Celebrating his 86th birthday this coming Monday, Khayyam will always be known as an understated genius.
Wise men don’t lay credence to statistics as they never reveal the true story. For instance, music director Khayyam has composed music for just over 50 films in his long career, yet his impact on listeners has been far greater than many who scored for several hundred movies. Like Dilip Kumar among actors, Khayyam too shines out with his majestic performance; his delicate yet intricate melodies haunting us not just from screen but also in our private moments of pleasure and pain. No wonder connoisseurs hold Khayyam in high esteem for his immaculate standards of musical harmony, as his creativity symbolises Victor Hugo’s irrefutable belief that “music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent”.
Khayyam confides he could have done 200 films but didn’t as, early in his career, he and his wife Jagjit Kaur had decided never to compromise on quality. “Creative satisfaction being their aim, they refused films which weren’t up to their taste,” says former producer and admirer S.S. Broca who contends Khayyam “never stooped nor played foul to gain favours”. Khayyam admits his body of work is small also because he crafted a tune only after imbibing the essence of the lyrics and mood. This immersion in creativity was his ibaadat (prayer) to the Almighty, but it drained the frail composer to such an extent that he required long periods to recoup, though his music “invariably left an indelible impression on audiences.”
Choosing a favourite from his songs is a difficult proposition, but who can ever forget the pious yearning of “Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi”, the heart wrenching “Jaane Kya Dhoondhti Rehti Hain Ye Aankhen”, the cry of “Bujha Diye Hain Khud Apne Haathon”, the romantic tease of “Thehriye Hosh Mein Aa Lun” or the love ballad of “Kahin Ek Masoom Nazuk Si Ladki”?
Khayyam, who never kept a team of assistants, credits his success to his beloved wife, applauding her as his greatest strength and inspiration. Because of her invaluable creative inputs, he had even contemplated composing under the label of “Khayyam Jagjit Kaur”, but she vetoed his decision. In a voice choked with adoration, Khayyam says the formidable singer is the quintessential “ardhaangani (wife) who exemplified the lyrics of her popular song ‘Tum Apna Ranjo Gum, Apnee Pareshaani Mujhe Dedo’ in my life”.
Khayyam attributes Jagjit’s limited playback appearances to her unrelenting rule of never allowing him to propose her name to any producer and singing only when someone specifically asked for her voice. For fans reared on the evergreen songs of “Footpath”, “Lala Rukh”, “Mohabbat Isko Kahte Hain”, “Shagun”, “Aakhri Khat”, “Shola aur Shabnam”, “Kabhi Kabhie”, “Umrao Jaan”, “Razia Sultan” and “Bazaar”, it would come as a surprise to learn that the master had to pass a music test to gain the stellar movie “Phir Subah Hogi”! Recommended by Sahir Ludhianvi, Khayyam’s name was acceptable to producer-director Ramesh Saigal but only if his compositions were approved by Raj Kapoor. On the given day at RK Studios, Raj Kapoor first made Khayyam tune a tanpura to gauge his dexterity and then after listening impassively to five compositions, took Saigal to another room. When they didn’t return for almost 45 minutes, everyone presumed Khayyam had been rejected but the thespian came back with a stream of compliments and a request that all five compositions be retained in the film.
Despite all his film achievements and awards, the disciple of composer Chishti Baba of Lahore is most proud of his non-film albums which he composed with Mohammed Rafi, Meena Kumari and Begum Akhtar. Though Talat Mehmood motivated him towards non-film music, it was the album “This is Mohammed Rafi” that brought Khayyam mass recognition since it remained not just a best selling disc for over 10 years but was heard on radio for decades. Khayyam credits its birth to the shy and affable Rafi who made his brother Hameed request the composer to create something sweet and special for his throat. What amazed the composer was that the “world renowned Rafi Sahab had no ego and forgot his age, fame and achievements to imbibe the soft intricacies of each tune like a new student”.
With visible pride, Khayyam says the super-singer became such a devout disciple that, apart from following all his stringent conditions, he never took even a telephone call or a message during his practice sessions, making it easy to set new benchmarks with bhajans like “Paon Padun Tore Shyaam”, “Tere Bharose” as well as ghazals like “Ghazab Kiya Tere Vaade Pe” and “Shauk Har Rang”.
Like Rafi, Begum Akhtar and Meena Kumari too reposed their confidence only in Khayyam – with the Begum publicly acknowledging that she had never sung better than what had been extracted by Khayyam. At his insistence, the two stars rigorously abstained from their favourite food and beverages to enhance their singing prowess. Little wonder the albums are all-time favourites of discerning listeners.
Similarly, the credit for Asha Bhosle’s fabulous singing in “Umrao Jaan” goes to Khayyam’s ingenuity of making her adopt a slightly lower scale. Mystified, Asha initially refused to sing. She relented to record when Khayyam insisted he’d submit to her demand, but only after she’d heard the new tonal quality of her vocals. Later, astonished by her own newfound voice, Asha not only apologised but also complimented Khayyam for “improving her singing”!
Unfortunately, in his twilight years, the death of his grown-up son Pradeep and the subsequent illness of Jagjit have made him stay away from recording studios. A pity, especially as the music scene today needs someone like him more than ever before to cure it of its banality. However, even if he never picks up the baton again, it is certain that transcending all religious, cultural and geographical barriers, Khayyam’s music will live forever in the hearts of his admirers around the world.