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True Harmony – Khayyam

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Khayyam, the durable composer who created the memorable score for films like Kabhi Kabhie and Umrao Jaan, has just won the celebrated Lata Mangeshkar Puraskar. A tribute.

Money is the last consideration for me. I have given up films halfway, whenever there has been any kind of pressure on me from the film-makers.

The Illustrated Weekly of India, October 8, 1988 

the seventies and eighties saw him bounce back with hits like Kabhi Kabhie, Dard, Thodisi Bewafai, Umrao Jaan, Trishul, Noorie and Ahista Ahista.

The seventies and eighties saw him bounce back with hits like Kabhi Kabhie, Dard, Thodisi Bewafai, Umrao Jaan, Trishul, Noorie and Ahista Ahista.

For music director Khayyam, the honour of being presented with the highest music award at the national level, The Lata Mangeshkar Puraskar, was long overdue. Instituted by the government of Madhya Pradesh, the award is an annual one carrying a tax-free purse of Rs. 1 lakh and a citation for ‘excellence in creativity. Long dedication and continuing performance in the field of light music.’ It is given alternately to composers and singers active in the field. And Khayyam is the fifth recipient of the award, the earlier celebrities being composers Naushad and Jaidev and singers Kishore Kumar and Mannday.

Khayyam, doubtless shares with Naushad and Jaidev the distinction of being a composer par excellence. Even though he has barely 40-odd films to his credit in his career of over four decades, his is still a name to reckon with in an industry so hopelessly ridden with feuds and intrigues. Witness the array of his films from Footpath, released way back in 1952, to Parbat Ke Us Paar which was released in early September this year. Not all of them, as he candidly admits, have been box-office hits. Even so, the songs from these films – they number about 400 – and also those 100-odd of the non-film variety, stand testimony to his relentless quest for excellence.

Born in Jalandhar in Pubjab, Khayyam (his full name is Mohammed Zahoor Khayyam Hashimi) had one consuming passion as a boy; to be a film actor. He would often bunk school to watch the bioscope, spending all his pocket money of two annas. And when out of money, he would manage to watch it through the slits and cracks of theatre doors!

As is well known, every screen aspirant in the pre-playback era had to be a singer of sorts. This led the young Khayyam to a music teacher. He was fortunate enough to find gurus in Amarnath (not to be confused with his living namesake who is a senior exponent of the Kirana gharana and based in Delhi) and the celebrated Husnlal and Bhagatram, which are acclaimed as pioneers in film music.

After his five-year tutelage under his mentors, he kept shuttling between Jalandhar and Delhi in search of stardom in the tinsel world, facing constant humiliation and ridicule from his elders. Only his grandmother, apparently, was sympathetic to him. He soon realized that his music grooming, which has moulded him into a sensitive singer, could not help him wangle a single film role. Frustrated, he joined the Indian Army as a jawan and saw action on various fronts during World War II.

After demobilisation at the end of the war in 1945, Khayyam hoped for happier days; but he was still fated to drift and wander. However during his visit to Lahore, his meeting with the noted poet-composer of the time. G. A. Chishti (also known as Chishti Baba because of his saintly character) proved to be a turning point in his career.

Chishti Baba took him on as an assistant to help compose tunes for films. Those were the years long before the advent of the tape recorder and it was a pretty difficult job to remember tunes composed on the spur of the moment. The mentor soon found that the youngster was endowed with a phenomenal capacity to memorise complex music phrases and sequences.

A deeply spiritual man, Chishti Baba regarded Khayyam as his shagird and, for that reason, paid him no salary, but treated him with paternal affection and attended to all his basic needs. Eventually, Khayyam also overcame his ambition of becoming a film actor. Instead, he plunged headlong into composing music for films under the guidance of his mentor.

Chishti Baba’s goodwill and eminence brought khayyam in touch with prominent people in the film world, like the Maheshwari brothers and B.R. Chopra. Under their guidance, the youngster began to learn and assimilate the finer points of composing. Chopra, especially, was so impressed by Khayyam’s talent and his sense of discipline and punctuality that he put him on his payroll at a monthly salary of Rs. 125.

Chishti Baba, in the course of his work, often shuttled between Lahore, Delhi and Calcutta. Once, during Khayyam’s sojours in Calcutta with his mentor, he collaborated with Rahiman Verma in scoring the music for a film. Again, at the instance of Chishi Baba, he scored music under the pseudonym Sharmaji-Vermaji for several films during the traumatic years following Partition.

It was just before Independence that Khayyam moved to Bombay. Initially, he found the going in the impersonal metropolis rather hard (“I had to make do with just one meal a day,” he reminisced with a smile). And though he sought temporary employment with leading film companies of the time, like the Prabhat Film Company and Famous Studio, the end of tunnel was still nowhere in sight.

Prospects began changing for the better when Khayyam met the eminent producer-director Wali. His first major break was Footpath, for which he composed the evergreen Sham-e-gham ki kasam and many other hits. The success brought him other assignments.

The sixties was a rather lean decade for the maestro. But the seventies and eighties saw him bounce back with hits like Kabhi Kabhie, Dard, Thodisi Bewafai, Umrao Jaan, Trishul, Noorie, Ahista Ahista and the recent Parbat ke Us Paar.

