Khayyam's music often projected the dilemma of a woman, ranging from a sultana to a courtesan

From depicting a queen's dilemma in 'Ae Dil-E-Naadan' from Razia Sultan, to painting a courtesan's conflict in Umrao Jaan, Khayyam's music often depicted a woman's head space.

Devansh Sharma August 21, 2019 13:04:23 IST
Khayyam's music often projected the dilemma of a woman, ranging from a sultana to a courtesan

Khayyam, the legendary music composer of the 1970s and 1980s, passed away on Monday. His music was rooted in ghazals and Indian classical music, but his best work was also on the verge of a decade — the 80s — that introduced India to the disco genre; a far cry from the music Khayyam was known for. He was one of the last composers to hold on to his music, based on the Indian classical tunes, before disco took over the country.

Probably little aware of what lied ahead, Khayyam went about to compose music that complemented the poetic lyrics of seasoned writers like Jan Nisar Akhtar, the late father of screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar. Along with his lyricists and directors, Khayyam brought alive the classic dilemma between the head and the heart, particularly of the women of that era. The women could range from a queen to a courtesan since arguably his best work emanated from period dramas.

Khayyams music often projected the dilemma of a woman ranging from a sultana to a courtesan

Khayyam. Facebook

He composed music for the 1981 period drama Umrao Jaan, which revolved around Rekha's titular character, who is abducted from her hometown and made a prostitute at a brothel. She falls for Farooq Shaikh's character of Nawab Sultan, a prince who frequently visits the court in which she performs. The two most popular songs of Khayyam's memorable album, 'Inn Aakhon Ki Masti Ke' and 'Dil Cheez Kya Hai' focus on the woman's dilemma of either listening to her instinct and fleeing with her love interest, Nawab, or adhering to her professional demand of detaching her body from her feelings. While the first song introduces Umrao as the object of desire for men of all backgrounds (read: "Inn aankhon ki masti ke mastaane hazaron hain"), the second song sees Umrao explaining to her princely audience that her identity is not limited to her profession, and she has a heart that harbours feelings of its own.

As the plot progresses, Nawab, who hails from a 'royal' family, gives into the demands of his family and agrees for an arranged marriage. This breaks Umrao's heart, as she was willing to rebel against her dharma and her background for the sake of love. Later, she falls in love again with the character of Faiz Ali, played by Raj Babbar, a bandit chieftain. He ends up encouraging Umrao to flee with him to another town. Listening to her heart over her head does not work for either Umrao or Faiz, since the latter is caught and killed by the police. Umrao realises she paid a heavy price by choosing her heart over her head and consequently, returns to her brothel only to find out that it has been looted and deserted. The film then showed us that women of time were constantly switching between the head and the heart. Khayyam's music had a crucial role in establishing this.

Two years later, veteran filmmaker Kamal Amrohi's period drama Razia Sultan, starring Hema Malini in the titular role, along with Parveen Babi and Dharmendra, released. Once again, Khayyam brought to the fore the dilemma encountered by the lead character. Malini played the real-life character of Razia Sultana, the only female ruler of the Delhi Sultanate. Since she had major responsibilities to tend to, given her unique position, she was often shown as a woman longing for love.

The period drama consisted arguably the first-ever LGBTQ+ scene of Hindi cinema, where Razia's royal aide Khakun (Babi) is seen caressing her while Hema's character fantasizes about it. The scene led a large chunk of the audience to believe Razia Sultana was queer. However, when the film was aired on Doordarshan, the contentious scene, played to the tunes of Lata Mangeshkar's song 'Khwab Ban Kar Koi Ayega', was chopped off.

The timeless song 'Ae Dil-E-Naadan' showed Hema's character claiming that she is torn between her mischievous heart and the head that forbade love and prompted her to rule a large kingdom with the dignity of a sultana. While Lakshmikant-Pyarelal, the emerging hit music composer duo of that time, was initially hired by Amrohi to give music for the film, it eventually didn't work out. Khayyam was eventually signed for the film, and he composed a classic melody in 'Ae-Dil-E-Naadan', a song that even Mangeshkar admitted transported her, out of the hundreds of tracks she has sung in her career. Khayyam also flirted with pauses in a rare instance, to give the audience a song that remains unparalleled when it comes to arrangement. The composition not only suited the situation but also toyed with the idea of interaction between the opposites, just like the lyrics. ("Ye zameen chup hai, aasman chup hai").

Khayyam often played with polar opposites, particularly 'zameen' (earth) and 'aasman' (sky). In Yash Chopra's 1976 romantic drama Kabhie Kabhie, Khayyam composed the title track, that instead of giving us a woman's perspective, paints her as the object of desire for the lead character, played by Amitabh Bachchan. While the problematic lyrics literally depict the woman as a possession of the man ("Ye honth, ye aankhien meri amaanat hai"), Khayyam's evergreen composition makes the song stand out till today because of the magical effect it has: ("Tu ab se pehle sitaaron mein bas rahi thi kahin, tujhe zameen pe bulaya gaya hai mere liye").

Khayyam's songs, like 'Ae Dil-E-Naadan', 'Dil Cheez Kya Hai Aap Meri' and even 'Kabhie Kabhie' boasted of a stillness that continues to soothe those torn between desires and needs.

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