O. P. Nayyar was born in Lahore, British Punjab, British India on January 16, 1926. O. P. Nayyar ( "Opee" ) started his career as a movie music composer by composing the background score for the movies, Kaneez (1949) and Aasmaan (1952). He started receiving increasing public recognition from his compositions for Guru Dutt's Aar Paar (1954), Mr. & Mrs. '55 (1955), C.I.D. (1956), and Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1958). Opee went on to notch up even higher distinction through his compositions for Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon and Mere Sanam. The former movie included his enormously popular song, Bandaa Parwar, Thaamlo Jigar, while the latter included Jaayiye Aap Kahaan Jaayenge and Pukaarataa Chalaa Hoon Main. Some months later, his scores for the movie, Kashmir Ki Kali, once again gained high popularity.
Opee is reported to have commanded the highest fees in the Hindi movie music world at the height of his reign as a composer. He was the first Hindi music director to receive 100,000 rupees for his compositions for a movie. It was a very substantial sum of money in the 1950s.
Opee was known to have a stubborn individuality, and traits of aloofness and imperiousness. However, he was always generous with struggling newcomers and artists who had been marginalized in the movie industry. The press was always deferential to him, and frequently referred to him as a "rebel" composer. Many columnists too labeled him as a maverick. Judging from his combative performance in various TV talk shows later on, Opee seemed to enjoy those epithets.
During the 1950s, the state-controlled All India Radio found Opee too "trendy", and put for quite some time a ban on broadcasting most of his famous tunes. He seemed to have remained undaunted by this highhanded government order, and went on to create more, similar tunes, and most of them continued to receive national popularity. The far-away Radio Ceylon, (which later transformed into Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation), was at that time the only source from which Opee's new hits could be heard. Soon the English language press began referring to him with the honorific, "maestro", though Opee was still very young then. He died in Mumbai, Maharashtra, India January 28, 2007 at the age of 81.
Mark of a genius
His immortal and timeless melodies have often ironed the creases of our stressed lives. Ironically, OP Nayyar’s life was no bed of roses. Boston-based Siraj Khan unleashes an unknown side to OP Nayyar—the Asha Bhosle chapter and Guru Dutt’s death. The Nakhwas, Nayyar’s adopted family speak of his last days.
Even now when one thinks of the maestro, one tends to visualise him in his stark, white clothes, white shoes, looking elegant in his black hat and blazer, walking erect with his radiant face as timeless as his tunes, even in his twilight years. His steely character and that unmistaken gleam on his face, had stood by him to help him tackle the ups and downs of fate, that took him from his posh residence in Mumbai’s Churchgate area to the streets and then to the warmth of the Nakhwa family in Thane, which became his last home. This is where he took his last breath.
Idolising OP Nayyar comes easily for anyone who has heard the ahead-of-his-times, romantic and sensuous music he created. He changed the existing too good to be true music scenario in the film industry with his lilting, come hither kind of music and the listeners were hooked to say the least. If the timeless classics of Mere Sanam, Kashmir Ki Kali and other gems in Asha Bhosle’s scintillating voice have left you mesmerised, it is all thanks to the genius of OP. Siraj Khan who is working on OP Nayyar—When Rhythm Was King and feels he shares a spiritual bond with OP even years after his death says, “OP’s life is as interesting as the man himself. School and college never really excited him. At the tender age of eight, he got a chance to sing on Lahore Radio. At 10, he not only sang for a Punjabi film Dulla Bhatti, he also had a bit role in that film, earning Rs 10, a princely amount in those days. The film was a runaway hit. 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 moved 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 introduced OP to her husband, the legendary filmmaker, Guru Dutt for Baaz. Elaborates Siraj Khan, “The rest, as they say, is history. OP used to call this journey A-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 is indelibly etched in people’s memories forever. And to think that OP was never formally trained in music! Remembers Siraj Khan, “He once said to me, ‘my mother developed a liking for music when she was expecting me and had in fact started learning harmonium during that period. Perhaps that may have flowed into my veins.’”
Meanwhile as OP continued with his ‘simple is best’ mantra when it came to music, Geeta Dutt lent that tantalising lilt and seductive allure to the songs, feels Siraj Khan. “Ankhon Hee Ankhon Mein Ishara is an all-time hit among people of all ages even today, 50 years after it was created. Strange as it may sound now, but the state-controlled All India Radio, actually 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. However, OP continued unfazed, with Radio Ceylon going berserk with requests for his songs. 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 and eight to nine films per year were to become a norm. He was the first music director to demand Rs one lakh, a substantial figure in those days, which other composers could not even conceive of. After all, he had already been crowned Rhythm King and he was barely 30.”
