We are seated and I narrate the ordeal I had to go through to find him. He laughs full-throatedly and explains that he’s been out of bounds because he no longer lives in his four-room flat at Marine Drive. He’s been estranged from his family for about eight years. He has even switched his profession. Now he practices homeopathy, traveling to far-flung corners to heal patients.

“Apart from third-degree cancer and TB, I’ve cured all other illnesses,” he states casually. “Because of my chosen profession, I’m always on the move. Whenever I’m in Mumbai, I always stay at this hotel. Not many people know about this.”

There’s so much to quiz him about but I don’t know where to begin. I make a random choice and ask him how and why he entered the movies. He rewinds to the halcyon pre-Partition days in Lahore when, he laughs, a peg of whisky would cost a mere eight annas.

In 1944, Onkar Prasad Nayyar was all of 18. Studies didn’t interest him. Instead, women were his fascination and music his passion. So he dropped out of college to dabble in music.

His first compositions—”pritam aan milo” and “kaun nagar tera door thikana“— were sung by his friend C.H. Atma. “When we took these to HMV, the recording company promptly released the songs on its least popular label, Regal. I was paid Rs. 40, a fairly princely sum in those days for two songs. Then in 1946 I started teaching music at a school in Patiala. But teaching wasn’t really my cup of tea. So I gave it up,” he recalls.

Following Partition, the Nayyars shifted base from Lahore to Amritsar. After trying out odd jobs, armed with his dreams, Nayyar boarded a train to Bombay in 1949.

There he met producer-director Krishna Kewal who was making Kaneez. Ghulam Haider and Hansraj Behl were the film’s music directors. “But the background music of the film was composed by O.P. Nayyar,” he says proudly. “I was paid Rs. 1,000. I thought I’d made it but I was sadly mistaken. I couldn’t find work for days. So I returned to Amritsar, and started teaching once again. I had resigned myself to a life of anonymity.”

Fortuitously, Nayyar met his school friend and classmate (S.N. Bhatia, proprietor of a chemist shop in Lahore), who had close connections with producer Dalsukh Pancholi of the Punjabi film industry. But Pancholi wasn’t impressed immediately. “He took one look at me and threw me out,” the maestro smiles with unconcealed irony.

In 1951, Pancholi released Nagina at Regal theatre in Delhi. O.P. Nayyar narrates, “See how destiny works. At the theatre, Pancholi met my friend Bhatia in the cloakroom. Bhatia complained that though he’d recommended C.H. Atma and me to Pancholi, he’d only selected the singer and that he’d missed out on a promising composer. Pancholi immediately sent for me. That also happened to be the day of my marriage.

“I reached Delhi and Pancholi had already signed me as the music director for his next film Aasman even though he’d had a successful partnership with Shankar-Jaikishen.”

Then followed P.L. Santoshi’s Chham Chhama Chham and Guru Dutt’s Baaz.

“I was excited,” Nayyar rewinds. “Santoshi dropped Naushad to accommodate me while Guru Dutt who never worked with anyone but S.D. Burman opted for me. But all three of them were super-flops. Needless to say, I was shown the door again.”

Dejected, Nayyar wanted to pack his bags and leave for Amritsar. He went to Guru Dutt for a pending payment of Rs. 3,000. “I had no money to even feed my family. But Guru Dutt refused to pay me. He said he was broke. I told him to sell his possessions to pay me my dues. He was furious at the very suggestion and told me to leave. But producer K.K. Kapoor of Kardar Productions intervened. He advised him to sign me for Aar Paar as compensation for my dues. Guru Dutt agreed and also paid me Rs. 2,000 as advance.”

Aar Paar was a winner. O.P. Nayyar became a household name. Today, he narrates an anecdote about the days of making music for Guru Dutt. When Nayyar composed “

babuji dheere chalna,” the actor-producer-director liked the mukhda but wanted drastic changes in the antara.

“I told him to change the situation and I’d change the tune,” Nayyar says. “But he was adamant. So after a week, I took the very same tune to him and told him that I’d made changes. He heard it and said it was perfect. Really, Guru Dutt could be stupid at times.

“One day, while shooting for Mr. and Mrs. 55, he called and asked me whether I liked the picturization of a song. I told him I didn’t like the camera angles. He asked, ‘What do you know about the camera anyway?’ And I asked him, ‘What do you know about music?’ After that day, he stopped interfering with my music.

“I’m an illiterate in music,” he says, almost startling me out of my chair. “I can’t even read the notations or the basic alphabets of music. When I composed ‘phir wohi dil laya hoon,’ my friend Ustad Amir Khan was so taken in by the song that he refused to believe that I hadn’t learnt music formally. He said it was impossible to put together a song like that one without knowing music. I guess whatever I composed was God’s gift to me.”

Music circles have always wondered why O.P. Nayyar didn’t use the voice of Lata Mangeshkar even once. “I was successful without Lata’s voice,” he tells me proudly, adding, “I have no doubts that Lata is a great artiste. I’ve never had any problems with her. It’s just that her thin, thread-like voice wasn’t suitable for my compositions. Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt, and Asha Bhosle were my kind of singers. They brought my songs to life.”

Clearly Asha Bhosle was his trump card. Together they created magic. In an association spanning 70 films, they scaled new heights in music.

