Mustafa Sajjad apologises for being late. “I was stuck at the MCA office getting this renewed,” he said. He pulled out a freshly-laminated card bearing the logo of the Music Composers Association. The card had been issued in 1970. That was the year Sajjad, with his brother Mohammed Yusuf, had worked on a film titled Ziarat Gahe Hind (aka Zeenat). A low-budget Muslim religious picture, Ziarat Gahe Hind was one of the last few films with which Sajjad’s father, the legendary composer Sajjad Hussain, was associated.

The brothers, who weren’t even 20 then, are credited as composers. Their father is credited as “music supervisor”, though it is apparent that his role was more hands-on than that.

To tell the Sajjad Hussain story, however, we have to begin with another remarkable tale – that of his father’s. For much of his life, Mohammed Amir seems to have exhibited no obvious predilection for music. He was a humble tailor living in Sitamau, a small princely state in central India. Things changed, according to Mustafa Sajjad, when his grandfather was hired to “stitch the king’s clothes, for special occasions”.

As in the case of most princely states, the court at Sitamau had its fair share of musical gatherings. Because of his new-found proximity to the king Ram Sinh II, Mohammed Amir was present at many of these concerts. These musical encounters appear to have opened up a whole new world for him. Fascinated by the sitar, he began to learn playing the instrument and seems to have acquired some proficiency at it.

Sajjad Hussain.

Mohammed Amir had nine children – five sons and four daughters. Sajjad Hussain was the youngest of the lot. The other siblings don’t seem to have picked up their father’s interest in music. But Sajjad Hussain more than made up for that, often accompanying his father to the palace to attend the concerts.

Mustafa Sajjad narrated two remarkable incidents from those early days. “Once my father attended a court performance by a visiting sitar player,” he recalled. “He liked one of the pieces very much. The next day, he played the exact same piece for some of the kids from the neighbourhood. When my grandfather heard it, he was shocked: How did this child learn such a complicated piece by hearing it just once?”

The other anecdote involves the instrument that has come to be associated with Hussain: “He first saw a mandolin at someone’s house, some rich person’s house, a tehsildar or something. But he was not allowed to touch it.” So, according to Sajjad, his father made his own version of the instrument and practised on it.

“This was the mandolin he played for many years,” Sajjad said. “It was only much later in Bombay that he started using a professional-make mandolin, and that too when a Jewish mandolin player named Rahim Solomon presented him with the instrument.”

By now, Mohammed Amir had realised that his son had a special talent for music. But he was a conservative man, and that prompted him to extract a promise from his son – that he would not make music his “rozi-roti ka zariya”, that he wouldn’t make music his livelihood. Hussain kept his word, for as long as he could. But it must have been a difficult phase for him – to obey his father or the calling.

Finally, two years after his father’s death, Hussain decided to go to Bombay to try his luck in the film industry. He seems to have had the family’s approval: accompanying him was his eldest brother Nissar Hussain, a principal at a local school. The year was 1937.

(L-R) Mustafa Sajjad, Mohammed Rafi, Noor Mohammed, Mohammed Yusuf, Sajjad Hussain.

This was the era of the studios. In Bombay, Hussain’s playing skills found him employment as a musician in the orchestra at Sohrab Modi’s Minerva Movietone. From Minerva, he moved to Wadia Movietone. “He was offered Rs 60 per month at Wadia, whereas he was being paid Rs 30 at Minerva,” his son explained.

Later, not content with the way his career was shaping up, Hussain left Wadia and moved to All India Radio, but apparently quit that job too after only four months.

“What he really wanted to do was to become a music director,” Sajjad said. “In those days, to become a music director, you needed one of two things. You either had to belong to a family of musicians, or you had to work as an assistant to a music director to prove your credentials. Since we weren’t mirasis, the second option was what my father took, though he never really liked the idea of assisting anyone; he was an independent-minded person.”

Sajjad listed all the instruments his father played during his years in the various orchestras: sitar, mandolin, veena, vichitra veena, violin, flute, jal tarang, clarinet, piano, harmonium, Spanish guitar, Hawaiian guitar. This experience, coupled with his subsequent work as an assistant to various composers, provided a solid footing to the young man trying to make it as an independent music director.

Sajjad Hussain with Lata Mangeshkar and his son Nasir Ahmed.

Hussain’s break came with the film Gaali (1944), for which he composed three songs. The breakthrough, however, came with another film that released in the same year. But this is also the source of much controversy, only the first of many in Hussain’s curious career.

Dost was produced by Shaukat Rizvi for his wife Noor Jehan, the singing star who was then all of 18. The music director originally signed for the project was Ali Baksh, Meena Kumari’s father. But Hussain, it has been alleged, sidelined Ali Baksh from the project.

