The Arts

'A Poet of Melody' – How Music Conspired to Find Khayyam

A deep dive into the timeless compositions of one of India's finest music composers.

Note: This article was originally published on February 18, 2019 and is being republished in light of the composer’s death.

Music was always looking for Khayyam. Instead of paying attention to his studies, the young boy, named Sa’adat Hussain, was busy listening to singer-actor K.L. Saigal.

Khayyam’s father, a man of cultural tastes, prided himself on his bookshelves and the family’s reputation. He found his son’s neglect of education unbearable and could not reconcile with his son’s ways. One day, he threw the eleven-year-old boy out of the house.

Music had planned this heartbreaking – but liberating – departure to perfection. Music was waiting to seize him, and deliver him to his gurus in Delhi: the first music-director duo, Pt Husnlal and Pt Bhagatram, and their elder brother, Pt Amarnath (who was recruited as a composer at All India Radio for eight years by Pt Ravi Shankar, and made music for Garam Coat and a documentary on Mirza Ghalib).

Later, at the age of 17, Khayyam travelled from Mumbai to Lahore and joined Ghulam Ahmad Chishti, or Baba Chishti – who introduced a nine-year-old Noor Jehan to the Lahore stage.

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It was B.R. Chopra, Khayyam revealed in his interview to Irfan (from Rajya Sabha TV), who ensured that he got paid as an apprentice at Chishti’s, for which he remains indebted to Chopra.

At the age of 18, during the Second World War, Khayyam joined the British Indian Army around 1943. In the army, as scholar musician Ashok Damodar Ranade notes in his book, Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries (2006), Khayyam became part of the cultural troupe headed by Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Khayyam’s touch

Back in Mumbai, Khayyam teamed up with co-composer Rahman, and the duo was funnily named Sharmaji-Vermaji on Pt Husnlal-Bhagatram’s suggestion to escape post-Partition tensions.

They made their debut with Heer-Ranjha in 1948. Khayyam’s touch was noticed by the film industry’s famous Urdu poets after Mohammad Rafi’s ‘Akele Mein wo Ghabrate to Honge’ from Biwi (1950).

Rafi’s singing, however, doesn’t quite match the song’s delicate notes.

Among those who took notice of Khayyam’s music was Jaddanbai, a courtesan turned composer and filmmaker, a pioneer in Indian cinema – who was also Nargis’ mother. She introduced Khayyam to Zia Sarhadi, the screenwriter and filmmaker from Peshawar.

After Rahman shifted to Lahore, Khayyam chose his middle-name as his future signature on Sarhadi’s suggestion for Footpath (1952). The song that stood out in the film was Talat Mahmood’s ‘Sham-e-Gham Ki Kasam’. The symphony, the tempo, and the cord system, is Western. But the lyrics, attributed to both Ali Sardar Jafri and Majrooh Sultanpuri, made it a perfectly sombre Urdu ghazal.

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It was Sahir Ludhianvi, who suggested Khayyam’s name to Ramesh Saigal for Phir Subah Hogi (1958). The film is an adaption of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Saigal would have settled for Shankar-Jaikishan, who was the trusted music director of the film’s hero, Raj Kapoor. But Ludhianvi suggested Khayyam’s name to Saigal, as he felt music for the film should be composed by a man who has read and understood the book.

Khayyam was put through a test to impress Kapoor. In his interview to Irfan, Khayyam remembers how Kapoor wore a blank expression to the tune of all five songs he played before him and the others, at RK Studios. Kapoor took Saigal out of the room for a moment.

When they returned, Saigal kissed Khayyam’s forehead, in exuberance of what Kapoor told him outside the room: “I have never heard such music before. Whom have you brought?”

Khayyam’s oeuvre

The hyperbole doesn’t sound hyperbole, when you hear Chin-O-Arab Hamara. Sahir parodies Iqbal’s double anthem on nationalism (one inclusive, on Hindustan, and the other exclusivist, on the umma), by foregrounding the misery of social conditions. Mustansir Dalvi calls it “a laconic song of the street, composed in a laconic singsong by Khayyam and sung equally laconically (almost to a mumble) by Mukesh.”

