The incomparable OP Nayyar

January 13, 2019

A tribute to the musical genius who was rightly called Sur Ka Jaadugar

The incomparable OP Nayyar

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 the release of the movie, and faces of the hero and heroine of the movie which were flashed on posters and mounted at all 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. Instead of the hero and star Shammi Kapoor on the posters of the movie Mujrim, there was a picture of OP 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 30-40 films which are remembered today solely for OPN’s music. The names of the actors, photography or even the storyline have been forgotten long ago, 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 program ever in India, making Radio Ceylon 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 OP 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 fifteen days so that they would feel that they were getting their money’s worth. Once he composed 7 or 8 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, 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. 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 where some producers signed him up 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 dheera 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, which could be considered 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 molded her voice, whether she accepts it now or not. It 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 families resided. Although OPN the man, breathed his last on January 28, 2007 (age 81), OPN the composer had clearly died much earlier. The swan song of their 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.

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 all over 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 figure with a straight back, shining and 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 which is operated from Karachi, remain 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 25th 2006. I informed him excitedly that my visa and air-ticket was ready and that I would see him on February 9th. I found his response somewhat surprising. "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. Earlier travel was not just difficult, but perhaps impossible. He passed away on January 28th and I remember going to his home straight from Mumbai airport. My own family members offered me condolences on his death.

This was the message that he has left behind for his fans all over the planet…

Ik roz mein har aankh se chhup jaoon ga lekin

Dharkan mein samaaya har dil mein rahunga

Dunya mere geeton se mujhe yaad karay gi

Uth jaoon ga phir bhi is mehfil mein rahunga

The incomparable OP Nayyar