His son strongly contended the allegation. “My father was a God-fearing man, a principled man, he was not capable of doing something like this,” Sajjad said. According to him, it was Ali Baksh who had approached his father. “My father had stopped assisting others. He wanted to work independently but nothing was happening; so he was at home, not doing anything. That was the time Ali Baksh approached him and asked him for his help as Shaukat saheb had rejected all his tunes.”

Hussain accompanied Ali Baksh to the Rizvi household where, according to Sajjad, the producer was prevailed upon to listen to Hussain’s tune for one of the songs. He played the tune, and waited for Rizvi’s reaction. There was none.

But then Noor Jehan, who was probably listening in from the next room, rushed in. The leading lady loved the tune. Once she was convinced, everyone else to on board. They all wanted Hussain to do the songs. Ali Baksh had to make way. That, says Mustafa, was a turning point for his father.

It also marked a turning point in the life of a bored little boy living hundreds of miles away from Bombay. One night in 1945, in a small town called Tanga in East Africa, Ashraf Aziz watched his brother Masood unpack a crate that he had brought from Mombasa. “Under the gentle light of a hissing gas-lamp, aided by a hundred fireflies”, the contents of the crate were painstakingly assembled. Minutes later, Noorjehan’s voice wafted out from the hand-cranked gramophone, piercing the silence of that moonless night.

More than five decades later, Ashraf wrote movingly about that moment when he first heard Koi Prem Ka Deke Sandesa: “That 1945 night, now long extinguished, still lingers in my memory with the sweet pain of Sajjad [Hussain]’s muted but immutable creation. His melody – deliberate, diffident, gentle, subtly mournful, and yes, elusive – has chased the inner recesses of my mind and heart down the years with a tenacity which defies reason.”

Koi Prem Ka Deke Sandesa, Dost, 1944.

With songs like Koi Prem Ka Deke Sandesa and that other delectable Noor Jehan solo Badnaam Mohabbat Kaun Kare, Sajjad Hussain’s career was set to take off big time. Instead, it hit its first roadblock when Hussain and Shaukat Rizvi fell out. The friction seems to have been regarding who should be credited for the success of the film’s songs. Rizvi believed it was his wife; Hussain disagreed. In retrospect, it was a silly argument. What it ensured, however, was that Sajjad Hussain and Noor Jehan would never work together again.

Hussain’s next film 1857 (1946) starred two other prominent singing stars of that era, Surendra and Suraiya. The film has some lovely melodies, especially the Suraiya solo Gham-e-aashiyana. The year 1946, however, will always be remembered for Anmol Ghadi, which featured the same pair, but also had Noor Jehan and Naushad’s chartbusting music.

Gham-e-aashiyana, 1857 (1946).

Over the years, because of similarities in the way they approached film music, comparisons have been drawn between Naushad and Hussain. The latter was always critical of his more successful colleague. There is a famous story of him suggesting Lata Mangeshkar to up her game during a recording by snidely remarking that she was singing a Sajjad Hussain composition and not one by Naushad.

But the truth is that while Naushad’s career went from strength to strength, Hussain’s floundered. His most fecund phase was during the period 1950-52 when he did five films. (Of these, two were films where there was more than one music director.) The high point of this period is Sangdil (1952), an adaptation of Jane Eyre starring Madhubala and Dilip Kumar. The most celebrated song from the film, of course, is Yeh Hawa Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni, which the late musicologist Ashok Ranade called a ‘tantalising composition’:

“[It] appears to be a song in a slower tempo...In reality, it is not in a slow tempo but the lines are longer and the tune given includes longer melodic progressions. Further, the two halves of the mood-setting first line end, respectively, on the fundamental note ‘sa’ and the mid-octave note ‘ma’ – thus creating a unique feeling of completion as well as incompleteness, leading to expectation…The song lingers in the mind.”

Yeh Hawa… has become Talat Mehmood’s signature song, rendered in what appears to be his own, effortless style, but is said to have required 17 retakes, prompting Hussain to dub him “Galat Mehmood”. The singer is again pushed in the duet Dil Mein Sama Gaye Sajan which, truth be told, is owned by Lata Mangeshkar.

Yeh Hawa Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni, Sangdil (1952).

Whatever personal equation they might have shared, Hussian and Mangeshkar had enormous respect for each other’s abilities (as was also the case with Noor Jehan). In her interviews, she has often maintained that Hussain was the one music director whose compositions gave her the jitters. Part of the nervousness was probably due to his personality but, to be fair, he did give her some of his best songs – Ae Dilruba (Rustam Sohrab, 1963), Jaate Ho Toh Jao (Khel, 1950), Aaj Mere Naseeb Ne (Hulchul, 1951), Woh Toh Chale Gaye Aye Dil (Sangdil). The soundtrack of the 1951 Madhubala-starrer Saiyan features six outstanding solos by the singer, a veritable feast for all fans of vintage Hindustani film music.