The thin mockery of the tone expressed the thinning and wearing down of dreams of the Nehruvian era. The other famous composition speaks to our times like never before: ‘Aasman pe hai khuda, aur zameen pe hum/aajkal wo iss taraf dekhta hai kam. God seems to have forsaken those bearing the brunt of muscular nationalism’.

The metre, rhythm, and even the tune of Khayyam’s song is so similar to Shankar Jaikishan’s popular Mukesh number in Anari that released the next year (1959), ‘Kisi Ki Muskurahaton Pe’, one wonders if Raj Kapoor, who was the hero in both films, played a role in making S-J borrow from Khayyam.

The other song from Phir Subah Hogi, written by Sahir, ‘Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi’, dreams of hope in the midst of despondency, and Khayyam captures the complex and ambivalent mood with Mukesh and Asha Bhonsle. This film brought to light the haunting quality of Khayyam’s music.

In Lala Rookh (also released in 1958), produced by Ismat Chugtai and based on the poem ‘Lalla Rookh’ written in 1817 by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, Khayyam scored lively songs with Talat and Asha. Their duet, ‘Pyas Kuch Aur Bhi Bhadka Di Jhalak Dikhla Ke’, written by Kaifi Azmi, is a conversation on the aesthetics and ethics of looking. The lover urges the beloved to lift her veil. She chides the insolence of his wanton gaze, urging him to educate his gaze on beauty’s pure form. Love was a matter of taste.

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Khayyam’s next moment of glory is ‘Jane Kya Dhoondti Rahti’ from Shola Aur Shabnam (1961), with Rafi rendering one of the most critically acclaimed songs of his career. Composed in ‘Dadra’ taal and predominantly in Raga Mishr Pahadi, this Kaifi nazm has the delicacy of a Talat song. Khayyam’s deft use of the sarangi and a playful flute comes into focus.

In Shagoon (1964), Khayyam is back to composing lyrics by Sahir. ‘Parbaton Ke Pedon Par Shaam Ka Basera Tha’ is a graceful love song by Rafi and Suman Kalyanpur. Waheeda Rehman articulates a skillful range of expressions on the effect of landscape on amorous feelings with her eyes.

The other memorable song of this film, ‘Tum Apna ranj-o-gham’, was sung by Khayyam’s wife, Jagjit Kaur. Beautifully written by Sahir, ‘Tum Apna’ is set to tune in the ‘Dadra’ taal and Khayyam’s favourite raga, Raga Pahadi. Khayyam holds Kaur’s presence in his life and music as a gift of her “nigehbani”, as his protector, reversing what Kaur conveys in the song, the conventional trope of men as protectors of women. Khayyam affirms in an interview that Kaur brought the power of her “truth” into his life, the truth of Gurubani.

The next important milestone in Khayyam’s oeuvre is Chetan Anand’s Akhri Khat. Khayyam doesn’t sound inspired in Rafi’s lackluster ‘Aur Kuch Der Thahar’, but offers one of his best Lata Mangeshkar solos in ‘Baharon Mera Jeevan Bhi Sanwaro’, written by Kaifi Azmi.

Set again in Khayyam’s trademark combination of Raga Pahadi and ‘Dadra’ taal, the santoor is played by Shivkumar Sharma, flute by Hariprasad Chaurasia and sitar by Rais Khan, all finely interwoven. The most unusual song in the film is a bluesy number by young Bhupinder, ‘Rut Jawan Jawan’, who also enacts it on screen as a club singer, along with the legendary Chic Chocolate, who plays the trumpet from the bandstand. Kersi Lord plays the accordion.

The song makes you want to hear more jazzy numbers from Khayyam.

The next big feather in Khayyam’s cap was Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhi (1976). Khayyam’s rendering of Sahir’s poetry in the title song towers over not only all the songs in the film, but over every other romantic song in the history of Hindi cinema.

Raju Bharatan quoted Khayyam who considered it “a musical jannat (paradise)”. Set in Raga Yaman, Mukesh sings it with a halting and haunting finesse that lays the words among the stars. In the duet version, if Lata scales the heights, Mukesh plunges its depths.

The other song regarding a poet’s life, ‘Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar, Mukesh sings a poet’s awareness of time, both his time and his place in the time to come. The other song worth mentioning is in contrast to the delicate poetry of the other two: the robust Kishore Kumar-Lata duet, ‘Tere Chehre Se’ that sounds as fresh as ever to the ear, even today.

