OP Nayyar – When Rhythm Was King
By Siraj Khan
January is a Nayyar month. Well, what else to say when a person was born and also died in this month. OP Nayyar, also lovingly referred to as OP (his fans are OPiums), besides being the creator of immortal and timeless melodies led a life that was colorful and at the same time controversial. Babujee and I never felt the distance of thousands of miles between us. This bond is clearly spiritual, because it continues unchanged even after his death.
Even now when I think of the only man I have ever idolized, I visualize him in his stark, white clothes, white shoes, looking dashing in his black hat and blazer, walking erect with his radiant smile as timeless as his tunes, even in his twilight years. His steely character and that unmistaken gleam on his handsome face, stood by him to tackle the ups and downs of fate, that took him from his posh residence in Churchgate to the streets of Mumbai and then to the warmth of the Nakhwa home in Thane, where he breathed his last.
Idolizing OP Nayyar comes easily for anyone who has heard ahead-of-his-times, romantic and breezy music he created. He changed the easy-going gentle music scenario in the film industry of the 1950s with his lilting, come hither style of music and the listeners were blown away. If the timeless classics in Rafi, Geeta Dutt and Asha Bhosle’s scintillating voices have left you mesmerized, it is all thanks to the genius of the man, whose life was as interesting as the man himself.
School and college never really excited him. Preetam Aan Milo sung by CH Atma for HMV was the song that launched OP as a composer at the age of 17 in 1943, but by then OP was also a confirmed college dropout and aren’t we glad that he was!
After partition, OP relocated to Mumbai and after many years of struggle finally landed himself a full-blown project with the film Aasman. Geeta Dutt who was impressed with OP’s unique style while singing for the film and introduced him to her husband, the legendary filmmaker, Guru Dutt for Baaz. The rest, as they say, is history. OP used to call this journey A to Z (from Aasman in 1952 to Zid in 1993—a total of 73 films). The Geeta Dutt-OP Nayyar duo created magic starting with Aar Paar, Mr & Mrs 55 and CID, which are indelibly etched in people’s memories forever.
Geeta Dutt lent that tantalizing lilt and seductive allure to his songs. Ankhon Hee Ankhon Mein Ishara is an all-time hit among people of all ages even today, 60 years after it was created. Strange as it may sound now, but the state-controlled AIR, had placed a ban on many of OP’s popular songs from being broadcast, as they considered the lyrics as well as his melodies too daring and a bad influence on the young generation. Jaata kahan hai deewane was one of them. However, OP continued unfazed with Radio Ceylon and it had to take nothing less than a minister to lift the ban. On the other hand, producers were forming a beeline to sign him up. He was the first music director to demand Rs one lakh for a film, a substantial amount in those days. It was probably around that time that people first started to refer to him as Rhythm King. He was barely 30.
Naya Daur released in 1957, rocked India and came as a turning point not only for OP but also for his protégé, Asha Bhosle who until then was living under the shadow of her sister Lata Mangeshkar. Many of us fondly remember the 50s, OP and the black and white era, with a night club cabaret scene with the haunting and sensuous Geeta Dutt voice. The string of such movies continued but an interesting and silent change had taken shape. Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum, who until now had lent their voices heartily to OP, were replaced by Asha Bhosle. OP had once remarked ‘Love is not only blind. It is also deaf’” referring to his romance with Asha, and in the process, ignoring all other female singers.
However, that magical combination of Asha and OP is now an integral part of Bollywood’s folklore and one doubts whether a musical partnership like this could ever emerge again. OP exploited Asha’s versatile qualities and range of her voice to the hilt. Their romantic relationship which probably started in 1958, provided the added spark to the songs. Asha was number one for OP. For all others (including RD Burman whom she married later) she was always the second choice after Lata Mangeshkar. Interestingly, OP had decided very early that he had to become successful without ever using Lata’s voice and remains the only composer in Bollywood’s history to do so!
People felt that OP’s songs had a unique freshness, a rare robust beat, a flowing breezy style, blending Punjabi folk music with a rare Western-style orchestration, never heard before or since. His variety of rhythm patterns baffles the film industry, even today. OP had become the most sought-after composer and recording studios were booked up for months. He moved around in a Chevrolet, while many prominent producers and actors were running around in taxis and taangas. OP usually would get signed up even before the leading stars and his name appeared on the billboards of films over and above the cast. This had never happened before and has never happened since OP left the stage.
Chain se hamko kabhi, clearly an OP classic, was historically also the Asha-OP swan song. They eventually split in August 1972, never to stand under the same roof again. Ironically, the song bagged the Filmfare Award for the best female singer for Asha. Although he composed for many years more (almost 150 songs) and tried no less than 18 other female singers, the magic of the past was just not there. OP the man may have died on January 28, 2007 but OP the composer had clearly phased out much earlier.
OP’s life was certainly a roller-coaster going from the heights of fame to the depths of anonymity and then finally finding family love. The Nakhwa family and myself continue to remain in close touch, just as we were when OP was alive. Our many collective efforts include the receiving of royalties from SaReGaMa and the formation of the OP Nayyar Memorial Trust in Mumbai.
OP Nayyar will be most remembered for being a trailblazer in the field of Indian film music. What better way to end with a quote from the man himself. In his prime days, a media person once asked him how he ranked himself amongst the company of great contemporaries. He said, ‘I think I am the second best in the industry. The rest can fight for the first place.’ An interesting perspective from a musical genius, who did not follow any rules, except his own. For us OPiums, who adore the man and the musical legacy which he has left behind, he will still be the best.
(Siraj Khan is a world citizen who lives a life without boundaries. He is a connoisseur of South Asian film music and has been the creative director of some of the most engaging and entertaining musical concerts in New England, using music, poetry and the performing arts effectively for outreach and connecting people of all ages, faiths and nationalities. While the OP Nayyar concerts presented in Boston and elsewhere have been his signature events, he has managed and directed several other concerts like Adnan Sami Live in 2013 and, more recently, directed the widely acclaimed Gul-o-Gulzar, a musical drama to celebrate and showcase Gulzar’s 50 years in Bollywood. Siraj is a finance and audit professional, working in the global non-profit space. He also serves on the Board of several non-profits in the US and overseas, including OP Nayyar Memorial Trust (India), Pathfinders (Pakistan), The Fourth World and writes for Aman ki Asha on music and cricket. He is passionate about propagating knowledge awareness and education and is currently also involved in a project of Educational TV channel in Canada.)