This story written by me appeared in The New Indian Express almost five years ago, thought of recalling it now in the context of Sahir Ludhianvi's genius as explained by Khayyam.
At age 82, Khayyam has been for a while a victim of that typical Bollywood syndrome: pushing yesteryear legends into oblivion. It’s particularly cruel in this music composer’s case as he was a legend in Hindi movies during its golden period from the early 1950s till about the early 1980s. Remember Kabhie Kabhie and Umrao Jaan? His power to tune songs catapulted many such movies to the heights of success. Khayyam’s last movie as Razia Sultan in 1983 directed by Kamal Amrohi. He did return after the long hiatus, in 2008 — but that was by composing music for a ghazal album Zah-e-Naseeb by Anita Singhvi.
Born as Mohammad Zahur Khayyam Hashmi in 1928 in Punjab, his passion for Hindi movies led him to move to Delhi, where he trained under masters Husnlal-Bhagatram and Pandit Amarnath. He then moved to Lahore in 1943 where he worked under the tutelage of G A Chisti, a classical music exponent. But he wasn’t paid, and soon, ran short of money. It is said that during that period, he approached his brother for money and was admonished. This left a deep scar on him; desperate to earn money, he joined the Indian Army in 1945.
But the lure of music was too strong, so he quit the Army within two years and headed for Mumbai. He recalls, “I got a chance in 1948 to team up with a composer called Aziz Khan, nicknamed Vermaji. I myself was given the name Sharmaji because the producer considered my original name too long!” The duo composed music for three movies — Heer Ranjha, Parda and Biwi. “The song Akele mein woh ghabrate to honge by Mohammad Rafi was a hit,” he notes.
It was in 1953 that he worked as Khayyam and the first movie was Footpath. “Shaam-e-gham ki kasam sung by Talat Mehmood became popular; the movie established me as an accomplished composer, like Naushad, Madan Mohan and Shankar-Jaikishan.” And then came Phir Subah Hogi, about which he has an interesting anecdote (a Raj Kapoor movie based on the novel Crime and Punishment).
“During those days, his most-preferred composers were Shankar-Jaikishan. But Sahir Ludhianvi, who penned the lyrics for the film, insisted that only a person who is familiar with the original story should compose music. As I was well-versed with the novel, I bagged the offer.” All the songs were great hits, especially Woh subah kabhi to aayegi and Phir na kije meri gustakh nigahi ka gila.
About Kabhie Kabhie, he says, “In 1974, I had completed recording the song, Ae dil-e-nadaan for Razia Sultan. After reaching home, I had my usual conversations with my wife and went to sleep. At about 2 am, Jaya Bhaduri came to my house. She was reportedly sent by Amitabh Bachchan to get a recording of the song, about which he came to know from his friends. I told her they’d have to wait, as the tapes were with Kamal Amrohi. Later, Amitabh, along with Sahir, and director Yash Chopra heard the song. They were so impressed that they decided to sign me for Kabhie Kabhie.”
The songs Tere chehre se nazaar nahi haththi, Kabhie kabhie mere dil mein and Main pal do pal ka shayar are popular even today.
His next major hit was the period flick Umrao Jaan, in 1981. This film, he says, posed a challenge, as Pakeezah, with a similar story line, of a courtesan, was released in 1972. The mujras and ghazals, composed by maestros Ghulam
Mohammad and Naushad, were stupendous hits. “When director Muzaffar Ali approached me, I posed this question to myself — how do I come up with compositions that are equally popular, if not more?” He said that Umrao Jaan was not only a great dancer, but also an accomplished singer and a beautiful woman popular among the royal families in the area.
“Keeping all these in mind, I came up with a mujra and gave the form of ghazal to the rest of the songs. Asha did a wonderful job singing those ghazals and mujra. Rekha was simply superb.” Both these movies earned him the Filmfare Award, in 1977 and 1982.
Khayyam was also conferred other awards, notably the Sangeet Kala Akademi award in 2007, the Lata Mangeshkar award in 2007, and the Naushad Samman, in 2008. And he proudly recalls appreciation from poets and singers.
“Sahir used to say, ‘Your songs give the impresssion that you have written the songs’; and the famous Pakistani poet late Faiz Ahmed Faiz once said, “Khayyam, aap suron se shayiri karte ho (You create poetry from music). Kaifi Azmi had said it was his last wish to work with me; I fulfilled it by scoring music for his songs for the album Shaguftgi.”
In his illustrous career spanning almost five decades, Khayyam worked for about 50 films only, that speaks volumes about how choosy he was about the projects. “Yes, I was pricey and egostic, and insisted on working only with the best directors and lyricists. I owe my succes to them.”
Khayyam has also composed for about 200 ghazal albums including those for legendary singers like Begum Akhtar and the famous Bollywood actress Meena Kumari.
Ask him about songs churned out these days and he laments, “Today, there is so much ashleeltha (vulgarity) in Hindi songs. And the new menace called remix is nothing but shor-e-badtameezi (noise pollution). These songs survive merely on publicity and marketing, not on the strength of the lyrics or tunes.”
Some of the movies for which he composed music: Footpath, Phir Subah Hogi, Shola aur Shabnam, Aakhri Khat, Kabhie-Kabhie, Trishul, Noorie, Umrao Jaan, Razia Sultan, Shagun.