Khayyam, like other committed composers like Naushad, Jaidev, Vasant Desai, Roshan and Keshavrao Bhole, has used his talent for a purpose. Like them, again, he has scored music to adorn his films – the kind of music that pleases the ear and touches the heart with no compromise whatsoever on authenticity. Not that he has not experimented with ‘harmony’ and ‘symphony’ in his creations. But in doing so, he has never forsaken his Indian roots.

Khayyam acknowledges his gratitude to a long line-up of stalwarts, which includes, besides those mentioned earlier, N.C. Sippy, Anwar Hussain (Nargis’s brother), Chandulal Shah, Ali Sardar Jafri, Majrooh Sultanpuri, K. A. Abbas and Sahir Ludhianvi. As he feelingly says, each one of these people played a part in his success, encouraging him in his quest for excellence.



Khayyam tells Mohan Nadkarni

Khayyam, is indisputably, a class apart. Amidst the ear-shattering cacophony of todays’ Hindi film music, his scores remain as lilting as ever. In a conversation with Mohan Nadkarni, the maestro holds forth on his favourite subject – music.


In your forty years of composing, you have scored music in just as many films. You don’t appear to be very prolific.

Believe me, I have rejected more films than I have accepted – and people dub me a foot for that. But I won’t take up everything that happens to come my way. I insist on writing a score only for the kind of film which I like.

What are your criteria for selecting a film?

When a producer approaches me. I insist on studying the script very carefully. I simply abhor themes which are full of violence and sex. Nor can I stand stories which have nonsensical themes. Before I give my consent, I convince myself tha the film has a sensible story. Money in the last consideration for me. Look, I have given up films halfway, whenever there has been any kind of pressure on me from the film-makers.

How do you go about composing a tune?

People might well say I am pretty slow at work. I ponder deeply over a lyric for a couple of weeks, or even more, before I decide on a tune for it. I imbibe its poetic import, understand the circumstances in which the character would be singing it, his or her state of mind or the social status and, above all, the tone of the film. When one does composing like this, with all one’s concentration and intensity, the songs will be remembered for long. That is why I take up just a filom or two a year.

How do you achieve variety in your compositions?

Well, in the process of composing, I never forget, even for a moment, the theme, people and pace of the film. Take Umrao Jaan, for example. It has a strong classical base, with a leisurely pace. I took up this film, both as a great challenge and as an opportunity, because maestri like Ghulam Mohammed (of Pakeezah fame) and Naushad sahib had handled similar themes before with uncanny finesse. I strove hard to put my individual stamp on the music of Umrao Jaan.

Now compare the scores of my other films like Kabhi Kabhie, Noorie, Trishul, Thodisi Bewafai, and Ahista Ahista. See how the music varies in melody, pace and rhythm in relation to the story content.

One more point. I firmly believe that a film’s background must supplement and complement its song compositions. I have always taken the utmost care to achieve this. If this doesn’t happen, the entire score sounds disjointed, like a shabbily-woven fabric.

You also have to your credit a large number of non-film compositions, like ghazals, geets and bhajana. Most of these continue to be popular even to this day.

Very true. In the late fifties, I started a new trend in bhajan-singing. Till then, bhajans, were generally sung in a loud, full-throated voice – that seemed to be about the only way to expression devotion. The series of bhajans I tuned were soft and mellow. But this did not detract from the devotional fervour of the song. On the contrary, it served to enhance the emotional content.

As you know, a lot of people still remember Rafi Sahib’s Tere bharose he Nandlal and other bhajans like Main gwalo rakhwalo maiyaan. I have also tuned scores of ghazals and even patriotic songs – the latter during song Awaz do hum ek hain? I composed and recorded it for our jawans in merely 24 hours. Not quite my style, you might well say, but the occasion demanded it.

Did you also have a stint with All India Radio?

Not much is known about it. It all happened in the early fifties when Dr. B.V. Keskar, then nion minister for information and broadcasting, initiated a new policy designed to ‘improve popular taste for good music’. He imposed a total ban on the broadcasting of film songs over the radio network. However, his plan was frustrated when lovers of film songs turned to Radio Goa and Radio Ceylon. In an attempt to wriggle out of this predicament, Dr. Keksar directed AIR to embark on a campaign for recording popular music like ghazals, geets and bhajans and broadcast though its channels.

I was commissioned to undertake the onerous assignments. I engaged popular artistes of yesteryear. Like Sudha Malhotra, Mohantara Talpade (Ajinkya) and als Rafi Sahib to sing these songs. Almost all of these proved to be hits, some of them super-hits.

How have you managed to be the most durable composer in the film world?

(Laughs) I keep pace with the changing tims. I keep tabs on new musical trends, recording technology, instruments and the like. And my music has also kept pace with the changing times. Yet, mind you, I never sacrificed the Indian flavour in any of my films. I am sure you will agree that from Footpath to Parbat Ke Us Paar, my compositions are made of home-grown stuff – be it a classical raga or folk tune. So is the case with my choice of rhythm. And I am now firmly convinced that there is a large audience that shares this taste for things Indian. Or else, Khayyam would not have been here – he would have long been drowned by the tidal wave of hybrid pop music!

How then do you view the film music scene today?

The prospect is bleak, even frightful.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? The producers, the music directors or the writers?

No, I won’t blame them individually. I don’t think the music directors are bad. It’s the films that are bad. They can’t be expected to score the music of Kabhi Kabhie or Umrao Jaan for a film that bristles with sex or violence or both – where the rattle of stenguns has replaced the background score. Nor can one blame the music directors. Their tunes are what the films demand. Otherwise, I am sure they are a talented lot.



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