The score got Khayyam his first Filmfare award. My Malayali roommate, at Jhelum Hostel in Jawaharlal Nehru University would not prefer most things Hindi, but whenever ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ played on the tape recorder, he would fall silent and meditate on the fate of love.

Next to arrive on the scene, was the film, Shankar Hussain (1977), released late. In ‘Kahin Ek Masoom Nazuk Si Ladki’, written by Kamal Amrohi, as he put it in an interview, Khayyam was initially unhappy with Rafi for rendering the song coarsely the way he had sung S-J’s ‘Savere Waali Gaadi Se’.

Rafi reluctantly agreed to record it again, but not before airing his complaint that Khayyam was fixated on intricacies. Khayyam insisted that he was being paid for that quality, or else he would be thrown out. The song, with its dreamy imageries, remains one of Rafi’s most lilting numbers ever. The other song, ‘Aap Yun Faaslon Se’, written by Jan Nisar Akhtar and sung by Lata, anticipates Khayyam’s Lata solos to come.

The songs of Trishul (1978), written by Sahir, became popular, but didn’t offer Khayyam much depth. ‘Mohabbat Bade Kaam Ki’, ‘Jaaneman Tum Kamal Karti Ho’, or ‘Gapoochi Gapoochi’, were youthful and pleasant.

Khayyam added another page to his tryst with youthfulness with Noorie (1979). Jan Nisar’s ‘Aaja Re O Mere Dilbar Aaja’ and Naqsh Lyallpuri’s ‘Chori Chori Koi Aaye’ still sound fresh to the ears.

The romance grew heavier with Thodi Si Bewafai (1980), the only film where Khayyam and Gulzar worked together. Kishore-Lata’s ‘Akhon Mein Humne Aapke’ is more gorgeous than the comparable RD Burman-Gulzar song from Ghar (1978), ‘Aapki Akhon Mein Kuch’.

The moody song, ‘Hazar Rahein’, slows down time, pulls the strings of memory, and the soul sinks like the moon in a desert. It is the most beautiful Kishore-Lata duet ever. Both Gulzar and Kishore received the Filmfare Award for this song.

It’s time for Umrao Jaan (1981) to arrive, adapted from the ethnographic Urdu novel by Mirza Hadi Ruswa, Umrao Jaan Ada. A reflection of the culture of courtesans and Nawabs in mid-nineteenth century Lucknow, Umrao Jaan was a fateful stroke of luck for Khayyam, after Jaidev left the project due to a tiff with director Muzaffar Ali.

On Jagjit’s advice, Khayyam chose Asha Bhonsle. Khayyam admitted, for the only time in his life, he was scared of the inevitable comparisons his music will draw with Ghulam Mohammad’s music in the incomparable Pakeezah (1972).

Cultural historian Sarah Waheed finds the music of the film a bit disconnected from its milieu. Khayyam, who read the novel, read up on the predominant musical styles of that period. To Asha’s shock, Khayyam asked her to lower her scale by one-and-half notes.

After a dramatic episode of promises and counter-promises, Asha settled for the new octave, and sang five ethereal ghazals that won her the National Award. Khayyam had told Asha, “We don’t want Asha Bhonsle. We want Umrao Jaan”. It’s a striking suggestion for the uncanny experience of being possessed, as a subjective technique to revive cultural pasts.

Dil Cheez Kya Hai’, having elements of Bihag, ‘In Akhon Ki Masti Mein’, in Bhoopali, ‘Justuju Jiski Thi’, a variation of Maand, and ‘Ye Kya Jagah Hai Doston’ in Bihag, transform Asha’s voice into a world where Khayyam’s mastery over the Sarangi, mixed with the Sarod and the Sitar, aid the lamp-lit ambiance where Rekha performs her magic. Talat Aziz shows measured finesse in ‘Zindagi Jab Bhi’. All the ghazals, written by Shahryar, are proof of his deep immersion in the subject.

