Remembering Khayyam Saab: My Conversations with the Legendary Music Composer

Bollywood

Remembering Khayyam Saab: My Conversations with the Legendary Music Composer

Illustration: Arati Gujar

A Facebook post last evening updated me about the demise of legendary music composer Mohammed Zahur Khayyam Hashmi, endearingly called Khayyam saab. And the loss felt personal. After all, it was through Khayyam saab’s music that I learnt about love and longing

I was 16, growing up in the quiet town of Ajmer. One of my first experiences of love was recording one of Khayyam saab’s compositions, “Tum apna ranj-o-gham”, on cassettes sitting at a creaky music shop, for a lover in another small town. Like many star-crossed lovers, I found respite in Khayyam saab’s magical voice on Muzzafar Ali’s album Anjuman where he sang, “Gar baazi ishq ki baazi hai, jo chaho laga do darr kaisa, garr jeet gaye to kya kehna, haare bhi to baazi maat nahi.” (For if it is the game of love, give it your all/Surrender your all, if you win then it’s victory all the way, even if you lose, it is not defeat.) 

And yet, as a teenage girl, I never dreamed of ever meeting the man whose music had become an integral part of my life. Decades later, I moved to Mumbai. And as a law correspondent at Mumbai Mirror in 2008, I had the opportunity to speak with the legend for a story involving a dispute between lyricist Nida Fazli and director Kamal Amrohi’s family. 

Six months later, a friend who wanted to make a film on Sahir Ludhianvi and Amrita Pritam’s love story reached out to me and asked me if I knew Khayyam saab and could help her meet him. I called him on his landline. 

“Khayyam saab’s residence? I asked. 

“Jee! Bol raha hun,” he replied. 

I introduced myself. “Sir, main Bapu bol rahi hun Mumbai Mirror se, woh article…” 

I don’t know if it was my peculiar name or his good memory, but he responded, “Arré Bapu, tum yaad ho mujhe!” I was flattered of course and we set up a meeting; he willingly agreed to meet my friend and me. A few days later, we walked into his Juhu home, modest and simple, a lot like Khayyam saab himself. Neatly arranged in his drawing room were his awards and musical instruments – a table and harmonium perched atop a marble stool.  

Shortly into our conversation, his wife Jagjit Kaur joined us and he introduced her as his better half. We chatted – over some homemade snacks and chai – about music in the days of yore, the changing industry, the lack of commerce in filmmaking, love and passion. She referred to him as Khayyam saab, he called her Jagjit ji, and I sat there admiring the two, looking at her, and thinking all along about the golden voice behind the evergreen songs “Tum apna ranj-o-gham” and “Dekh lo aaj humko jee bhar ke”.

We met the couple for just over two hours, almost a decade back. Yet, like most of his fans, I feel I have known him all my life. Khayyam saab, with his gentleness, reminded us of times when a lot of artists came together for a film and were happy to collaborate for the common cause – and that cause was music. 

She referred to him as Khayyam saab, he called her Jagjit ji, and I sat there admiring the two, looking at her, and thinking all along about the golden voice behind the evergreen songs “Tum apna ranj-o-gham”.

He began telling us the story of his foray into the film industry. It was in the ’50s, when Sahir Ludhianvi suggested Khayyam saab’s name to director Ramesh Saigal for Phir Subah Hogi (1958). Raj Kapoor saab was the actor and he always preferred to work with Shankar-Jaikishan, his trusted music directors. Khayyam saab told me about how he played songs one after the other before Raj saab. Yet his face did not give anything away. It was only when a delighted Saigal hugged him that Raj saab said he had never heard such music before. 

Khayyam saab spoke about about the love and respect he had for Sahir Ludhianvi. That he was a maverick. And that when he became successful as a lyricist, he bought a building with many floors – Parchaiyaan in Mumbai’s Versova – and then invited all and sundry from the industry to stay in the flats there. “He would casually say, ‘Main kitne kamron main rahoonga. Sab nazdeek rahen to achcha hai na!’’’ He told my friend and me that Ludhianvi kept the top floor for himself and gave away the other flats to colleagues from the industry. 

