Long before ‘fusion’ music became all the rage, composer OP Nayyar was deftly mixing western instrumentation with Indian rhythm and producing great numbers that are still popular decades later. So fond was he of the beats of his native Punjab that the dholak and the tabla were introduced in the most unlikely of songs that otherwise could have easily continued in a western melodic vein – consider the peppy Jaiye aap kahan jayenge from Mere Sanam (1965) or the seductive Aaiye meherbaan from Howrah Bridge (1958), a night club number complete with a jazz band, where the bongo smoothly gives way to the tabla in the antara. To the purist, this may be dissonant, but it somehow works.
The Nayyar song had, usually, a strong element of percussion, often drawing from folkish beats, such as in his many Punjabi-type songs, in films like Naya Daur (1957) – Ude jab jab zulfein teri and Reshmi salwar kurta jaali ka. But he also put rhythm to innovative uses – has anyone composed more tonga songs than him?
Ironically, Nayyar, who had come to Bombay without any musical training to join the film business, first came to the notice of producers with his soft, melodious non-film song, Preetam aan milo, written by his wife Saroj. He got a few films but finding no takers, he was ready to head back to Lahore when, so the story goes, Geeta Dutt persuaded her husband to use him for Aar Paar (1954). Guru Dutt may have already met Nayyar when he composed for Geeta Bali’s home production Baaz (1953), which flopped badly.
Till then, the only female voices he had been using were Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum. He had barely taken Asha Bhosle for a couple of films, including one song in CID. The famous fight between Lata Mangeshkar and OP Nayyar happened sometime in the 1950s and many reasons have been advanced for it. Hindi film music historian Raju Bharatan has suggested in his book on Asha Bhosle that Lata Mangeshkar was angry when Nayyar suddenly replaced one of her favourite composers, Roshan, in the film Mehbooba and declared she would not sing with this upstart. She forbade her sister from doing the same. Whatever the reasons, not taking the prima donna at all was a huge risk – no director, if he wanted to stick on in the business, could afford to do that.
But, with many hits behind him, Nayyar was now calling the shots and Asha eventually joined him for Naya Daur in which she sang for Vyjantimala. The film and its songs scored big at the box office and he was now a star; and he behaved like one. Dressed from top to bottom in white, including shoes, driving his American luxury car, living in a posh part of town and, it was breathlessly said, charging a cool one lakh to compose for a film. He also had attitude and this often rubbed people the wrong way; in 1961, not a single film of his released, the result, apparently, of not getting any contracts.
But then came another wave, with the Mukherjees, Shakti Samanta and other producers, in the colourful 1960s, when filmmakers had started making frothy films set in hill stations such as Kashmir and Nainital. Nayyar rose to the occasion with his hummable numbers in films such as Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon (1963), Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) and Mere Sanam.
But his repertoire of the period also includes many B grade films and there was a gradual slide down the popularity charts as other music directors climbed up. Nayyar’s music had begun to sound repetitive and despite some truly memorable numbers – Aap ke haseen rukh pe (Baharein Phir Bhi Ayengi, 1966), Yehi woh jagah hai (Yeh Raat Phir Na Aayegi, 1966) being two of them – his stock was dwindling because the films flopped. Who remembers Kahin Din Kahin Raat (1968), Shrimanji (1968) or The Killers (1969)? Kismat (1968) was a cheesy film with great songs, as was Ek Baar Muskara Do (1972), but with Laxmikant Pyarelal and their folk beats and the young, refreshing sound of R D Burman emerging as popular favourites, no one wanted to try out Nayyar any more.
His relationship, personal and professional, with Asha Bhosle too had reached its end and culminated with the evocative song, Chain se humko kabhi; ironically, it was not even used in the film, Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye (1974).
A few flop films later, he faded away from public life, emerging only as a popular judge on musical reality shows, still smiling as always and now wearing a trademark hat. But by now, the car, flat and offers had long gone – he was living with a fan in the distant suburbs of Bombay, where he died in 2007.
His songs have a life on radio stations and on YouTube and in 1994, composer Tusshar Bhatia paid tribute to Nayyar with a song in Andaz Apna Apna – Elloji sanam hum aa gaye, naturally sung to the beat of a tonga.