If there had been heaven, Khayyam would have been its music composer

Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar.

If heaven had existed anywhere in the cosmos, Mohammad Zahoor Khayyam would have been its primary music composer. He would have sat in the middle with a dholaka jal tarang or a flute and created its melodious sounds, rhythms and cadences. Khayyam would have been the sound of the music played in the Gardens of Eden, he would have been God’s own musician.

Khayyam, who died on Monday, was the composer who came closest to recreating the joy of nature’s music. In his melodies, one could feel streams flowing in valleys, water falling from verdant mountains, snow floating on zephyrs, rustling sand in deserts, and nightingales singing against a clear moonlit sky.

Read also : Veteran Bollywood music composer Khayyam dies at 92

One has to listen to Khayyam in the middle of the night – the closest to recreating the stillness of nature – to understand its magic. It will open a song with a santoor, gently breaking the silence, then, as he resumes, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice wafts through like the scent of a hundred roses. You don’t believe that? try to play Ae-Dil-e Nadaan (Razia Sultan) Where Phir Chhidi Raat Baat Phoolon Ki (Bazaar). Listen to the magic he creates between the Antaras with brilliant interludes.


If you want to understand how Khayyam brings a night to life with nothing but the rustling of silk curtains, the clink of silver anklets and glass bangles (khanak is the right word in Hindi), plays its haunting Shankar-Hussain melody—Apne Aap Raaton Main. You won’t hear a single instrument, only the sound of Lata’s voice set to the easy rhythm of a lonely woman’s heart beating with love.

Each composer has his own style. Madan Mohan was the master of ghazals with his minimalist compositions that relied heavily on the magic of singers like Lata. Kalyanji Anandji relied heavily on heavy orchestra and Western instruments. Lakshmikant-Pyarelal liked dhol– they used it a lot to create fast tempo songs.

Khayyam loved Indian instruments and sounds inspired by mountains and deserts. He would begin a composition with a single instrument—santoor was his favorite – then add a few more sounds as the beat builds up. But, her trademark style was her use of Lata’s voice paired with male vocalists who sounded melancholy or pensive. He rarely used a male vocalist to sound young or release the energy of RD Burman in his songs. But, when he did, like Kishore Kumar boldly declaring Pyaar Kar Liya to Kya in Kabhi Kabhiethe result was pure magic.

Oh, there is so much to say about Khayyam’s music. For example, if you haven’t had the privilege of going to Kashmir, listen to the music of noorie—a poignant film directed by Manmohan Krishna. In its sounds you will find the gardens of Srinagar, the rivers of Pahalgam and Verinag, the snows of Sonemarg and the silent melody of its falling chinar leaves. If you want to relive the Lucknow of Wazid Ali Shah, sit down with a glass of wine with the songs of Umrao Jaan. In his songs you will find Lucknowi tehzeeb (label), nazakat (finesse) and philosophy singing on the poignant and playful voice of Asha Bhonsle (arguably her best performance).

Music these days is usually meant to get people dancing. So it’s full of fast beats, a fast beat, and lyrics that are either an invitation to drink or have fun. But, there was a time when music was meant to make you sing, either thoughtfully or with the joys that life brings without resorting to 3 pegs or tank (four) bottle of vodka. Khayyam was one of the first staff-bearers of this golden age of melody. His career spanned almost three decades of Indian cinema – from the late 1950s to the early 1980s – when music was meant to bring poetry to life, nazmghazal and quatrains written by some of the Hindi and Urdu script legends.

For India’s great fortune, the heyday of composers like Khayyam, SD Burman, Salil Chaudhary, Madan Mohan and Jaidev coincided with the era of Saahir Ludhianvi, Gulzar, Kaifi Aazmi, Gopal Das Neeraj and later Shahryar. Together these great composers, poets and shayars have created immortal songs for legends like Lata, Asha Bhonsle, Talat Mahmood, Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh and Kishore Kumar.

With this cornucopia of legends, Indian music saw the confluence of pristine poetry and soulful melody. And Khayyam’s contribution to this treasure was immense. His pairing with Saahir for Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie created arguably one of India’s greatest albums. The film, loosely inspired by Saahir’s own life, beautifully captured every human emotion through music. It showed the anguish of a poet…Hand Pal Do Palthe pain of separation—Kabhi Kabhie Mere Dil Main, the joys of youth—Tera Phoolon Jaisa Rankand the happiness of motherhood—Mere Ghar Aayee Ek Nanhi Pariin a way that could never be recreated in Indian cinema.

It is said that the famous poet Ghalib once asked his contemporary Momin that he would be willing to exchange his life’s work for a single verse written by the latter. (Tum simple paas hote ho goya jab koi doosra nahin hota.) I can also say that all Hindi film music could easily be represented by a single album – that of Khayyam Kabhi-Kabhie.

With Khayyam, India lost one of the last legends of this age of pure magic. And God’s own composer.

But, fortunately, before leaving, he made Indian music a paradise for music lovers.

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