Bollywood Songs Got Rhythm Thanks to OP Nayyar, My Old Friend

Ajay Mankotia remembers going over to OP Nayyar’s PG accommodation in Mumbai and spending hours talking about music.

6 min read

The poor sarangi! Hindi film music had accorded it a rather limiting role — either in the kothas or as mournful accompaniment to melancholic songs. No music director had violated the rule. Till ‘The Disruptor’ came along and changed all rules of Hindi film songs. Not in small measure, but wholesale.

OP Nayyar took the sarangi out of the confines of the kotha and let it soar into the sky; from being an adjunct to a dirge, he transformed it into an upbeat musical instrument. He gave it a feel-good melody, a fast pace. He gave it respect. You could hear it sing joyfully, to be released from typecasting.

Hear ‘Yeh Kya Kar Dala Tune’ (Howrah Bridge), and ‘Aankhon Hi Aankhon Mein Ishara Ho Gaya’ (CID).

Take the santoor. The beat allotted to it by music composers was gentle. It was elevator music. OP used it as a fast-flowing brook – still soft but now more insistent – in the prelude to ‘Jaayiye Aap Kahaan Jaayenge’ (Mere Sanam). Never was the santoor used like this.


‘No Music System in OP’s Room. Just Diaries, Letters, Photos’

This iconoclastic trait of his was invariably one of the topics of discussion that OP and I used to have. I had met OP, and befriended him, when I was posted in Mumbai in the 1990s. He had retired from the film industry and was living as a paying guest in Thane, near Mumbai. OP’s family had severed ties with him for his ‘wayward’ behavior and he had left all his possessions with them. OP was not bitter about it because, as he told me, he ‘deserved what he got’. His primary source of income was music royalty. His new passion was homeopathy and astrology.

I would drive down very often to Thane – with a bottle of Black Label – and spend the evening with him. Just the two of us in his small room.

He would serve boiled eggs for snacks. Late in the night he would serve dinner of mutton which he had bought personally earlier in the day and cooked over slow fire. The family he lived with was very tolerant and allowed him these liberties.

Though he would be initially reluctant, after a few pegs, and my persistence, he would talk about his music. There was no music system in his room. Just a carton of diaries, letters and photographs. He would show them to me. Some of the letters, written by known names of the playback industry, were explosive stuff. He showed me a postcard with the handwritten mukhra of his famous song ‘Pyaar Par Bas To Nahin Hai Mera’ (Sone Ki Chidiya). It was signed but he kept his palm over the name. “Guess who has written it?” he asked, smilingly.

“Talat Mahmood, of course?” I replied.

He shook his head in disbelief. “And here I thought you knew all my songs.” Of course, I knew the answer but wanted him to confirm, which he did.

‘In OP’s Hands, the Beat Pattern Would Go Through an Earthquake!’

The foremost contribution of OP to Hindi film songs was rhythm. His innovations in the percussion section were so revolutionary, and catchy, that they became his trademark. It was a delight to hear OP explain the intricacies and nuances of his extraordinary ‘off -beat’ offering to the Hindi Film Song.

First the tonga beat. He popularised it so much that it is now indelibly linked to him.

Think tonga, and OP’s name invariably comes to mind. Take for example – ‘Banda Parwar Thaam Lo Jigar’ (Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon ) , ‘Zara Haule Haule Chalo More Saajna’ ( Saawan Ki Ghata ) , ‘Yun To Humne Lakh Haseen Dekhe Hain’ ( Tumsa Nahin Dekha ) , ‘Piya Piya Mera Jeeya Pukare’ ( Baap Re Baap), and many others.

Castanets are a Spanish percussion instrument consisting of two round pieces of wood or shell which are held by the fingers and clicked together in rhythm to music and dance. OP used it extensively in his songs, and how! The song’s complexion changed. Just hear ‘Aayiye Meherbaan’ (Howrah Bridge) when Asha croons ‘Ishq Ke Imtihan’. The song would have been flat without it. Or during ‘Kaise Pehchanun Ki Naam Nahin Janun’ from ‘Lakhon Hain Nigah Mein’ (Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon). It adds zest and frothiness to the hero’s romantic quest.

Almost all Hindi film songs have beat patterns which are straight and regular. But OP had other ideas.