However, while a lot has been written about the Mangeshkar-Hussain equation, it has obscured the fact that the latter worked with almost every important female singer of that era. In fact, no discussion on Sangdil can be complete without mentioning the devotional Darshan Pyaasi Aayi Daasi in the voice of Geeta Dutt, which also sees Hussain innovatively use the jal tarang (played by Alauddin Khan) throughout to replicate the effect of temple bells.

Darshan Pyaasi Aayi Daasi, Sangdil (1952).

Why didn’t Hussain’s career take off even after Sangdil? It is true some key projects did not take off, but a lot of the blame rests squarely with Hussain’s extraordinary talent for offending people. Mustafa springs to his father’s defence: “My father was a frank, straightforward man. He used to say that if I see a one-eyed person, how can I call him two-eyed; he is one-eyed!”

Political correctness wasn’t Hussain’s forte, and he paid the price for it. But Mustafa also contended that it was never personal. “He was a thorough professional and while his uncompromising attitude might have put off some, there were others who appreciated his work and came back to him.”

One of them was RC Talwar, who had earlier directed Sangdil. In his recent biography of Asha Bhosle, the veteran journalist Raju Bharatan writes, “Sajjad had lost half his incentive to score for Rukhsana (1955) upon being told Kishore Kumar was to be Meena Kumari’s hero.”

True to form, the composer had a nickname for the ebullient singing star: “Shor Kumar”. To further complicate matters for him, Bharatan writes, after recording Tera Dard Dil Mein Basa Liya, Lata Mangeshkar fell ill and was unable to record any further for the film. This probably explains why, after the high of Sangdil, the Rukhsana soundtrack is a bit of a letdown, though the Lata solo and the Kishore-Asha duet Yeh Chaar Din Bahaar Ke stand out.

Another director who reconnected with Hussain was SK Ojha (Hulchul) who had been approached to do a Sinhala film. Hussain’s work in the film, a historical titled Daiwayogaya, has largely escaped our attention. This, among other things, means that most of us have been bereft of the pleasure of listening to the spellbinding Adarayai Karunawai.

Adarayai Karunawai, Daiwayogaya, (1959).

“The peculiarity of Sajjad’s music,” said Aziz Ashraf, “rests on an integrated fusion of two disparate musical traditions: the Hindustani and the mid-Eastern.” But, he is quick to point out, it is “not ‘arabic’ in the sense of Halaku [a 1956 costume drama with music by Shankar-Jaikishen] where the ‘arabic’ motifs have been externally imposed.”

This integrated fusion finds its fullest expression in the songs of Rustam Sohrab (1963). Hussain’s reputation as a difficult composer also has a lot to do with this film, especially its two celebrated female solos – the Suraiya swansong Yeh Kaisi Ajab Dastaan, and the exquisite Ae Dilruba, which sees Lata Mangeshkar at the height of her powers. (Incidentally, the Egyptian harp used in both these songs, Mustafa reveals, was played by the jazz trumpeter and arranger Frank Fernand.)

These two songs have assured Hussain’s place in the pantheon, but he takes no chances and also gives us the stirring Phir Tumhari Yaad Aayi, one of the all-time great qawwalis.

Ae Dilruba, Rustam Sohrab (1963).

It would not be unfair to say that Hussain’s career graph took a nosedive after Rustam Sohrab. But it was not like he was sitting idle at home, waiting for film assignments to come his way. Unknown to most apart from those close to him, he had been labouring away on a pet project: to make the mandolin adaptable to playing Indian classical music.

He was not the first one to attempt this difficult task. The noted tabla player and author Aneesh Pradhan writes:

“It would surprise many to know that the music educationist and vocalist Vishnu Digambar Paluskar trained some of his students to play this instrument and featured them in his orchestra way back in the early twentieth century. Similarly, his disciple B.R. Deodhar introduced this instrument in his School of Indian Music in Bombay. There were other instances of amateurs taking to the mandolin, but it still did not reach a level of acceptance on the concert stage.”

Hussain wanted to change all that. “[H]e gave an impression,” wrote Ashok Ranade, “[that] he had an agenda of establishing [the mandolin] as a major concert instrument in Hindustani music.”

According to Mustafa, his father made his debut as a classical soloist at a music festival in Kolkata in 1956. It was after what he calls “16 years of underground work” to make the mandolin amenable to playing Hindustani classical.

To do so, Hussain first made structural changes to the instrument. “The mandolin has 8 strings which are in pairs [2+2+2+2], but he used only 6 strings [2+2+1+1].” He also altered his plucking style. But his most intriguing innovation lay elsewhere. Pradhan remembers attending a Hussain performance in the early ’80s at Sangit Mahabharati, the Mumbai music teaching institution set up by his guru, Pandit Nikhil Ghosh. In an email, he wote: “I was amazed by the way he could handle the instrument, particularly the manner in which he could produce meends or glides by detuning the string and then bringing it back to its original position. I can’t remember the actual content of the performance, but it will always be etched in my memory…”

(L-R): Kashinath Mishra (tabla), Mustafa, Sajjad Hussain, Mohd Yusuf, Noor Mohd, Nasir Ahmed.

