A poet of melody (1927-2019)

Music director and background score composer, spanning over four decades, Mohammed Zahoor ‘Khayyam’ Hashmi, was the last surviving musician of Hindi film music’s golden era.

Mesmerised by K.L Saigal, as a child, Khayyam dreamt of being the quintessential singer-actor, much to the chagrin of his family. He ran away from Rahon, Punjab to his uncle’s house in New Delhi, when just 11, who helped him train under classical vocalist and composer Pandit Amarnath.

Joining the Indian Army in 1943, where Khayyam regaled his unit with his songs, in January 1947, he teamed up with Rahman, an assistant to Baba Chisti, a famous Punjabi music director, for their debut film Heer-Ranjha under the pseudonym Sharmaji-Vermaji, in 1948.

When Rahman opted for Pakistan, Khayyam feeling protected, continued to compose music under the pseudonym Sharmaji. One earliest break was with the hit song Akele mein woh ghabratein to honge, in Biwi (1950).

Adopting the name Khayyam, on poet and film lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi’s suggestion, he came into his own in Zia Sarhadi’s 1953 film Footpath with Shaam-e-gham ki kasam, Aaj ghamgin hain hum.

For his 1958 production, Phir Subah Hogi, Raj Kapoor on Sahir Ludhianvi’s prodding, chose Khayyam, but he had to pass Kapoor’s test of tuning a tanpura. Songs like Cheen O Arab hamara and Woh subah kabhi to aayegi, Aasman pe hai khuda aur zameen pe hum were hallmarks.

Aakhri Khat (1966), directed by Chetan Anand, which was Rajesh Khanna’s debut film and Khayyam’s last Hindi film before his eight-year sabbatical, boasted Baharon mera jeevan bhi sanwaro, and Aur kuch der theher.

Yash Chopra signing Khayyam for Kabhie Kabhie in 1976, reportedly asked him to pray as he was considered unlucky, but the film was a hit. Kabhi Kabhi mere dil Mein khayal aata hai, Tere chehre se nazar nahin hatati and Main pal do palka shayar hoon were liked so much by Rajesh Khanna that he gifted Khayyam one of his cars.

Noorie (1979), Manmohan Krishna’s only film as director was a huge hit. Chori, chori koi aaye, with Khayyam’s lilting melody captured poet Naqsh Lyallpuri’s innocent evocation of first love. Thodisi Bewafaii (1980), his only film with Gulzar had sad songs of separation Hazar raahen mud ke dekhin and Aaj bichhde hain.

Ahista Ahista (1981), directed by Esmayeel Shroff had great songs Kabhi kisi ko muqammal jahan nahin milta, Mana teri nazar mein, Bin bulaye hum chale aaye and Nazar se phool chunati hai nazar.

Muzaffar Ali’s blockbuster Umrao Jaan (1981) cemented his place in Bollywood, but coming on board only after the original music composer and director had some irreconcilable differences. The evergreen music In aankhon ki masti ke, Ye kya jagah hai doston, and Dil cheez kya hai took two years to create.

For the Kamal Amrohi directed film Razia Sultan (1983), the song penned by Jan Nisar Akhtar and Nida Fazli Aye dil-e-nadan is considered a milestone. However, Khayyam got the job only after Amrohi felt slighted by Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo.

He has also composed music for ten television serials, and several non-film albums, totalling over 200 titles.

He won three Filmfare awards for Best Music direction in 1977 for Kabhi Kabhie and 1982 for Umrao Jaan, and a lifetime achievement award in 2010. In 1982 he also got the National Award for Umrao Jaan. Awarded the 2007 Sangeet Natak Akademi award in creative music, he got the Padma Bhushan in 2011 and the Hridaynath Mangeshkar Award in 2018.

Khayyam’s music had the touch of ghazal, but rooted in Indian classical music, never drowned the lyrics. The compositions soulful, melodious and emotional; the songs rich in poetry and purpose and the style noticeably different from the then popular brand of music.

Conjuring intricate tunes interspersed with perfect pauses of silence, he didn’t compose music over any instrument, and preferred working with renowned poets having strong background. 

Married to singer Jagjit Kaur in 1954 in one of the first inter-communal marriages in the Indian film industry, their son Pradeep, sadly died of a heart attack in 2012.

They set up a trust with 10 crores in 2016, on his 89th birthday, the ‘Khayyam Jagjit Kaur Charitable Trust’, to help artistes and technicians in need. After the Pulwama border attack, he decided not to celebrate his birthday and donated 5 lakh to the kin of the martyrs.

Despite his success, Khayyam from 1947, composed for only 57 films, not wanting to compromise on quality. He died aged 92 in Mumbai following a cardiac arrest.

Khayyam just lived his music.


A.RADHAKRISHNAN is a Pune based freelance journalist, short story writer and poet, who loves to make friends and share humour.