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Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar Hoon: Khayyam, the Understated Genius 

The Quint salutes legendary music composer Khayyam on his birth anniversary, for his music & limitless generosity. 

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Music
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For Mohammed Zahur Khayyam Hashmi, born on 18th February 1927, music was and still is, nothing less than ibaadat. And he would craft a tune only after imbibing the essence of the lyrics and the mood of the characters. Even if that took years. He might have only 50 films to his credit, but the impact that Khayyam’s music had on his listeners is far greater than that of most of his contemporaries. In fact, he and his wife Jagjit Kaur had decided early on in their lives as principled music lovers, that they will not compromise on quality for quantity.

On his 90th birthday, the unassuming composer had announced the formation of a charity trust named ‘Khayyam Jagjeet Kaur Charitable Trust’, through which he has pledged to donate his entire wealth (valued at around Rs 10 Crore) to help struggling artists and technicians in the Hindi film industry.

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Khayyam, who never kept a team of assistants, always credits his success to his beloved wife, applauding her as his greatest strength and inspiration. At one point, he had even contemplated composing under the ‘Khayyam Jagjit Kaur’ label, to express his gratitude for her invaluable creative inputs. But she vetoed his decision. This song was the maestro’s dedication of sorts to his ardhaangani.

Back in the day, Sahir Ludhianvi recommended Khayyam’s name to director Ramesh Saigal, who had only one condition about working with him. He would take him on only if Raj Kapoor approved of his compositions.

So, on the given day at RK Studios, Raj Kapoor first made Khayyam tune a tanpura to gauge his dexterity, and after listening impassively to five compositions, took Saigal to another room for a private discussion. They didn’t return for almost 45 minutes, and it was presumed that Khayyam had been rejected.

But the veteran actor came back with a stream of compliments along with the request that all five of his compositions be taken in Phir Subah Hogi (1958).

World renowned playback singer Mohd Rafi was so inspired by Khayyam’s gift that every time they met or worked together, he made sure to leave his pride, fame and achievements outside the door. He learnt from the maestro like he was a new student. Rafi saab became such a devout disciple that, apart from following all his stringent conditions, he never took even a telephone call or a message during their practice sessions.

Like Rafi, Begum Akhtar and Meena Kumari too placed their confidence only in Khayyam. In fact, Begum publicly acknowledged that she had never sung better than what Khayyam managed to get out of her. At his insistence, the two stars rigorously abstained from their favourite food and beverages to enhance their singing prowess. His composition of Meena Kumari’s poetry I Write, I Recite has kept the legendary actress alive in our collective consciousness.

The credit for Asha Bhosle’s phenomenal singing in Umrao Jaan goes to Khayyam’s ingenuity of making her adopt a slightly lower scale. Initially, Asha refused to sing but gave in when Khayyam insisted that he’d submit to her demand, but only after she’d heard the new tonal quality of her vocals. Later, astonished by her own ‘new’ voice, Asha not only apologised but also complimented Khayyam for ‘improving her singing’.

Unfortunately, in his twilight years, the demise of his grown-up son and his wife’s subsequent illness made him stay away from recording studios. A pity, especially as the music scene needed his magic touch more than ever. But his creations will continue to transcend into the hearts of his admirers around the world.

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words, and that which cannot remain silent.
Victor Hugo, Poet and Novelist

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark Khayyam’s birth anniversary)

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