In Memory of Khayyam

Shueyb Gandapur pays tribute to Mohammed Zahur Khayyam (18 February 1927 – 19 August 2019)

In Memory of Khayyam
The way we register melodies in our minds is a curious indication of the manner in which our evolving memory collects data. It associates images, sights, sounds and smells with certain phases, events or emotions of our lives. In the case of music, sometimes we like a piece because the lyrics and composition resonate with some of our latent feelings. At other times, a musical tune may conflate itself in our minds with the general circumstances of the particular phase of our lives when we first noticed it.

Trying to search for the complete verses of Faiz’s ghazal “Kab yaad mein tera saath nahin” one fine afternoon many years ago, its rendition by Khayyam came up in my search results. Feeling experimental, I clicked on the link. As the song started playing, I was captivated by its profound effect. Anyone with even a little familiarity with Indian film music is sure to have heard many good compositions of Khayyam. However, one may not always pay attention to who the composer of every melody is. Discovering his composition of “Kab yaad mein tera saath nahin” made me curious about his other work. Not only was the composition Khayyam’s but he had also lent his vocals to the number.
The culture of mutual respect, courtesy and dignity that was prevalent in the music and film industry of India, as reflected in the anecdotes of Khayyam about his life journey and fondly referred to by him as “Hamari Hindustani tehzeeb”, sounds like the stuff of a lost era

The poetry was set to a beautiful ringing repeating tune. Accompanying Khayyam’s deep and solid vocals was the grounded voice of Jagjit Kaur, very unique in its strength and richness. This evocative ghazal was sung for Muzaffar Ali’s film, Anjuman. It was a film based on the struggle of underpaid “chikan” embroidery workers in Lucknow, who were shown to be brutally exploited by wholesalers and agents alike. Depiction of the struggle of one of the most exploited segments of the working class in the film made the basis for dedicating it to the memory of Faiz Ahmad Faiz.

After the completion of the film, distributors, reportedly, did not see any prospects for its commercial success, given its subject matter. This was despite all the big names included in the cast and crew of the film. Anjuman did not see a commercial release. The unfortunate result was that its captivating music did not reach a bigger audience. Accidentally, however, this wonderful song made its way into my permanent playlist as a prized addition.

At the time I was based in Lagos, Nigeria. Every time this song comes up in my playlist, I am taken back to the memory of walks along Lekki beach of Lagos. I used to listen to it with my headphones on – and on repeat. The temperate weather, gushing waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the many vendors trying to sell soft drinks, grilled corn and local souvenirs complete the scenery in my memory. Such are the unlikely connections of sounds and the memories they invoke.

Recording with Asha Bhosle

The passing away of Khayyam last week made me want to dedicate some time to the memory of this legendary composer by listening to his interviews. His initiation into the musical scene of India is an interesting story of single-minded determination. Per his own account, he came from a family where the importance of education was strongly emphasised. He did not have much of an inclination towards studies though. As an adolescent, he ran away from his home in Jalandhar, Punjab, to stay with his uncle in Delhi. His passion for film and music had completely taken over his imagination. After the initial scolding, his uncle arranged for him to get trained under the classical musician, Pandit Amarnath.

From Delhi, he went to Bombay to try his luck in films. Not finding much success there, he proceeded to Lahore. Someone told him to try his luck with Baba Chishti, who was a prominent music director of mid-1940s. Here chance played its determining role in shining light on the hidden talent of Khayyam. Khayyam sneaked into Baba Chishti’s well-equipped studio and keeping himself hidden in a corner, listened to the great musician as he composed tunes for hours. After spending several hours in making compositions, just before calling it a day, Baba Chishti tried to recall a melody he had spontaneously composed earlier that morning. The tune had not been recorded and nobody among his staff was able to recall it. That’s when Khayyam, standing in a corner, jumped in to the conversation, saying he could sing that composition. Annoyed to discover a young lad had sneaked into his studio without permission, Baba Chishti rebuked him. The boy was then asked to prove his claim. When Khayyam started reproducing the melodies, the master was so impressed with his exceptional talent that he decided to take him under his wings. It was with Baba Chishti’s help that Khayyam composed for his first film, Heer Ranjha, in 1948.

That was the beginning of an illustrious career spanning over seven decades. Working in the industry for such a long time, he was always full of anecdotes behind many of his compositions. These narratives involved the introduction of many new artists, singers and actors in the film industry, whose careers he saw being shaped in front of him. His style of soulful and emotional music always remained very fresh and original. There were times when some of the producers expressed doubts about his tunes becoming outdated, but eventual acclaim from public proved those doubts wrong every time. His timeless hits such as “Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai”, “Ay dil-e-nadaan”, “Dil cheez kya hai aap meri jaan leejiye”, “Dikhayi diye youn ke bekhud kiya”, “Yeh kya jagah hai doston” and so many others remain ever popular with listeners.

Whenever there would be a reference to his wife, Jagjit Kaur, he would humbly credit all his success to the support he had received from her. She was herself an eminent singer and had sung to some of his compositions but had later decided to focus less on her own singing career, and more on supporting in Khayyam’s work. Khayyam had set the composition of a song penned by Sahir Ludhianvi, “Tum apna ranj o gham, apni pareshani mujhe de do” (Give me all your sorrows and all your worries) to the vocals of Jagjit Kaur. In many of his interviews, he would dedicate a couplet from that song to his wife:

Main dekhoon to sahi, dunya tumhein kaise sataati hai

Kayi din ke liye apni nigahbaani mujhe de do

(Let me see to it that nobody dares trouble you under my watch

Only if you give yourself into my care but for a few days).

These lines, according to Khayyam, define the role Jagjit Kaur took over in his life, by being his anchor and support through thick and thin.

Every major singer in India, be it Lata or Rafi, Asha or Mukesh or Kishore Kumar – they had all sung to his compositions. Despite his legendary status, the humility of his character never faded. The culture of mutual respect, courtesy and dignity that was prevalent in the music and film industry of India, as reflected in the anecdotes of Khayyam about his life journey and fondly referred to by him as “Hamari Hindustani tehzeeb”, sounds like the stuff of a lost era. Whenever he would talk about God to thank him for the unmitigated success God had blessed him with, he would use all his names – Allah, Ishwar, Waheguru – together. Universal humanity was the mainstay of his belief.

He suffered the most hearbreaking tragedy of the loss of his only son who died of cardiac arrest in 2012. In his memory, Khayyam and Jagjit Kaur decided to donate all their assets to a trust they had established. The purpose of the trust is to help struggling artists and technicians in need.

Shueyb Gandapur is a freelance contributor based in London. He travels the world and shares his impressions about the people and places he comes across on his Instagram handle: @shueyb1