He then spoke fondly about a meeting outside Parchaiyaan with Ludhianvi and Yash Chopra. Yash ji and Ludhianvi were already in a conversation when Khayyam saab arrived. He kept listening to the story of Kabhi Kabhie that Yash ji was narrating, and once he was done, he looked at Ludhianvi. The latter turned to Khayyam saab and said, “Yeh to meri kahani  lagti hai… iska music tum nahi doge to kaun dega?” (This looks like my story, if you do not compose the music for this, who else will?) 

Khayyam saab told me he was hesitant to compose music for Kabhi Kabhie because he had witnessed Ludhianvi’s love for the poet, Amrita Pritam. He was aware that Kabhi Kabhie was based on their story loosely, and he thought “without Sahir’s approval, composing music for Kabhi Kabhie did not seem ethical”. 

Finally, Khayyam saab got on board. And the magic Ludhianvi and he created reflected in the songs of the film: “Kabhi Kabhie mere dil main khyaal aata hai”, “Pyaar kar liya to kya”, “Main pal do pal ka shayar hun.” The music, the lyrics are eternal.  

Hearing those stories I wondered, how simple were those times and the people who inhabited that era. I asked Khayyam saab why he wouldn’t make music anymore, and he said something which I’ve heard far too often from my industry friends. “Because no one asks me anymore. Ab aap log aaye ho, zaroor karenge, kyun nahi karenge (Now that you people have come to me, for sure I will do it, why won’t I),” he asked. My heart sank, I felt a surge of pain. Who were we to give the great Khayyam saab any work?  

We wondered then if he would compose songs for the film my friend had in mind. Khayyam saab said he would “charge a lot of money”. How much would he quote? Would it be exorbitant? Could one even afford him? 

The little girl who grew up in Ajmer, recording his music on cassettes, never dreamt in her wildest dreams that one day she’d be speaking to the man himself.

He hesitated for a while and finally said, “five lakh per song.” I was left speechless. By the late noughties, music composers were charging Rs 15 to 25 lakh per song, and here we were, sitting in front of Khyaam saab, the man who gave music for films like Razia Sultan, Umrao Jaan, Bazaar, Thodi Si Bewafai, Trishul, Aahista Aahista (1981), Shagun, Shankar Hussein, thinking that five lakh is a huge amount. That was the humility of Khayyam saab. 

At the end of our conversation, I asked him about Anjuman. “Sir, aapne Shabana ji (Azmi) se gaana gawa diya?” He laughed and said, “Woh bhi yahi kehti hain!” 

Throughout that morning, Khayyam saab was uninhibited, his memory sharp as ever, anecdotes freely flowing, giving us all the answers to questions we asked him. It was a humbling experience to just sit and listen to this legend, satisfied with what he had done and achieved, yet up to new challenges. I read somewhere that on his 90th birthday Khayyam saab and Jagjit ji put their entire life savings in a trust for the benefit of struggling artists in the music world.

Today, I look back at my time with Khayyam saab. I can still remember the day when he said, “Bapu, tum yaad ho mujhe.” I still remember beaming and thinking, “Is ek lamhe ke liye Bambai aana safal hua (Coming to Mumbai was worth it).” The little girl who grew up in Ajmer, recording his music on cassettes, never dreamt in her wildest dreams that one day she’d be speaking to the man himself. The man who taught her how to love. It’s one thing to dream about meeting your legends and another to be able to meet them and not be disappointed by who you think they are.

Well, do I really know Khayyam saab? I feel I do, because there was his music and Sahir Ludhianvi’s poetry to justify every heartfelt thing I did in my life, whether right or wrong.

Today, Khayyam saab is no more. And all I can think about is his music and our meeting. In the last 24 hours, I have listened to “Kab yaad main tera saath nahi” from Anjuman, the only time Khayyam saab and Jagjit ji came together to give their silken voices to a duet, over and over again. A couplet from the ghazal was probably written by Faiz Ahmed Faiz for legends like Khayyam saab. And what better way to remember him… 

“Jis dhaj se koi maktal main gaya,
Woh shaan salamat rehti hai
Yeh jaan to aani jaani hai
Is jaan ki to koi baat nahi.” 

(The dignity with which you are taken on your final journey is your only pride. Life, otherwise, is pretty inconsequential.)

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