Article Hindi

Khayyam (1927-2019): Composer who crafted melody on the scales of poetry


In the death of Mohammed Zahur 'Khayyam' Hashmi, Indian cinema has lost a composer who was steeped as much in high literature and poetry as in music.

Shriram Iyengar

Mourning the demise of the great composer Khayyam, lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar tweeted: "He has given many all-time great songs, but to make him immortal only one was enough. 'Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi [Some day that dawn will arrive]'.“

The song Javed Akhtar was referring to was the optimistic poem, written by Sahir Ludhianvi, for Ramesh Saigal's Phir Subha Hogi (1958).

Khayyam was not even supposed to compose the song. That job belonged to the Raj Kapoor staples, Shankar-Jaikishan. But it was the poet Sahir Ludhianvi who insisted to director Ramesh Saigal that only a man familiar with the literature of Dostoevsky could be allowed to compose the music for the film. It took just one audition to convince Raj Kapoor that only Khayyam could do justice to Sahir's poignant verses.

Born in 1927, Khayyam had often taken the path less travelled. Born in a well-to-do family, the young Khayyam never took so much to books as he did to music. From his childhood, he was exposed to the poetry of Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the music of Kundanlal Saigal. Convinced of his calling, he ran away from home to Delhi. Desperate to get the boy some education, his uncle put him under the tutelage of Pt Husnlal, Pt Bhagatram, and later, Pt Amarnath.

Yet, the wanderlust in the young Khayyam remained. At 17, he left Delhi for Lahore to learn music under veteran composer GA Chishti. It was here that his journey truly began. After a small stint composing recruiting tunes for the army during World War II, Khayyam returned to Chishti's tutelage. Then, the composer was working solely for BR Chopra, SD Narang and RC Talwar.

It was BR Chopra who noticed Khayyam's keen ear for music while training singers for the prep, and suggested that Chishti hire the young man for a monthly fee of Rs125. Thus began a lifelong friendship with Chopra that was to result in some wonderful work.

Arriving in Bombay after the war, Khayyam teamed up with another assistant of Chishti's, Rahman Varma. Together they formed the funnily named duo Sharmaji-Varmaji composing tunes for films like SD Narang's Yeh Hai Zindagi (1947) and Jhoothi Kasmen (1948).

Husnlal-Bhagatram also gave the composer his first break as a singer alongside Zohrabai Ambewali for the Faiz ghazal, 'Dono Jahan Teri Mohabbat Mein Haar Ke', in Romeo Juliet (1948).

This connection with literature and poetry was only deepened in Bombay. Friendships with Majrooh Sultanpuri and Prem Dhawan, among others, helped the young composer get by. The big break was on its way in Kishore Sharma's Beewee (1950). The film saw Khayyam compose six songs, including one sung by a talented young man named Mohammed Rafi.

But it wasn't until Zia Sarhadi's Footpath (1953) that the composer truly came into his own. The film saw him create a wonderful album that had 'Sham-e-gham ki kasam/Aaj ghamgheen hain hum' by Talat Mahmood as its highlight. It was at the insistence of Sarhadi that the composer agreed to be credited with his nom de plume, Khayyam.

From Footpath to Lala Rookh (1958) and Phir Subha Hogi (1958), Khayyam established himself as a notabe talent in the flourishing world of Hindi cinema music. Films like Shola Aur Shabnam (1961), Shagoon (1964) and the Rajesh Khanna debut, Aakhri Khat (1966), solidified his growing reputation. From Rafi and Talat to Lata Mangeshkar, Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhosle, there was hardly a singer who was left out of Khayyam's compositions.

But to bracket the composer as a classical purist would be to do injustice to his work in films like Trishul (1978) and that wonderful gem, Kabhi Kabhie (1975). Kabhi Kabhie is considered by some to be Khayyam's finest work, not a light statement by any yardstick. The seamless mix of poetry and lyricality in the film is an impressive achievement. It won the composer his first Filmfare award, after a long, long wait.

It was also a rare ocassion when the mellifluous Mukesh replaced Kishore Kumar as the voice of Amitabh Bachchan. The words of Sahir Ludhianvi's 'Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar Hoon' or 'Mere Ghar Aayi Ek Nanhi Pari' added to the magic of the entire album. 

It was the beginning of a purple patch that included the Muzaffar Ali magnum opus, Umrao Jaan (1981). Using Asha Bhosle as the voice of the famed poet/courtesan, Khayyam notched up one of his finest works.

The story goes that Khayyam wished for Asha Bhosle to sing at a pitch lower than her usual. It proved to be a masterstroke, as the singer's nuanced, velvety voice went on to become the signature for the masterful film by Muzaffar Ali. 

The film won the composer his second Filmfare award for Best Music. It would be his last, before the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.

In 2007, he was honoured with the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for his contribution to creative music, and with the Padma Bhushan in 2011.

Having retired from music, Khayyam stayed away from the changing world of remixes and updated reprisals that dominate the industry today. Fiercely iconoclastic and idealistic, the composer would have shunned any option to replay his old songs. Yet, there remains a generation of listeners who were introduced to the blend of classical Hindustani and film music melody solely through the contribution of Khayyam.