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Khayyam: Music is my ibadat

As Khayyam turns 90, the legendary composer of Umrao Jaan and Kabhi Kabhie, talks about his timeless music

The cosy living room of Khayyam’s Juhu home is dotted with pictures from his past — receiving the National Award, sharing a light moment with Asha Bhosle and smiling with wife and accomplished singer, Jagjit Kaur at a function. And, sitting comfortably on a couch in a cream coloured shirt and grey trousers, is the legendary composer himself, whose dulcet melodies in films like Kabhi Kabhie, Razia Sultan, Bazaar, and Umrao Jaan have left an indelible impression on music lovers.

Khayyam with wife and muse Jagjit Kaur on his 90th birthday. Pics/Nimesh Dave
Khayyam with wife and muse Jagjit Kaur on his 90th birthday. Pics/Nimesh Dave

Mohammed Zahur Khayyam Hashmi turned 90 on February 18. And, on his birthday, he announced the decision to start a charitable trust to which he will donate his wealth of R10 crore to support budding artists and technicians in the film industry. "I’ve seen a lot of struggle and hardships myself so I can understand the difficulties aspiring artistes suffer every day to make it big," he says. As we speak, occasionally straining our voices to beat the din of the traffic on the main road, the conversation suddenly stops. It’s the sound of the azaan (call of the muezzin) from a nearby mosque that fills the air and Khayyam with his eyes closed is deeply immersed in prayer.

As he opens his eyes, he says, "Music was, and still is, nothing less than ibaadat (worship) for me."

In a career spanning more than five decades, Khayyam has composed music for over 50 films. "I agree it’s much less compared to my contemporaries, but my wife and I had decided early on that we wouldn’t compromise on quality. You’ll never find a single tune in my songs that has been lifted from anywhere. I don’t want to fill my pockets with money like many composers do… I’d rather be honest to my art," he says, adding with a laugh, "In fact, this particular aspect has earned me the adjective ‘moody and choosy’ from my journalist friends."

Khayyam admits his body of work is small also because he crafted a tune only after being convinced of the script and imbibing the essence of the lyrics. For instance, during the making of Umrao Jaan (1981), he spent months poring over the book, Umrao Jaan Ada, on which the film was based. "I wanted to understand Umrao Jaan’s mannerisms, her emotions and what she felt when she realised she cannot escape her life as a tawaif (courtesan) at mehfils. I even studied the history of the time in Lucknow," he tells us in chaste Urdu, while offering an English translation. In his effort to create exemplary music for the film, he risked a fallout with reigning singing sensation of the time, Asha Bholse. "I wanted Ashaji to adopt a lower scale, which she refused because she felt it was something she wasn’t capable of. I had given Asha her first-ever cabaret number in Footpath (1951). So, I was aware of her ability to pull off any song."

The matter became so serious that the crew thought she might walk out. However, she relented and recorded, but only after she’d heard the new tonal quality of her vocals. "She went into a trance for five minutes as she heard her own new-found voice. She asked, ‘Was that me?’" he laughs. Bhosle later complimented Khayyam for helping discover a new side of her. That year Khayyam won the National Award for Best Music Director for the song Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan.

Yet, the disciple of composer Chishti Baba of Lahore is most proud of his non-film albums and ghazals on which he collaborated with Mohammed Rafi, Meena Kumari and Begum Akhtar. What remains his evergreen favourites are the songs sung by his wife and muse, Jagjit Kaur: Tum Apna Ranjh-O-Gham Apni Pareshani Mujhe De Do, from the 1964 film Shagoon. Khayyam says he owes his success to her. "Without her creative inputs and support, I wouldn’t have been who I am," he says choking with emotion.

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