Har mulaqat ka anjaam judaai kyun hai,
Ab toh har waqt yahi baat sataati hai humein,
Zindagi jab bhi teri bazm mein laati hai humein,
Ye zameen chaand se behtar nazar aati hai humein…
Poet Shaharyar’s lyrics towards the end of this gentle ghazal from Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan (1981), were merged by iconic music composer Khayyam with a soft melody. The composition managed to create the chasm that a love story between a courtesan and a nawab was destined to find in 19th century Lucknow, but also, importantly — like several other compositions by Khayyam — resurrected ghazal as a genre in Bollywood in the ’80s, which for the past decade (’70s) had a young India swinging to the genius and unique western sounds of RD Burman.
Sung by Talat Aziz, in the years to come, Zindagi jab bhi teri bazm became a soundtrack for the romantics and remains a nostalgic piece for many. For his music, Khayyam worked with an iron hand. “He was a perfectionist. Once, after the seventh take with me, he said his famous ‘ek aur’. We ended at the 20th take. He wasn’t satisfied easily,” says Aziz. Apart from the delicate Umrao Jaan ditty, Aziz also sang Khayyam’s Phir chhidi raat, a tender piece in the critically-acclaimed Bazaar, which also had Mangeshkar crooning Dikhayi diye yun.
Khayyam breathed his last on August 19 in Mumbai. He was 92. Even as Aziz prepared for the funeral at the composer’s Mumbai residence, he recalled how Khayyam had found him, a relatively unknown singer then, at a musical baithak at an industrialist’s home in Khar, Mumbai. Famed singer Suraiya, Khayyam’s wife Jagjit Kaur and composer Madan Mohan’s wife Sheila were also present. After he heard Aziz sing, Khayyam said, “Awaaz achhi hai. Jab mauka ayega tab main tumhein break dunga”. “This was in 1978. After I left, Suraiyaji told him, ‘Give this boy a chance in a good project’. Khayyam saab said, ‘I only do good projects. I don’t take up bad ones.’ He called me in 1981 for Umrao Jaan and the rest, as they say, is history,” says Aziz. The two were extremely close, especially after the musician lost his son a couple of years ago. “I lost my biological father some years back. Today I lost my other father,” said Aziz.
It is evident from Khayyam’s body of work that he wasn’t looking to satisfy the masses. He was, instead, sticking to the sophisticated contours of Hindustani classical music and building on his training under Baba Chishti in Lahore and Pt Amarnath in Delhi. When he came to Mumbai, after a stint in the army during the second world war, he began his career as Sharmaji of composer duo Sharmaji and Vermaji and gave music for Heer Ranjha in 1948. Post Partition, his partner, Rahman Verma, moved to Pakistan.
A disciplinarian, Khayyam looked for perfection in every composition he created. For Aye dil-e-nadaan in Raziya Sultan, for instance, he went through the filmmaker’s research for eight months before beginning to compose. He reportedly asked Mohammad Rafi to give a 21st take for Jaane kya dhoondhti hain ye aakhen mujhme (Shola Aur Shabnam, 1961), and did not let go till he was satisfied. Yesteryear actor and playback singer Sulakshana Pandit, who sang many iconic songs for Khayyam, including Tu hi sagar, tu hi kinaara (Sankalp, 1975) and Maana teri nazar mein (Ahista Ahista, 1981), says that with Khayyam’s passing, the last of the greats from the golden era is gone. “If he was happy with a particular take, the singers took a sigh of relief. After Tu hi sagar, Noorjehanji called him from Pakistan and said, ‘Kaun hai ye ladki jisse ye khoobsurat gaana gavaya hai’. He called me with so much happiness that day. I will never forget this great composer and wonderful human being. The originality of his sound was rare and that was something that could not be taught,” she said.
Several others great compositions such as Aaja re o mere dilbar in Noorie (1979) and Hazaar raahe, penned by Gulzar for Thodisi Bewafaii (1980), also have Khayyam at the helm. Before Sahir Ludhianvi and Khayyam came together for Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie in 1976, they also worked on Woh subah kabhi toh ayegi (Phir Subah Hogi, 1958), starring Raj Kapoor and Mala Sinha. The simple melody about hope, that moved gently, appealed to the ardent connoisseurs as well as the masses. Another song from the film, Cheen-o-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara, rehne ko ghar nahi hai, saara Hindustan hamara, raised a controversy and was on the brink of being banned. It took inspiration from Mohammad Iqbal’s Tarana-e-Milli that asked the Muslim community to unite and warned against a nationalistic world view.
With Khayyam’s demise, the world of Indian music has lost a significant composer from the golden era, who chose melody over populism, giving us gems that will be hummed for years to come.