He was born into a deeply religious family at Rahon near Jalandhar in undivided Punjab on February 18, 1927. As a child, it is said, he ran away from home to pursue his passion. And it took over two decades to his family to accept Mohammad Zahoor Khayyam Hashmi as music composer Khayyam.
During World War II, Khayyam joined the British Indian Army around 1943 and became a part of the cultural troupe headed by Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who had once described Khayyam as “a poet of melody”.
After partition, he returned to Mumbai and joined forces with music composer Rahman. Interestingly, the duo named them as Sharmaji-Vermaji. It was only after film maker Zia Sarhadi and his friends Majrooh Sultanpuri, Ali Sardar Jafri and Chandulal Shahgave insisted that he should use his real name, that he became Khayyam when Footpath (1953) was in the making.
In a TV interview, many years ago, responding to former Chief Election Commissioner of India SY Qureshi’s query whether Islam prohibits music and singing despite its “therapeutic value”, this is what Khayyam had to say: “Yes it is prohibited. I am a staunch Muslim. But our religious scholars don’t tell us which kind of music or melody is forbidden. There is a music that gives genuine happiness to the people. Then there is music that brings people nearer to the evil. This kind of music is forbidden.”
And in the same breath, he told Qureshi, “Have you heard azaan? It has such a melody and attraction! We get to hear the same melody in the sounds of bells, conch shells and flute in Hindu temples. In churches also, prayers are offered through music. In Gurdwaras, Gurbani is sung…its all music.”
He also told Qureshi how his father asked him to bow before Bhagat Singh’s ancestral home when they passed through freedom fighter’s ancestral village. With childlike innocence, he spoke enthusiastically about a patriotic song written by Jan Nisar Akhtar that he composed for the country in the event of war.
Apne Sabhi Sukh Aik Hain, Apne Sabhi Gam Aik Hain,
Awaaz Do Hum Aik Hain, Awaaz Do Hum Aik Hain!
Those who had the privilege to visit Khayyam’s home in Juhu tell us that his music room was studded with images, idols and scriptures of all the religions besides the emblems of Islam. Though his wife, noted singer Jagjit Kaur, was a Sikh, the couple chose to give a Hindu name to their only son, Pradeep.
Known for his uncompromising nature and simplicity in life and work, the maestro in his illustrious career demonstrated how a great poetry set to soulful music doesn’t age with time.
For Bazaar (1982), he composed ghazals of poets who had left this world long ago. Whether it was the song sung by his wife Jagjit Kaur, Dekh lo aaj hum ko jee bhar kay or the poem penned by Bashar Nawaz, Karo ge yaad to har baat yaad aaye gi, or Makhdoom’s ghazal, Phir chidi raat baat pholon ki or Mir Tqi Mir’s verses, Dekhaai diye yon kay bekhud kiya, his compositions remain hauntingly beautiful as ever.
Eminent poet and lyricist, Nida Fazli writes in his biographical novel how he got introduced to film world. After having read it in a literary magazine, Khayyam composed his iconic poem, “Kabhi kisi ko mukammal jahan nahi milta” and used it in Ahista Ahista (1981). Since Fazli was homeless during those days, the payment cheque, he says, kept chasing him for months.
Though Khayyam worked in just 50 plus movies over five decades, he remains a towering figure of “golden era” in Hindi film music industry. Most of the songs, ghazals, mujras, bhajans, naats or even Urdu poems—that he composed became benchmarks in their own right.
His soul-stirring compositions in movies such as Lala Rukh (1958), Shola Aur Shabnam (1961), Shagoon (1964), Aakhri Khat (1966), Kabhi Kabhie (1976), Trishul (1978), Kaala Patthar (1979), Noorie (1979), Thodi Si Bewafaai (1980) and Umrao Jaan (1981) remain an aural treat for music connoisseurs.
Sahir Ludhianvi’s epic poem, Kabhi Kabhi was originally composed by Khayyam for film director Chetan Anand. But when Yash Chopra declared to make a move on the same title, the duo approached Anand. They were told that the lyrics and composition were too old to be used in a new film. Both Sahir and Khayyam proved him wrong eventually.
Remarkably, his magical melodies remained uninfluenced by western music when his contemporaries were heavily borrowing from here and there. His compositions distinctively evoke the scent of the Indian soil. Admired by many musicians for creating unique intricate tunes that have immaculate silent pauses, Khyaam never allowed music to dominate words in his compositions. And his compositions only enhance the essence of the lyrics.
Take, for instance, Aap yoon faaslon se guzartay rahe or Apne aap raaton mein or Kahin aik massom nazuk si larki or Tum apna ranjo gamor Hazar raahain murd kay dekhin. These compositions speak for themselves and their creator, who considered creativity as “ibaadat” (prayer) to the Almighty.
It was during the making of Phir Subah Hogi (1958), a movie that brought Khayyam to the limelight, that he became a natural choice for the filmmakers. They were looking for a composer who had read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
On her 80th birthday during a TV interview, Lata Mangeshkar told film writer and poet Javed Akhtar that it was very difficult for her to name one music director as her favourite. She praised yesteryears’ music directors like Salil Choudhary, Madan Mohan, SD Burman, RD Burman and Jaidev …But without any hesitation, she replied that the one song that stayed with her after leaving the recording studio was “Ai dil-e-nadaan…” from Razia Sultan (1983). It was composed by none other than Khayyam.
The legendary composer passed away in Mumbai last year. He was 92. This is how Javed Akhtar remembered him: “He has given many all-time great songs but to make him immortal only one was enough: Woh subah kabhi to aayegi.”
Months before his death, Khayyam hadn’t celebrated his birthday last year due to Pulwama terror attack. He had also donated Rs 5 lakh towards relief efforts for the family members of the slain soldiers.
In his lifetime, Khayyam was honoured with Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and later, the Padma Bhushan, third-highest civilian award in the country.