Khayyam saab – which is what I always called him – came from the Rahon district in Punjab which has a strange characteristic – it is believed that if you mention its name in the morning you will stay hungry all day. He always spoke about his childhood in his village – usually in the afternoon, after all, why take a risk – he did enjoy his food after all.
He loved the beautiful surroundings he had grown up in. But soon afterwards, he would fall silent because his village and his district had changed forever in 1947 – it was on the border of what became Pakistan and was soon emptied of Muslims, in one way or another. For him, there was no doubt about where he belonged. He stayed in India but with the sorrow of having lost a lot.
Born into a conservative Muslim household, Khayyam fell in love with music very early on in life. He didn’t really understand how and when, but he was consumed with a passion for something that looked askance in his home. So he ran away to Delhi and then Lahore to study music and then came to Bombay with nothing but talent and, what was to be, a lifelong belief in his unique sensibilities.
In Bombay, he became a part of the progressive movement which spanned the arts. He went to exhibitions of paintings of Husain, Ara, Souza, Raza. Although never a part of it, he was a big supporter of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and participated in discussions with leading intellectuals like Romesh Thapar – whom Khayyam credited for introducing him to European Cinema. Khayyam was also the music director of Garam Coat, a film Romesh starred in, perhaps, for the first and last time in his life.
But politics, political organisation and activism were not Khayyam’s forte. It was always music. His commitment to secular values and beliefs dominated his life and influenced many of his decisions. Later in life, he married the young and beautiful Jagjit Kaur – a widow with a young child. The child became his beloved son and Jagjit added immense grace and warmth to what had been a rather isolated and difficult existence for Khayyam.
She was a great singer and the strength of their relationship and their extraordinary talents found perfect expression in a very difficult song – difficult to sing and difficult to compose – ‘Dekh lo, Aaj Humko Ji Bharke’ in Bazaar. (The song is taken from Zehre Ishq, a long verse drama, meant to be recited not sung.)
Khayyam’s was an uncompromising nature. Music and personal self-respect were sacrosanct for him. As a result, he spent many years in stressful circumstances despite the fact that the songs he had composed retained a magical hold on peoples’ memories. Things changed, perhaps, after Noorie which was made as a co-operative venture.
Its huge success meant that Khayyam could move to a comfortable flat from his Maharashtra Housing Board tenement. It also meant that he became a sought-after music director. Bazaar and Umrao Jaan were made in quick succession around this time.
Khayyam had been approached by Muzaffar for Gaman. He was in the housing board tenement at the time. Khayyam had told him, “Come back to me when you have something to offer”. Jaidev had done wonders with Shahriyar bhai’s poetry in Gaman. So, with some trepidation, Muzaffar went back to Khayyam to talk about Umrao Jaan.
Khayyam was still quite intimidating but then, Rahon (the city in Punjab) came into the conversation. I said then that I hoped we would get something to eat. He was very surprised but had a good laugh. When he heard that I had a bua (aunt) who lived in Rahon with her family, he became less intimidating.
Once Khayyam agreed to do the music for Umrao Jaan, he became involved in every aspect of the film’s production. He spent hours with Shahriyar who, of course, wrote all the songs. He even agreed to a few changes at Khayyam’s urging – an indication of the tremendous regard he had, for the composer, even if he was arrogant about his poetry as Khayyam was about his music.
As far as Khayyam, and everyone else involved, was concerned, there was only one singer to be considered for the film – Asha Bhonsle – and he used all his powers of persuasion to get her to agree. She said that the only problem was that while, for other songs, she used a notebook to refer to the words, when it came to great poetry like Shahriyar’s, she would have to make the effort to learn all the songs and sing them without any reference to notebooks.
Because of the Rahon connection, my parents and my membership in the CPI(M), I could take certain liberties with Khayyam. When we returned from a memorable meeting with Ashaji, I said to him, “Aapko to pata hi hai ki tawaifen to low scales mein gaati thin. Matlab aaj kal jis tarah ki high-pitched singing popular hai voh unka style bilkul naheen tha (You know that courtesans sing in low scales. Which means they were totally different from the current high-pitched styles)”.
He looked at me, quite taken aback. Then he thought about it and said, slowly, “Baat to theek hai lekin yeh baat tumhi unse kehna (You are right, but you please tell her)”.
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When I told Ashaji she laughed and said, “let me try”.
Khayyam did more than just score the music of the film. He was involved in the scripting and dialogue writing too. In the novel, the young Umrao is seduced by Gauhar Mirza, the resident pimp in Khanum Jaan’s bordello. The script, which was quite faithful to the novel, had a similar scene. Khayyam was horrified. The heroine of a Hindi film could not lose her virginity to a pimp.
Heated discussions followed and Muzaffar, unsurprisingly, sided with Khayyam and Shama Zaidi and Javed Siddiqui (the writers) supported by myself. Finally, I said “Lekin Khayyam saab, voh tawaif thi (But Khayyam, she was a courtesan)”. Our side won the day but the seduction scene was poetically and subtly filmed to everyone’s satisfaction.
Bazaar was released close to Umrao Jaan. ‘Kabhi kabhi’ with its magical title song had been released a few years earlier. And it was Umrao Jaan that brought both Khayyam and Ashaji their National Awards. He was delighted that his extraordinary passion and talent for music had finally received the recognition it deserved.
Khayyam was a complex and difficult man who was also capable of a childlike appreciation of the wonderful. He had a temper and a rough tongue too but he was also infinitely affectionate and appreciative. A great man and a great artist with sterling qualities. Khayyam, like Ghalib, called himself an “aadha Musalman, sharaab peete the lekin sooar nahin khaate“. Unlike Ghalib, he was fortunate to have found Jagjit Kaur to whom he was the most considerate, appreciative and loving husband, most of the time.
All in all, he was a most unusual man of great sensitivity. He had beautiful hands and, even when he ate, which he did very sparingly despite his great love for good food, his fingers retained their elegance.
Subhashini Ali is a former member of parliament from Kanpur and politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). She was a costume designer for Umrao Jaan and Gaman.