Is it strange that a pillar or Hindi film music who redefined classical and semi-classical melodies for Hindi cinema had been more or less a forgotten musical genius named Khayyam. Mohammed Zahur Khayyam Hashmi passed away at the ripe age of 92 at his Mumbai residence recently. He died on 19 August 2019 following a cardiac arrest. He was buried the following day with full state honours.[He took away with him an entire wave of rich adab, ehram and zahaanat that he and his contemporaries like S.D. Burman, Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishen, Kalyanji-Anandji, Salil Choudhury and others had enriched the music landscape with.

Music critic Monica Kar writes: “Khayyam brings to mind the sensitivity of a poet, the focus of a sculptor and the quiet zeal of a painter. His compositions make me listen to the words they enhance. The little touches of detail in his music make me visualize him with a little chisel, sculpting away, getting that fold, this bend, just right. His use of instruments reminds me of a painter mixing paint to get the perfect tone and shade of color that only his mind visualizes.”

His first brush of Khayyam with composing music for films began with the film Footpath (1953) which introduced us to how poetry enhance itself with the music created for it by the composer. Add to this the lilting voice of a Mukesh or the heavy rendition of a Rafi or an evocative rendition by Talat Mahmood added to by the soulful lyrics of Majrooh Sultanpuri and what you get are the songs composed by none other than Khayyam himself.

Among the generation in which his music thrived, no one can forget numbers like Bahaaron mera jeevan bhi sanwaaron, Aur kuchh der ttheher, aur kuchh der na jaa, both from Aakhri Khat (1967), Phir wohi saawan aaya, saajan aaye na from Shola aur Shabnam (1962), the songs of Shagoon (1964), Shankar Hussain (1977), Noorie (1979), Bazaar( 1982) and so many other movies carry that same delicate flavour.

Khayyam remains one of the few composers who created his compositions with due respect to the lyrics he tuned them to, thereby enlarging the musical and lyrical canvas of the entire song. Add to this his talent in ideally bringing out the richness and inner meanings of the poetry he set music to. This was also in symphony with the positioning of the songs in a given film, the period the film is set in and the characters that lip-synced the songs. A perfect example is the songs of Umraon Jaan which would not have been the film it turned out to be. Take for example – dil cheez kya hai aap meri jaan lijiye, and the other songs as well. This song was the biggest hit of the four ghazals Asha Bhosle sang for Khayyam in Umraao Jaan (1981) each one different from the next, each a ghazal that is unique unto itself raising the voice of Asha Bhonsale to a different level altogether. The other three popular ghazals of Asha in this Muzaffar Ali-directed film were Justuju jiski thi, In aankhon ki masti ke and Yeh kya jagah hai doston. The film fetched Khayyam the National Award for best composer that year.

The songs in Phir Subah Hogi, a film that belongs to a completely different genre from Umrao Jaan such as Cheen Arab Hamara, or Woh Subah Khabhi To Ayegi. It gave Mukesh’s voice a completely new dimension. The emotions contained in the scenario come out through the song, the voice, the lyrics and the music. Another gem from the Lata Mangeshkar-Khayyam team, is a song from the film Bazaar (1982) which goes Dikhai diye yun ki bekhud kiya from the film Bazaar (1982). It takes you on a lyrical journey into a world of melody and poetry. This also had another beautiful duet by Talat Aziz and Lata Mangeshkar that went Phir chhidi raat bhar phoolon ki.

Khayyam, who began his musical career at 17, won four Filmfare Awards: for Best Music in 1977 for Kabhi Kabhie and 1982 for Umrao Jaan, and a lifetime achievement award in 2010. He was awarded the 2007 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in Creative Music, by the Sangeet Natak Akademi. He was awarded the third-highest civilian honour, Padma Bhushan, by the Government of India for 2011. His other notable works include Trishul, Noorie and Shola Aur Shabnam. He had also composed music for actress Meena Kumari's album I Write, I Recite. His non-film songs such as Paaon Padun Tore Shyam, Ghazab Kiya Tere Vaade Pe Aitbaar Kiya and Brij Mein Laut Chalo are still famous among his fans.

Jeet lenge baazi hum, khel adhura chhod ke is duet from Shola Aur Shabnam by Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar, written by the legendary lyricist Kaifi Azmi, turned the spotlight on Mohammed Zahur “Khayyam” Hashmi, better known as Khayyam, carved out his own special niche in the music industry despite the domination of others. Khayyam’s first taste of success came with the immortal music of Shola Aur Shabnam. Khayyam’s almost unique use of traditional musical instruments brought across compositions like some of the songs in the classic Razia Sultan (1983) in which he used the near-forgotten santoor to play its wonderfully melodious role in some songs like the Lata Mangeshkar number “…yeh zameen chup hai, aasmaan chup hai…”, which Lata ji embellished and ornamented with her clear voice adding its uniqueness to every pitch that brought out the emotions contained in the lyrics.

Before the runaway success of Shola Aur Shabnam music, Khayyam’s first brush with hit songs had happened with his debut film, the Dilip Kumar-Meena Kumari starrer Footpath (1953). Next, Raj Kapoor’s Phir Subah Hogi (1958) had Khayyam setting to tune the lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi. The songs became popular, especially the title song “Woh subha kabhi to aayegi” sung by Mukesh and Asha Bhonsle. Ganesh Anantharaman says in Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song, “His music stood out in the 1970s, his films were commercially more successful and its only in a decade where melodiousness was fading fast that you recognise Khayyam’s genius, his hallmark – integrity to melody.”

“What distinguished Khayyam’s music was the superior quality of poetry in all his songs. For him, the purpose of music was to make the lyrics come alive. He had the sagacity to keep his tunes simple, instruments minimal. As we shall see, some of the best poetry in Hindi films was set to music by Khayyam,” writes Ganesh Anantharaman in Bollywood Melodies.

Another milestone film that did not do too well at the box office but made the songs memorable is Chopra’s Kabhie Kabhie.(1976) title song kahbie kahbie mere dil mein remains a hit till this day. The songs turned Khayyam into a star among music directors of his time and the same goes for all the songs of the film, The film turned out to be a sleeper hit, hitting the box office over time mainly or perhaps only because of the songs. Amitabh Bachchan, Raakhee and Shashi Kapoor bring to life this iconic song where the imagery etched by each lyric of Sahir Ludhianvi makes you enjoy the poetry along with the mellifluous melody. Sung beautifully by Mukesh, this song became one of the brightest points of Khayyam’s career. Another song that narrated the tragedy of poetry being a momentary impulse came in the Sahir Ludianvi number

Main Pal Do Pal Ka Shayar hoon,
Kyun koi mujhko yaad kare
Masroof zamana mere liye
Kyun waqt apna barbad kare”

This song has left its footprints forever on the sands of musical time.

Khayyam married Jagjit Kaur in 1954 in one of the first inter-communal marriages in the Indian film industry. They had a son, Pradeep, who died of a heart attack in 2012. Inspired by their son's helping nature, they started a trust, "Khayyam Jagjit Kaur Charitable Trust" to help artists and technicians in need. But his career was not even half as prolific as his peers in the film industry. Barring a few films by Yash Chopra, no producer seemed interested in working with him. Yet, his genuinely generous streak was revealed when he formed this trust for the have-nots in the industry and donated Rs.12 crore though few are aware of this gold-hearted person’s gift for giving.