While Hussain received many invitations to play the mandolin in films, Mustafa said his father accepted only two such assignments. The first was from his close friend, the composer Vasant Desai, to play on the title music track of the film Do Behnen (1963). The second invitation came from director Bapu and music director KV Mahadevan for the Telugu film Muthyala Muggu (1975) for which Hussain composed and recorded a stunning five-minute solo piece.

It was around this time that Hussain was signed on for a major film project, Kamal Amrohi’s ambitious Aakhri Mughal, based on the life of Bahadur Shah Zafar. Mustafa recalls that the film was being produced by a Delhi-based businessman. But delays in the project and Amrohi’s increasingly outrageous demands scared him off. The project was put on the back burner.

But not before one song was recorded. “It was penned by Jan Nissar Akhtar,” Mustafa Sajjad said. “It was special song. I have tried to get a copy of the song from the Amrohi family but have been unable to.”

What Mustafa does have is some recordings that his father made at home. “Once he heard a composition of a Ghalib ghazal on the radio and was left unimpressed. He said that a great ghazal like that deserved a better composition. He couldn’t sleep that night, and then he came up with a fabulous composition.”

I ask Mustafa if his father watched films. “He liked watching Hollywood films,” came the surprising answer. What does not come as a surprise though is that Hussain sang very well. “There would be mehfils in our house, where people would come to listen to my father. I remember once he sang the opening couplet from Dil Mein Sama Gaye Sajan and elaborated on it for hours.”

Mustafa Sajjad and Mohd Yusuf.

While Mohammed Amir had tried to ensure his son did not take up music as a career, Hussain went to the other extreme. He had five sons and all of them became professional mandolin players. To be honest, they were never given an option. When Mustafa was barely eight, he and his brother Yusuf (a year younger) were paraded before the well-known composers of the day and asked to showcase their playing skills.

Mustafa has fond memories of these encounters. “When we played for C Ramchandra, he was so pleased, he went inside and came out with a box.” Inside it was a brand-new banjolin, which he gifted the kids. “OP Nayyar was so happy that he gave us each a 100 rupee note.”

This, of course, was a bonanza for the kids, who were each handed the princely sum of one paisa every Thursday by their father, their pocket money for the entire week. “And then the next Thursday, we had to give an account of what we did with that one paisa. Only if he was satisfied with our answers, we got our one paisa for the next week.”

The one discordant note is struck when Mustafa narrated the story of the boys accompanying their father to the rehearsal room of the reigning box office superstars of the day. “I remember when we went to meet Shankar-Jaikishen at Famous. Sebastian D’Souza (SJ’s legendary arranger) and Dattaram [Wadkar, SJ’s assistant] were there, as were some of the musicians.” With all eyes on them, the nervous boys played for the composer duo. “Shankarji was very happy and he said that it seems like I’m hearing two Russian boys play.”

But Dattaram Wadkar, SJ’s influential assistant, seems to have been unconvinced. He asked the boys if they could play in a certain taal. The boys were confused, and looked towards their father. He calmly asked them to play a particular composition. The boys complied. This time round, Mustafa said, even Dattaram was impressed. Before they left, Shankar had already instructed D’Souza to call the boys every time there was a recording.

But even after all these years, that one moment of doubt still seems to rankle with Mustafa. Perhaps not just because someone had raised a question on their abilities – they were after all only little boys – but because it cast an aspersion on their father.

Mustafa Sajjad.

During our conversation, there are two adjectives that Mustafa repeatedly used to describe his father: “roohani” (spiritual) and “genius”. But it is something else he said that grabbed my attention. Mustafa recalled his father would drop them off outside the studio gate in the morning. Once the recording was over, the brothers would come out and wait at a designated spot from where he would again pick them up and take them home. Not once did Hussain enter the studio.

This is an image I cannot get out of my head. What is it, I wonder, went through the mind of Sajjad Hussain when he approached the gates of the studio? Did he regret the way his career panned out? Did he feel frustrated, angry?

Mustafa shook his head. “My father used to say, ‘Beta, popularity alag hai, muqaam alag hai.’ My father had muqaam. That is why people are still talking about him despite the fact that he did only a handful of films. In fact, I would even go on to say that his fame rests on just two films – Sangdil and Rustam Sohrab. There are composers who have done hundreds of films but their work won’t come close to what he achieved in those two films.” But, Mustafa finally conceded, “he had so much more to offer.”

The loss is ours, he said.

Sajjad Hussain.