He was an upcoming music composer who had tasted success a few times, but was still struggling.
She was from a wealthy zamindar family.
One day in the early ‘50s, they were both walking on the foot overbridge outside Dadar railway station in Bombay. They didn’t know each other. They were just two people in the swirling hordes being carried forward by the fast currents of life in the metropolis. But they happened to glance at each other…and the glance held for a few moments. In an interview decades later, she recalls that moment with her characteristic tinkling laughter, “Humney ek doosrey ki taraf dekha, aur mujhe laga ki kuch toh baat hai.” (We looked at each other. And I felt there was *something* in the look.”)
It wasn’t until he had hesitantly introduced himself that she realised he was the man whose music from the film Footpath she was already in love with. It didn’t take her time to fall in love with the man, either.
Theirs was one of the very few inter-community marriages of that time. And from 1954 to the time he passed on in August 2019, they remained together, joined in love and music.
To talk about Khayyam is to talk about Jagjit Kaur. It’s not just about the songs she sang for him. She is present in every musical note he created since the day she came into his life. You can hear her in the strains of the sitar in Umrao Jaan, in the wailing shehnai of Bazaar and in the soothing flute of Kabhie Kabhie.
She was not just the love of his life in a dreamy, romantic sense. She was his fellow devotee genuflecting at the altar of music, and his creative partner in the recording studio. In fact, she has been officially credited in several Hindi films as Khayyam’s assistant music director. Unlike most other composers in Hindi films, Khayyam did not have a team of assistants and arrangers working for him. From time to time, he’d take on assistants on a one-off basis. But the person he depended upon to convery his vision to his musicians in film after film was Jagjit Kaur. She’d brief them, write out the musical notations and make them rehearse until they got every note right. Later, their son Pradeep Khayyam joined their team.
Given her contribution to his music, the great composer wanted to change his screen name to Khayyam Jagjit Kaur, but the lady wouldn’t have it.
She was as principled as Khayyam was, never compromising on the purity of her music. As a couple, they kept away from most industry parties, and hated hobnobbing with directors and producers to further their career. Khayyam has gone on record that she never pressurised him to take on more work or earn more money. Indeed, she, much like him, considered music to be her ibaadat, her worship. She’d also told him never to request anyone to take her on for a film.
Jagjit Kaur was blessed with a unique voice and singing style. Her voice was raw, earthy and pure – like the soil of Punjab, her land. If emotions have voices, then she was the voice of yearning, of love and of surrender. And Khayyam used her talent with great care. In Shola aur Shabnam, Shagoon, Kabhie Kabhie, Bazaar and others, he banked on her to pour life and emotion into some of the most arresting on-screen moments.
Though he drastically reduced his workload from the mid-eighties due to age and the changing trends in film music, Khayyam continued to compose music for films that appealed to his poetic sensibilities. Though some of them involved fine directors, scripts and actors, these films didn’t hog the limelight.
One such film was Anjuman, made by Muzaffar Ali. Musically speaking, this film is remarkable for three reasons. First, Khayyam got Shabana Azmi, the lead actress, to sing for herself (and she did a good job of it). Second, he returned to playback singing after a gap of 40 years. And third and most movingly, he and Jagjit Kaur sang a duet in this film – the only duet they ever sang in all their years together.
Khayyam debuted in Hindi films in 1947 singing Faiz. And in singing his only duet with his soulmate four decades later, it was apt (and perhaps providential) that he turned to Faiz again.
This song proves all over again what had always been evident – that it is impossible to tell Khayyam and Jagjit Kaur apart.
This is part of a multi-part personal tribute I am paying to the much-loved music composer Khayyam. If you haven’t read the other parts, please do so now.