effacing ‘minimalism’, reflected both in his life and especially, music.