“I moulded Asha’s voice and gave her style and respectability,” he states without mincing any words. “Till then, composers had considered her fit only for cabaret numbers. I fought with filmmakers for her. When B.R. Chopra signed me for Naya Daur, he insisted that I should take Lata Mangeshkar. I refused point blank. I stood my ground and told him that it was either Asha and me or Lata Mangeshkar. He decided on Asha and me.

“But mind you, I’m not saying this to take credit for Asha’s success. She is truly a very gifted singer. I couldn’t have done much if she didn’t have the talent.”

At this point, I ask a thorny question … Isn’t it true that he sorely neglected Geeta Dutt in her late years in favor of Asha Bhosle? Candidly, he replies, “You see, at that time Asha and I were emotionally involved. Asha objected to my working with other singers. She made me promise that I wouldn’t work with anyone else but her. Since I was involved with her, I agreed. I deeply regret the fact that I neglected Geeta. But there were certain songs which only Asha could have sung.”

Discussing his relationship with Asha Bhosle, he states categorically that Asha was his grand amour, the love of his life. “They say when a woman loves, she loves with her soul … and when she hates someone she becomes a chandi. The same was true of Asha too. When she sang for me she’d put her heart and soul into it,” he says gently.

According to film lore, the relationship between the composer and singer came to an abrupt end. Apparently, Asha Bhosle walked out. In turn, he replaced her with singer Krishna Kalle.

Nayyar clarifies this story though. He says, “Asha didn’t leave me. I left her. Since I’m a very good astrologer, I knew in advance that I was reaching the end of my career. I also knew that if I didn’t leave then, I would be kicked out. Besides, there were personal differences between us. I also realized that one should never get involved with a career-oriented woman. You’ll always remain her second love. She’ll throw you out before she leaves her career.

“‘chain se humko kabhi’ was the last song Asha sang for me. She even won the Filmfare Award for it. But she didn’t go to receive the award. She probably felt that I deserved the award and not her. One thing I can say about the Mangeshkar sisters is that though they were truly great artistes, they’ve never had any schooling or breeding. So they’ve suffered from complexes. When I took Krishna Kalle, Asha couldn’t bear it. That was the last I saw of her.”

Yet he still reveres Asha Bhosle, describing her lovingly as, “A good mother, a great artiste, and a wonderful human being. It’s the mean world that taught her how to be cunning. She wasn’t like that when I first met her. But all said and done, I must say that she hasn’t been an ungrateful person.”

Asha Bhosle moved on to form an alliance with R.D. Burman. “R.D. Burman was one of the best music directors we’ve ever had,” Nayyar emphasizes. “His fusion of Indian and Western music was beautiful. But I believe he gave his best compositions to Lata and not to Asha.”

O.P. Nayyar is honest enough to agree that his own decline coincided with his separation from Asha Bhosle. Singers like Krishna Kalle, Vani Jairam, and Dilraj Kaur couldn’t sustain his flagging career.

“But this was destined to happen,” he points out. “The girls were not to be blamed. I worked on Asha for 15 years, whereas these girls were with me at most for one or two films. I’m sure I could have worked wonders with them too. But what would have been the point? I knew my bad period had begun … so I left the industry.”

He also admits that he was very arrogant. “But never ungrateful!” he exclaims. And by way of proof, informs me that he never forgot his debt to Dalsukh Pancholi. Though the producer had dropped him after Aasman, the maestro during his days of success composed music for him again. He even did CID,Mr. and Mrs. 55, and Baharen Phir Bhi Aayegi on the terms, conditions, and remuneration offered by Guru Dutt.

“I’ve always believed that if you’re ungrateful to your mentor, then you’re ungrateful to God,” Nayyar says firmly. “Yes, I was arrogant because I cashed in on the producers who cashed in on my popularity. And why not? I was the only music director whose name was enough to sell a film. Secondly, I could never tolerate indiscipline. I threw out sarangi player Ram Narayan, sitar player Rais Khan, and flute player Hariprasad Chaurasia whenever they turned up late for my recordings. I would tell them that their musical instruments were meaningless without my melodies. I even threw out Mohammed Rafi when he turned up late for a recording. I used Mahendra Kapoor’s voice instead in Love and Murder.”

On the other hand, there was a time when the music business was far more streamlined. Neither was there any unhealthy competition between the music directors. O.P. Nayyar would walk straight into Shankar-Jaikishen’s room and ask them about their new songs.

“That was the golden era of music. We had the best music directors, lyricists, and singers. Each one of us believed in giving our best. But I’m afraid those days will never return,” he says nostalgically.

He doesn’t listen to music any more. Today’s films mainly revolve around crime and violence. “Yet music can never be cheap,” he rationalizes. “How can the saat sur be cheap? It’s the lyrics and song picturizations that have become vulgar.” Of A.R. Rahman, he says, “I’ve heard his name but to be honest, I haven’t heard his music.”

I wind up by asking if he has any concluding words for me. Staring me straight in the eye, he says, “I’ve been a philosopher and thinker all my life. I’ve lived my life my way. I’m very proud of my work. I believe that I’m a living legend … mark my words, this country will remember me after I die. O.P. Nayyar will live through his music.”

Copyright ® 2007. Filmfare. All rights Reserved.

Vandana Kumar is a publishing executive with a 36-year track record in the industry. She leads the India Currents Foundation as President and CEO. As a new immigrant, she co-founded India Currents magazine...