Even as the Guru and Geeta Dutt and OP combination worked wonders for all concerned, Siraj Khan says OP forever felt guilty about Guru Dutt’s untimely death. This is what he shared with Siraj Khan in his inimitable, straightforward style. “Talking of Guru Dutt, I always feel a pang of guilt. He used to confide his personal problems in me. His wife Geeta and his flame Waheeda, both had deserted him in the end and he was pretty disturbed. At around two am the same night that he committed suicide, my wife told me, ‘Raj Kapoor has phoned for you. He is saying that Guru Dutt is totally inebriated and is crying inconsolably, repeatedly calling for Nayyar saab!’ I was too tired and sleepy to go. I just told my wife to give some excuse. I had an appointment with Guru at his residence anyway the next morning at 10. I reached there the next morning and Abrar Alvi—his dialogue writer told me, ‘Guru has gone.’ Incredulously I asked, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Guru Dutt is dead! His dead body is inside!’ True to my straight talking nature, I just blasted those two women for ruining Guru’s life—Geeta, right there in front of Guru’s dead body in the drawing room and Waheeda at the time of the funeral! As it is, Waheeda used to hate me as I had once told Guru Dutt, ‘She looks like a Goanese aayah’ and she had found out.”
Naya Daur released in 1957, rocked India and came as a turning point not only for OP but also for his protE9gE9, Asha Bhosle who until then was living under the shadow of her sister Lata Mangeshkar. Says Siraj Khan, “Many of us fondly remember the 50s, OP and the black and white era, with a night club cabaret scene with haunting and sensuous Geeta Dutt numbers. The string of such movies continued but an interesting change in the landscape then took shape. Asha Bhosle replaced Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum, who until now had lent their voices heartily to OP. The magical combination of Asha and OP is now an integral part of Bollywood’s folklore. One doubts whether a musical combination like this can ever emerge again. OP exploited Asha’s versatile qualities and range of her silky smooth voice to the hilt. Their romantic relationship probably provided the added spark to the songs. Whether she sang for the leading lady or for the cabaret dancer in the same film, OP would ensure that the voices sounded distinct, reflecting the character. Asha was number one for OP. For all others (including RD Burman whom she was married to) she was always the second choice after Lata Mangeshkar.” Interestingly, OP had decided very early that he had to become successful without ever recording a single song in Lata’s voice. He went ahead with that decision and remains the only composer in Bollywood’s history to do so!
Meanwhile, six to seven of OP songs occupying top slots in the 10 chart-toppers on the Binaca Geetmala had become standard fair. Siraj defines the genius’s music, “His songs had a unique freshness, a rare robust beat, a flowing style similar to what you feel when you dip your hand in a running stream, 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’s career was beyond doubt, on a high note when entered Shammi Kapoor, the Elvis-styled actor who flashed on the screen wearing t-shirts and leather jackets never seen before on the Indian cinema, adding a new dimension to OP’s breezy swinging breed of music, with his own brand of freewheeling acting. Siraj talks on OP’s rising popularity and how it changed his life. “Madhubala’s announcement that she would give a discount on her fee to any producer who signed up OP for the musical score, created quite a stir then and they teamed up and came in no less than six movies. OP had become the most sought-after composer and, not surprisingly, the most expensive one too. Recording studios were booked up for months. OP moved around in a Cadillac, while many prominent producers and actors were running around in taxis. 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 for the others.”
While OP was riding the wave of success, according to Siraj, 1961 was the only year when there was not a single OP Nayyar release. “He had once remarked about that year when he was missing in action,” remembers Siraj, “OP said, ‘Muhabbat mein sara jahan lut gaya tha,’ referring to his romance with Asha. The other reality being that he had become too expensive for most producers. However, OP Nayyar came back with a bang in 1962 with Ek Musafir Ek Hasina together with a bagful of romantic classics—a film, which he always remembered very fondly.” OP ruled in the 60s what with the mellifluous numbers in Kashmir Ki Kali, to name one film.
In fact, this film reminds Siraj Khan of what OP told him about the picturisation of one of the songs starring Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore, which was also her debut film. Adds in Siraj Khan, “OP was not happy with the picturisation of the first song and spoke to Sharmila before the real turnaround was to come. It was much later that OP disclosed that he had explained to the young lady that his was music in motion, like a mountain stream. She could not possibly stand and just move her lips to his songs. There had to be movement—irrespective of whether she was on a car, tonga, boat, or when she was on her feet, she should keep moving and let the camera follow her. She faithfully followed that advice, not only in songs but even extending it to her dialogue delivery, a characteristic she maintained in her entire acting career.”
