Jaidev had a spare, ascetic build, and was totally consumed by music. He was spare in his musical sensibilities, too. In all this, he was just like his junior contemporary, Khayyam. Both brought to their music the same sense of worship, total immersion and strong principles.
Jaidev did a fabulous job of composing music for Gaman, which released in 1978. With minimal orchestration, the songs provided a haunting background to this unsettling story of migrants from UP who struggle to get a foothold on life in the city of Bombay. Through this film, Jaidev gifted to Hindi cinema three wonderful singing talents who, unfortunately, were not utilised well by the industry. Suresh Wadkar, the most successful of the three, did sing for a number of Hindi films over the next decade, but Hariharan and Chhaya Ganguly quickly went down other paths.
Gaman did not bust any chart at the box office, but its songs ajeeb saneha mujhpar guzar gaya yaaron, aapki yaad aati rahi and seeney mey jalan made a mark.
Given all this, it was natural for Muzaffar Ali to request Jaidev to compose music for his second film, which was scheduled to release in 1981. It was a period drama set in the 19th century, and based on the life of a celebrated courtesan in Lucknow. With his usual intense focus, Jaidev conjured up a few tunes which perfectly matched the lovely poetry of Akhlaq Mohammad Khan (who wrote under the takhallus Shahryar). Ali and his wife are said to have loved the songs. Lata Mangeshkar was to start rehearsing the songs in a few days.
But that was not to be.
A monetary matter is said to have flared up into a spat between Jaidev and Ali, with the result that the venerable composer walked out of the film, harmonium in hand. And that’s how Khayyam walked into the film. It is said that Muzaffar Ali even briefly toyed with the idea of approaching Naushad, but tossed it aside saying he (Naushad) was well past his prime.
While on the one hand Khayyam was excited at the prospect of composing for an artistic subject, he was fazed (as he later admitted in interviews) by the fact that Pakeezah was still fresh in everybody’s mind. Would he be able to make the music of this film stand out from that of Pakeezah, given that both films had a similar theme and setting? In other words, would he be able to outdo Ghulam Mohammad and Naushad?
In answering this question, Jagjit Kaur and he took a decision that was to prove momentous in hindsight: they’d not rope Lata in for this film. If Pakeezah had Lata, this film would have Asha.
Khayyam and Jagjit Kaur joined Shahryar, Muzaffar Ali and Ali’s wife Suhasini in reading and re-reading Mirza Muhammad Hadi Ruswa’s “Umrao Jaan Ada”, the book on which this film was being based. They read other books too, and immersed themselves in conversations with shayars and others from erstwhile Awadh. Layering this research with their fertile creativity, Khayyam and Shahryar came up with 9 magical songs for the film, all of them clearly reflecting the ethos of that era.
Even if you listen to the songs of Umrao Jaan with your eyes closed and not watch a single frame of the film, you will be transported to Lucknow and its kothas. The songs carry the fragrances of the ittar, the surahi, the hookah and the gajra. The film fetched Khayyam, Asha and Rekha National Awards. It also gave us another Talat with a silken voice – Talat Aziz.
For all the reverence this film evokes now, it did not do well at the box office. But that’s a story for another day.
The courtesans of that era were said to have sung at a low pitch. And so, Khayyam requested Asha to lower her pitch from her usual by a scale and a half. The first song to be recorded was “dil cheez kya hai”. Asha asked for 8 days to practise at the lower pitch and get the nuances of the song right. But even when she finally came to the studio to record the song, she wasn’t sure her voice would sound well at this lower scale. She expressed her angst to Jagjit Kaur, asking her to convey it to Khayyam saab.
By this time, the musicians in the studio had gotten wind of the fact that Asha tai was displeased about something.
Khayyam went in to speak to Asha. As a last-ditch effort to convince her, he suggested that they record two renditions of the song: one, the way he wanted it and the other, at Asha’s regular pitch. Afterwards, he added, whichever style the singer found better would find its way into the film. Asha agreed, but not before making Khayyam promise (on his son Pradeep) that this would indeed be so. In turn, Khayam asked her to promise (on Maa Saraswati) that she’d give her best to the song, and not be partial to her usual way of singing!
Promises given and taken, the song was recorded. Khayyam’s suggested way of singing completely bowled Asha over, and she agreed to sing all her songs of Umrao Jaan at that pitch.
How could she do anything else, given that history was waiting to be written?
Zindagi jab bhi teri bazm mein – Talat Aziz – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-_CY0iP1CM
Kahe ko byahe bides by Jagjit Kaur – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibM4HzAp9Ms
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.