Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi/ Jis subah kee khaatir jug jug se/ham sab mar mar kar jite hain/ Jis subah ke amrit kee bund me/ham zahar ke pyaale pite hain
THE PERFECT ALIGNMENT of stars, a balancing of egos, and a seamless understanding led to some of the greatest collaborations on song, which continue to help us mourn, to laugh, to live. Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi from Ramesh Saigal’s Phir Subah Hogi in 1958 was one such, with the anthemic song picturised on a sombre Raj Kapoor and a weeping Mala Sinha causing goosebumps and tears for generations.
Ditto for this 1976 classic which many lovers across the years have sung to their ideals, and which was picturised twice, once on Amitabh Bachchan and then again on Shashi Kapoor (with the same woman, Raakhee) in Yash Chopra’s Kabhi Kabhie. Khayyam initially created the tune in 1950 for a Chetan Anand movie that was never released:
Kabhi kabhi mere dil main khayal aata hain/ ke jaise tujhko banaya gaya hain mere liye/ tu abse pehle siitaron main bas rahi thi khain/ tujhe zameen pe bulaaya gaya ha mere liye
Three people were integral to both songs, almost two decades apart—the poet Sahir Ludhianvi, singer Mukesh and composer Khayyam, Mohammad Zahoor Hashmi. Sadly, all have passed on, leaving the world emotionally much poorer. Yet, tech-enabled music services and nostalgia magnets, like Saregama’s Carvaan, have ensured new listeners and fresh meanings. Add to it every attempt to remix and remake. It only inspires us to respect the original more than ever.
For a composer who started work at 17 and never really stopped, the 92-year-old Khayyam composed for a mere 54 movies, a function both of his strong beliefs and the kind of cinema being made. As filmmaker Subhash Ghai told Open, “He had a knack of composing songs with Indian earthy notes expressing the philosophy of the times through lyrics written by profound poets. He connected with the soul of listeners and this makes his music timeless.” Indeed, whether it was a 200-year-old poem by Mir Taqi Mir for the song Dikhayee diye yun ke bekhud kiya for Sagar Sarhadi’s Baazaar in 1982, or using Shahryar’s poetry for Umrao Jaan’s iconic love songs, he had a fine ear for fine words.
Seema Chishti, who co-wrote Note by Note: The India Story 1947-2017, told Open when they were writing the book, Khayyam’s oeuvre amazed them. “When we studied popular Hindi songs since 1947, his tunes and timeliness were stunning. To have such a spectacular body of work in almost every genre and of such great quality is indeed noteworthy.”
Sahir and Khayyam were both Punjabis from pre-Partition Punjab, two of many who lent their brilliance to make the Mumbai film industry what it is now, a cultural behemoth. Their deep knowledge of literature—Sahir recommended Khayyam to Saigal for Phir Subah Hogi because he had read Crime and Punishment, the Fyodor Dostoevsky novel on which the movie was based—and civic commitment were unparalleled. After Khayyam’s son (with the love of his life, singer Jagjit Kaur) died, they started the Khayyam Jagjit Kaur Charitable Trust to help artists and technicians in need.
The sometime soldier, who grew up in a family of bibliophiles, began in the industry in the immediate aftermath of Partition with a Hindu moniker Sharmaji, as part of the Sharmaji-Varmaji music duo. This was the time that Saadat Hasan Manto left Mumbai for Lahore both out of pique and a touch of alarm. But Khayyam slipped into his original identity soon enough with Zia Sarhadi’s Footpath in 1953. And never looked back.
The little fanboy of KL Saigal, who read Allama Iqbal’s poetry, always wanted to break free from the bonds of unfreedom and would remain steadfast to his talent and truth. And would always remember
his favourite poet’s exhortation: ai tāir-e-lāhautī us rizq se maut achchhī /jis rizq se aatī ho parvāz meñ kotāhī (O ethereal bird! It is better to starve to death, Than to live on a prey that clogs your wings in flight).