Chain se hamko kabhi, an OP classic was historically also the Asha-OP swan song. Recalls Siraj with a hint of sadness, “Geeta Dutt had become alcoholic and tragically died in July 1972 while his relationship with Asha was on the rocks. It was effectively a double hit for him. They eventually split in August 1972, never to stand under the same roof again. But before they did, this gem of a song from Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye had been recorded. Ironically, the song bagged the 1973 Filmfare Award for the best female singer for Asha. She decided not to attend the awards ceremony. OP graciously accepted the award in her absence, but on the way home tossed it out from his car and heard it break. This was the tipping point, which was to haunt OP for the rest of his life. Although he composed for many years more (almost 150 songs) and tried many 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 faded out much earlier.”
Siraj Khan attributes his open relationship with Asha Bhosle to the breakdown of his family life. “It was very hurting for his wife, three daughters and a son. After his break-up with Asha, his career no longer at its peak, with offers few and far between, the tension became even more intense,” he says and narrates the heart rending story of how the once successful and rolling in money OP gave up everything to live a life of anonymity. “A swami advised him to cut his karmas in this life and not to take those karmas with him to the next life. One way to cut the karmas was to give up all his material wealth. So one day he left his house leaving behind all his material possessions—cars, bank accounts, property ownership papers (house estimated worth Rs six crore) to his family, leaving with only the clothes he was wearing. Unfortunately, the wound that the family members were carrying was far deeper than what he had anticipated. His family never forgave him and they became totally estranged.”
In a weak moment of emotional introspection, OP even spoke to Siraj Khan about Asha and the influence she had on his life. In OP’s words, “Destiny unites and destiny parts. I understand astrology very well. I knew we had to part but I think it happened somewhat quicker than I thought it would. Having gone through the spring and autumn of my life, I can say that the most important person in my life was Asha. She was the best person I ever met. We were already working together since 1952 but got emotionally involved in 1959. It was on August 5, 1972 when we split and she walked away leaving a beautiful scar on my soul. We never stood under the same roof again and the feeling was mutual. As a woman, she was superb and very good to me. She was a good mother to her children. She transformed from an innocent bholi young lady to an extremely shrewd and clever woman right in front of my eyes, but I don’t blame her for that. As a singer, she sang all my songs with her heart and soul. However, Geeta Dutt’s voice modulation was far far better. It remains one of my greatest regrets that I phased out Geeta due to my emotional involvement with Asha, when it was Geeta who had introduced me to Guru Dutt. That’s when my career really took off.”
The day OP walked out of his house in 1989 after renouncing the material world in a way, he would have hardly imagined that after a few years of staying in and out of friends’ homes, he’d actually find a family to call his own—a middle class Maharashtri¬an family in Thane, far removed from the glamour and razzmatazz of the film world. The Nakhwa family from Thane took in a homeless OP as a paying guest, won him ¬ over with their love and made him a part of his family much to the wonder of many. As for OP, starved of love and a happy family life, the Nakhwa family came as god’s gift and he simply eased into the household, donning the mantle of an elderly member of the family quite easily. Rani Nakhwa, who made it her life’s mission to take care of OP in his old age, has still not recovered from the shock of his death. Misty eyed, she nervously talks about her family’s 12-year-long, enriching association with the legendary music director. “I used to work in an STD booth. He used to come there to make calls to his friends. He was staying with a friend then. At that time I just knew him as a person dressed in lungi and kurta coming to make calls regularly. I didn’t know he was such a great personality. We got to know each other because he would talk to me. One day he asked me if I knew anyone offering paying guest accommodation because he said he wanted to live with a family. I immediately said, ‘W¬ hy don’t you stay with us?’ That time we were living in a one-bedroom house. We gave him one room. So that is how he moved into our house. My parents were quite happy. I felt he could live in our place like my grandfather did. I told him that. We used to call him babujee. He used to call me his daughter. He didn’t like my name Rani and always called me Raju.”
Rani’s parents may have had no objections but the neighbours weren’t as generous with their reaction to the Nakhwa family hosting a person with a film background. Says Rani rather unaffectedly, “Not only that, later they’d even raise doubts about my relationship with babujee because for the entire 12 years he was with us, I didn’t leave his side. I took care of him, and travelled with him all over the world for shows and events. Besides,¬ ¬ ¬ people even said we are putting up with him for his money. But the fact was that he had only enough from the royalties to take care of his needs. He was a very stylish man—his clothes had to be perfect—the kurtas starched, silk lungis ironed and for parties he’d wear suits with his hat. He was very particular. He lived like a king here. He liked having a beer in the afternoon and had his staple of two pegs of scotch in the evenings, never to exceed his limit though. Anyway our family did not care about what people said. I always thought god had given me an opportunity to devote my life to someone I loved as my grandfather.”
