There are very few composers whose ‘best of’ playlist might include 80% of their entire filmography and Khayyam saab was one of them. Go through his works and you can see, in a great testament to free will, he created sublime masterpieces regularly.
His choice of unconventional voices (Kabban Mirza, Jagjit Kaur, Babban Khan, and even Asha Bhosle in Umrao Jaan, as opposed to the traditional choice Lata ji), ghazal-numa compositions, and insistence on great poetry to accompany his music (no other composer worked as much and as exclusively with pure and literary star poets as Khayyam saab did) pierced the established skies of norms to show us the worlds lying beyond.
Some of his most memorable compositions give a peek into his range, style, and craft.
1. Jaane kya dhoondhti (Shola aur Shabnam):
Kaifi Azmi’s stream-of-consciousness poetry of lament arranged to a breathless composition with minimal music is one of its own kind song in the Hindi film history. Led by Mohd. Rafi’s stoic singing (that apparently took 21 takes), Khayyam’s structure of the song feels like a tightrope walk – tense and precariously balanced, something the song situation as well as the poetry indicate. Such an organic confluence of various elements that make a Hindi film song is one of the trademarks of many Khayyam gems.
2. Achha unhein dekha hai (Shankar Husain):
Hindi film history has many qawwalis but this one by Khayyam soars by breaking many of the rules. Structured like a qawwali muqaabla and written deliciously by Kaifi Azmi, the two contrasting and never-heard-before voices of Aziz Nazan and Babban Khan rise and fall like the destinies of two turbulent, warring empires. The arrangement rides majorly on the diffused sound of big daffs/dafflis (as against the sharpness of qawwali-staple dholaks) and the song has no set tempo, allowing it to breathe and take detours on whim.
3. Ae Dil E Nadaan (Razia Sultan):
The Khayyam song that doesn’t need any lists and still, no list is complete without mentioning it. As a kid, at the age when I had never seen deserts or pain as vast as them, this song transported me to those realms. When the climate crisis ends our brutal reign on this beautiful planet in another few decades, this song is among the few things that should survive as a proof of what surreal, sensitive things humans were capable of occasionally.
Jan Nisar Akhtar’s imagery-laden melancholy combines with Lata ji’s perfectly nuanced rendition but not before the unusual star of the song, santoor (played by Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma), brings us in. The rhythm-drops create a deep hollow in the heart, almost like falling into the sunken place, and then sarangi-santoor combination pulls us out at the last instant. If a song alone could emotionally capture the entire journey of heartbreak, moving on, and redemption – this is it.
4. Kaahe ko byaahe bides (Umrao Jaan):
Umrao Jaan, the album, has 9 of the most sublime compositions in the history of Hindi cinema and it’s plain human arrogance to select one over another. But still, am adding this one to the list purely for emotional reasons. Amir Khusro’s Braj bhaasha poetry, loaded with spiritual and existential metaphors, is given the kind of respect we rarely accord to our folk traditions when appropriating them for cinema. Jagjit Kaur’s beautifully textured voice and a most soothing female chorus pierce through the heart without ever trying to. Khayyam saab’s mastery can be seen in the gentle lullaby-ish jhol he has brought to a traditional bidaayi folk, almost like giving the song arms to hug you and cry.
5. Phir Chhidi Raat (Bazaar):
Arguably Khayyam’s biggest contribution to Hindi film music is the popularity he brought to ghazal – turning this live mehfil slash high-art genre into a mainstream love. And he did that not by watering them down but (just the opposite) by bringing his A-game to the studios while composing ghazals.
Bazaar features poetry by Mir Taqi Mir, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Bashar Nawaz, and Mirza Shauq – and gives the ghazal form the tallest table in the room. Phir Chhidi Raat by Makhdoom is poetry of immense depth and magic-realism and Khayyam gives it a new dimension by turning it into a cheerful, dreamy duet. Talat Aziz and Lata Mangeshkar, singers from two different generations, singing the matla written by a Marxist poet of yet another generation, together in one voice in a symbolic union of souls is one of the most roomani moments of Hindi film music in my opinion.