Take ‘Yeh Haseen Dard De Do’ (Humsaya). You give the song to a tabla player. He will provide the beat pattern which would be simple and linear. But in the hands of OP, the beat pattern went through an earthquake. So, while the beat remained the same, its complexion radically changed, as did the song’s. The beat patterns are complex yet riveting. Hear ‘Aaj Koi Pyaar Se’ (Saawan Ki Ghata) and ‘Mohabbat Cheez Hai Kya’ (Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi) and see if the beat patterns don’t shake you up.


OP Nayyar & Mohammed Rafi’s Bittersweet Friendship

But the revolution OP wrought was bringing on board both the Western and Indian beats to songs. His songs are replete with this fusion. He would have the western beat, usually the drums in the mukhra. In the antara, the dholak would take over. It wasn’t contrived, it didn’t looked forced. Dholak was the most natural choice for the composition that he imparted to the antara. Then back to the drums in the following mukhra. This dual usage gave the song a hitherto unknown texture. One example – ‘Balma Khuli Hawa Mein’ (Kashmir Ki Kali).

OP was particularly fond of Rafi. And vice versa. Rafi had penned a variant of the Tumsa Nahin Dekha title song for OP – ‘Yun To Humne Lakh Sangeet Kaar Dekhe Hain, Par Nayyar Jaisa Nahin Dekha.’ OP produced timeless classics with Rafi. Yet, Rafi was at the receiving end of OP’s strict discipline when he was thrown out of the studio when he reported late for a recording, and was kept out for many years. OP had to then perforce use Mahendra Kapoor – a singer he detested because of his tendency to go off-key. He would contemptuously refer to him as ‘Charandas’ – a person given to touching the feet of all and sundry.

Rafi’s loss was Kapoor’s gain. Just imagine all the songs that he sang were meant for Rafi!

How would the songs have sounded? ‘Badal Jaaye Agar Mali’ (Baharein Phir Bhi Aayengi) in Rafi’s voice!


A Magical Evening With OP

One day Rafi landed up at OP’s house and sought forgiveness. They both embraced each other and cried. “Rafi was a much better man than I,” OP conceded to me. But by then, OP’s career was going downhill which even Rafi couldn’t salvage.

His bitterness about Asha would surface now and then. How she only gave credit to RD Burman, and not to him, in making her what she finally became. He had given her self-confidence and brought her out of the shadow of her sister Lata. Contrary to popular belief, OP had no beef with Lata. “So why didn’t you take her for a single song,” I quizzed him. “Her voice wouldn’t have suited any of my songs. Can you think of any?” I let it pass.

OP told me that no singer could achieve more than eighty percent of his vision of the song.

Not surprising, since his compositions, though easy on the ears, could be complicated to reproduce.

OP came to our house too. On one such visit, he asked me for the harmonium (he hadn’t touched the instrument in a long time) and asked me to sing.

There I was attempting his ‘Aapke Haseen Rukh’ (Baharein Phir Bhi Aayengi) while OP was polite not to wince in public and throw me out of my drawing room. What a magical evening it turned out to be!


‘OP Nayyar Couldn’t Stand Fools & Could Sift the Genuine from the Frauds’

Self-respect (or ego) never left OP till his last days. His voice, though frail, was still commanding, his bearing still erect, his passion for homeopathy and astrology as strong as his earlier passion for music. He couldn’t stand fools in his heydays, he couldn’t stand them till the end. He could sift the real from the frauds. Yet he had a mellow side.

After one typical evening, he asked me to sing the Iqbal Bano song ‘Ulfat Ki Nayi Manzil Ko Chala’ which I just about managed.

“Sing it again.”

Embarrassed, I gave it another go.

“Once again.”

Completely mortified, I gave it my all. His eyes had already started welling up during my third attempt and he was in full cry as I finished. He asked that I call my mother (Usha Bhatia — who had been a singer on AIR, Delhi before her marriage — who OP had heard and admired).

Expecting a severe dressing down from both, I was shocked when he told her over the phone that the song had transported him back in time and he had been overcome with emotion.

Even after I was posted out of Bombay, I stayed in touch with him. I would meet him during my visits to the city. On 28 January 2007, the Emperor of Melody breathed his last, leaving behind a legion of fans and a treasure trove of immortal melodies.

Taareef Karoon Kya Uski, Jisne OP Ko Banaya.

(Ajay Mankotia is a former IRS Officer and presently runs a Tax and Legal Advisory. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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