For a person who lived with the Nakhwas as a part of their family, so much so that he’d even sit with Rani’s mother and help her cut vegetables, the family feels he was totally misunderstood. “He was a very nice person, very sensitive, disciplined and very straightforward. That is why people misunderstood him. He didn’t say anything just to please people. So people called him arrogant and eccentric. He didn’t like noise. He would even scold us at times. If I went out and didn’t come back on time, he’d scold me. We would discuss everything from what is to be cooked to important family decisions with him. He loved it here,” says Rani showing us the single bed that OP occupied in the house, made exactly the way it used to be when he was alive in stark white, spotless linen with hoisted pillows. Apparently when fans got whiff of the fact that OP was living with the Nakhwas, a number of them asked him to move in with them—to a better and bigger place—but he politely refused saying it was not about the size of the place but about the love showered on him by the Nakhwas.
While living a rather low profile life at Thane, OP seldom spoke about his heydays or about the film industry. It was like that was a thing of the past for him. Says Rani, “He liked watching English movies occasionally. He refused to talk of his life in the film industry. He didn’t like it. He would say OP Nayyar; the music director is now dead. Only once in a while he used to play his harmonium. He even refused to meet people from the industry. People used to come with offers but he was pointblank with them, ‘I can’t give you what you want and you wouldn’t like what I’d give you. So there is no point in going back into the industry.’ He never talked of his family except in the beginning when he told us about his children. We never asked him anything again because it used to pain him to talk about the past. Suraiya and Shamshad Begum were the only industry persons with whom he spoke and of course, Gajendra Singh of SaReGaMa used to be in touch. Basically his life revolved around all his fans and the friends he made here. Occasionally he’d go for awards ceremonies. This was a new chapter in his life and he wanted to do service to people through his knowledge of homoeopathy.”
It is said that such was OP’s faith and authority in homoeopathy that he has cured severe medical cases. And all for free. The Nakhwa residence would be full of people at all times with patients. “There was a time when, in his younger days, he suffered from severe constipation and Asha Bhosle had taken him to one Dr Pathak. When he was cured, babujee thanked the doctor profusely and insisted he taught him homoeopathy. The doctor, though reluctant initially given that OP was a busy man those days, had to give in. He used to call the doctor his guru,” relates Rani. Interestingly, OP was also well versed in astrology. But Rani has a glint in her eyes when she says that not many people ventured to ask him what lay in store for them because he didn’t believe in smooth talking and would just say things as they were.
OP’s day would begin at 5:30 am when he went for a walk. “Then he’d spend time reading two books he possessed—the Kabirvani and the Ramayan both in Urdu because he couldn’t read Hindi. In fact, he’d ask me also to follow the teachings in Kabirvani,” says Rani tears welling up in her eyes again. Rani was 26 when she met OP. Twelve years just whizzed past and she realises now, though not repentantly, how much she has missed in life. “I lost all my friends because I couldn’t spend enough time with them. Even our relatives stopped coming because we’d keep telling them to make less noise and make adjustments. They got quite fed up. I didn’t get married. Now my parents are looking for a groom.” Chips in Rani’s mother emotionally, “She has done so much seva for babujee that we hope, with his blessings, she’d get a good husband. It is difficult. People want to know why she waited so long to marry.”
OP Nayyar breathed his last in the Nakhwa residence—a peaceful death and as was promised to OP, the Nakhwas didn’t inform anyone from his family about his death. “He had told us not to inform his family on his death. We performed his last rites.” The pain of her babujee’s¬ sudden passing away took Rani to the throes of depression. “I couldn’t believe he was no more—no last words, nothing. He was okay one moment and gone the other. I still haven’t started doing anything in life. I want to carry on his homoeopathy practice. I used to assist him and have learnt quite a lot,” says Rani sadly still trying to fill in the void that OP has left in her life which exists even after more than a year of his death. In fact, Rani and Siraj continue to remain in close touch and are also working on several projects, including the formation of the OP Nayyar Memorial Trust
OP’s life was certainly a roller-coaster ride going from the heights of fame to the depths of anonymity and then finally finding family love. However, he will be most remembered for being a trailblazer in the field of music. What better way to end this piece than with a quote from the legend himself? Siraj Khan says someone 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 genius who did not follow any rules rather made his own.” For us, who adore the man and the music, which he has left for us, OP will still be the best.