In January, the month of his birth — and death – a personal tribute to a man known as the Sur Ka Jaadugar (magician of music)
Turning a Bollywood movie into a commercial success requires the collective excellence of an entire team, not just the actors on screen. The bigger the banner and the names involved in the cast and crew, the greater the chances of success. In the black-and-white era of the 1950s, billboards and posters provided the only real publicity before a movie’s release. The faces of the hero and heroine flashed on posters mounted at key places were essential for maximum visibility. Two words – “COMING SOON” – on these posters had a magnetic effect in those days of yore.
Then something happened in 1957 which Indian cinema has never seen before or since: the music composer featured on publicity material instead of the hero. That was for the movie Mujrim (Criminal), for which posters, instead of the male star Shammi Kapoor, showed a picture of O.P. Nayyar with a line below saying Sur ka Jadoogar (the Magician of Music). Here was a man whose name alone had started to spell the success of the film.
Indeed, there must be at least 40 films which are remembered today solely for OPN’s music. The names of the actors, photography or even the storyline have long been forgotten, but their music lives on. A huge credit for this must also go to Binaca Geetmala – the first radio countdown show of Indian film songs, which even today is considered the most popular radio programme ever in India. Broadcast from Radio Ceylon, it was the primary source of popular film music for the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistanis were hooked on to it as much as Indians.
With no formal training in music and also unable to read music, this genius from Lahore was, nonetheless, able to compose and record a non-film song on a 78 rpm disc for HMV at just the age of 17. Preetam Aan Milo in the voice of C.H. Atma was a runaway hit which made O.P. Nayyar a household name. C.H. Atma was from Hyderabad, Sindh.
Tunes and melodies flowed from OPN like a mountain stream. He was quoted as saying that his compositions were often ready in minutes, but he would ask the producers to come after 15 days so that they would feel that they were getting their money’s worth. Once he composed seven or eight songs in a couple of hours. Irrespective of the end-result, all his songs carry his unique stamp and signature and are easily recognizable by their unmistakable rhythm, orchestration and voice modulation, usually sung by Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum, Mohammad Rafi and in the second half of his professional career, mostly by Asha Bhosle.
At one time, he was the most sought-after and highest paid composer in the Indian film industry who was known never to compromise on his terms. The most significant aspect of his music was that it was very peppy and always in motion. Even his sad songs had a beat and a flow that reflected the flow of life, with all its ups and downs. His mastery over Urdu poetry helped him tremendously. Here are some unique facts associated with the maestro:
- He remains the only mainstream film composer of Indian cinema who rose to the very top without recording a single song in the voice of Lata Mangeshkar and yet received the highest royalties from HMV.
- He was the first composer of Bollywood to be paid Rs 100,000 for a film (1958), when no top composer was paid more than Rs 75,000.
- There were several movies later attributed to him where he was paid even more than the leading stars of the movie.
- He is the only composer on record to be signed up by some producers, even before deciding on the male and female lead actors. Such were the days.
- He could not read or write Hindi. His communication was either in Urdu, English or at times spoken Punjabi.
- He was at one time one of the only two men in Mumbai who owned a Cadillac.
- His evergreen songs continue to be remixed, remastered and included in current Bollywood films e.g. Babuji dheere chalna in Salaam-e-Ishq, Jata kahan hai deewane in Bombay Velvet etc. and enjoyed even by the new generation.
There are many stories and anecdotes attributed to him, dazzling even by Hollywood standards let alone Bollywood. The Asha Bhosle-OPN alliance is now part of Bollywood’s folklore. Most people agree that she owes her success to him and to the way he moulded her voice, whether she accepts it or not. They will go down in history as a unique musical romantic partnership. It is hard to imagine now, but in those heady 14 years of their romance, they moved around openly and fearlessly in the same city where their respective marital families resided.
The swan song of the Asha-OPN partnership was Chein se humko kabhi. After his breakup with Asha, he felt even more guilty about hurting his wife and children. A Swami told him that one way to make up was to give up all his material wealth. So, one day he just left his house and walked away, leaving everything behind. Unfortunately, the damage caused was too deep and his family never forgave him.
Although OPN the man, breathed his last on January 28, 2007 (age 81), OPN the composer had clearly died much earlier, in 1992.
He always wished for India and Pakistan to be at perpetual peace. His family – mostly doctors and lawyers – were originally from Lahore, but Mumbai beckoned and he responded. He was always emphatic about music being the only universal language which binds us all, with no political boundaries. His die-hard fans call themselves OPiums.
It is said that no voice or sound ever gets dissipated, but travels into space, towards infinity. At some point in time, we may be able to pick up the air waves and retrieve those sounds. The way technology is moving, I won’t be surprised if this happens in our own lifetime. OPN’s creations, however, do not need technology or science to stay alive. They have become immortal on their own and remain as fresh now as they were 50-60 years ago when they were first released.
His slim straight-backed figure with his smiling face, spotless white attire and black hat (Topi Nayyar to many OPiums) can be imagined easily, without pictures – classy from every perspective.
My association with him, the OP Nayyar Memorial Trust and the official website www.opnayyar.org which operates from Karachi, remains a story in itself. But today, as I look at January (the month of his birth and the month for which he predicted his death), I cannot help but recall my telephone call to him on December 25, 2006. I informed him excitedly that my visa and air-ticket were ready and I would see him on February 9.
I found his response somewhat surprising at that time. “Can you not come any earlier?” he enquired softly. I explained that in January I would be embroiled in the annual closing and audit etc. Traveling earlier was impossible.
He passed away on January 28. Landing in Mumbai,. I went to his home straight from the airport. I recall that even my own family members offered me condolences on his death.
When we met in February 2005, he was still high-spirited, with the usual twinkle in his eyes. But he had also been talking increasingly of death since the past year, even on the telephone. I tried to encourage him to get back in the recording room, and he pensively replied he had done all he could.
“Maalik ne mujhe itna hi diya…uss pe mein bhi guzara kar raha hoon, tum bhi karo aur baqi sab bhi” (the Creator gave me this much… I am living off it. You have to make to with that too and so does everyone else).
Then he said:
Ik roz mein har aankh se chhup jaoon ga lekin
Dharkan mein samaaya hua har dil mein rahunga
Dunya mere geeton se mujhe yaad karay gi
Uth jaoon ga phir bhi isi mehfil mein rahunga
(One day I will be hidden from everyone’s sight
But will continue to remain in every heartbeat
The world will remember me through my songs
Consider me not as gone, I am still at the party)
The words came straight from the heart. While he often quoted Urdu ashaar (poetry) in his conversation, these lines were so profound that they got engraved in my memory. He said them only once to me. I memorised them the moment they left his mouth.
This is the first time these lines are being printed. They remain OPN’s abiding message for his fans around the world.
Siraj Khan, a global finance and audit professional, is a connoisseur of South Asian film music, using music and poetry to connect people of all faiths and ethnicities. While the O.P. Nayyar concerts are his signature events, but he has penned and directed many other successful musical and literary events in USA, South Asia and Dubai.
This piece has been updated from the one originally published in The News on Sunday, 13 January 2019.