In ‘Pratham Dhar Dhyan’, Ustad Ghulam Mustafa Khan passes through a confluence of Ragas, including Miya Ki Thodi, Malkauns and Bhairavi. There is also a cultural confluence, the song paying salutation to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, mentioning the young Krishna, with a plea to Nizamuddin Auliya to help the boat cross the river.

A string of musical films followed.

Dard (1981) showcased Khayyam’s refined sense of sensuality in Lata’s ‘Na Jane Kya Hua’. ‘Aesi Haseen Chandni’ is a ghazal Kishore always wanted to sing for Khayyam, though it sounds more like a song because of Kishore’s heavy diction. Ahista Ahista (1981) had two ghazals by Nida Fazli, the meditative ‘Kabhi Kisi Ko Muqammal Jahan Nahi Milta‘, where Bhupinder shows better poise than Asha’s version, and Anwar-Asha’s lively ‘Nazar Se Phool Chunti Hai Nazar’.

In Dil-e-Nadaan (1982), Kishore-Lata’s ‘Chandni Raat Mein’, is a beehive of a ghazal. The song is about lovers who share their secrets with the moon.

The poster for Bazaar (1982). Credit: Wikipedia

Bazar (1982) is Khayyam’s most heartrending score on a painful subject. Makhdoom Mohiuddin’s ghazal ‘Phiri Chidi Raat’ set in Raga Bageshri, and teen taal, has a simple, rhythmic metre. Lata’s high pitch beautifully contrasts with the subdued Talat Aziz, and the sitar does the rest. There is perhaps no other song, so full of fragrance.

In Mir Taqi Mir’s ‘Dikhayi Diye Yun’, Lata flows effortlessly with the teary waves of the ghazal, with a haunting pause after each stanza. Khayyam fondly remembers Noor Jehan’s praise for the song, on his trip to Lahore.

Bashar Nawaz’s ‘Karoge Yaad To’ is Bhupinder’s best ghazal for Khayyam. Set in Raga Mand, this broody ghazal opens with the santoor, but is mostly played on flute. Mirza Shauq’s ‘Dekh Lo’, sung by Jagjit Kaur, an elegy on parting, is simply the saddest song on earth.

It is ironical, or perhaps not, that Khayyam’s career comes to a glorious end with Kamal Amrohi’s Razia Sultan (1983), in a much delayed release. Jan Nisar Akhtar’s ghazal ‘Aye Dil-e-Nadaan’ sets it apart from all other songs in Hindi cinema, with its stunning pauses that adds even more gravitas to its slowness. Khayyam recounts, Amrohi aimed to shoot the song in a way that people won’t realise the camera is moving. With santoor strings, Khayyam recreates the visual stillness-in-motion, slow as a caravan across the desert, with haunting grace.

In Jan Nisar’s ghazal of striking imageries, ‘Aayi Zanjeer ki Jhankar’ and Nida Fazli’s mellow and pensive, ‘Tera Hijr’, Khayyam used the vocals of radio announcer at AIR Mumbai, Kabban Mirza. The sensual number ‘Jalta Hai Badan’ moves with swift poise, depicting feudal debauchery, while the lullaby, ‘Khwaab Ban Kar’ simmers with homoerotic suggestions on screen.

Khayyam will also be remembered for his ghazals for Begum Akhtar in Kalam a Asatiza (1975). From Ghalib’s ‘Ibn-e-Mariam’ and ‘Sab Kahan Kuch Lala-O-Gul’, to Sauda’s ‘Gul Phenke Hai’, to Meer’s ‘Ulti Ho Gayi Sab Tadbiren’, and ghazals by Zauq, Aatish, Momin and Dagh Dehlvi. Each song is delectably tuned.

Through these Urdu poets, Khayyam broods for his losses, behind Akhtar’s voice.

One is reminded of Agha Shahid Ali’s elegiac poem on Akhtar, where he wrote, ‘Ghazal, that death-sustaining widow, sobs in dingy archives, hooked to you.’

As for Khayyam, let Faiz have the last word. In an interview to Prashant Pandey, Khayyam narrated Faiz’s visit to his house one evening for tea and wine, before his dinner invite to RK Studios.

Faiz suddenly exclaimed that Khayyam is not a music director. It created ripples in the room. He repeated it, before adding, Khayyam was a poet of melody.

M​a​​nash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).