They could be apocryphal or they could be true, but two anecdotes about the late Sajjad Hussain are now virtually part of Hindi film music lore. One: how,
during a recording, he called out tartly to Lata Mangeshkar struggling at the mike with one of his intricate compositions, "Yeh Naushad miyan ka gaana nahin
hai, aap ko mehnat karni padegi." Two: how at a music directors' meet, eschewing the customary diplomacy of that era, he walked up to Madan Mohan and
demanded belligerently, "What do you mean by stealing my song ?" ("Yeh hawa yeh raat yeh chandani" from his 'Sangdil' had just found a new avatar as "Tujhe kya
sunaoon main dilruba" in Madan Mohan's 'Aakhri Dao'.)
These two hallmarks of Sajjad's identity -- his penchant for complex, many-- layered compositions and his singularly forthright nature -- stuck to him like
a second skin throughout his life. And they combined in a rather unfortunate manner to diminish the potential brilliance of a career that could have ranked
among the most celebrated.
It was not the intricacy of his compositions that put Sajjad at a disadvantage -- he worked, after all, in an era that belonged to music directors with
erudition and firm classical foundations. Where he lost out was in his handling of producers and directors, sometimes musical illiterates, who sought to
simplify or alter his tunes -- his contemporaries dealt with such "suggestions" rather more tactfully than Sajjad, who would immediately [get] up and walk out
of the film. "He was an extremely talented man, very knowledgeable about music, but his temperament was his undoing," says Naushad. "Even if someone made a
minor suggestion, he'd turn on him and say, 'What do you know about music ?' He fought with almost everyone. Because of this, he sat at home most of his
life and wasted his talent. But the body of work he has produced, small as it might be, ranks among the best in Hindi film music."
Music historian Raju Bharatan, whose interaction with Sajjad goes back a long way, has a somewhat different insight into the man. "It's true he wouldn't let
musically unqualified people interfere with his work,but the popular perception of him being stubborn is not right," he says. "Sajjad had a rational
explanation for every action of his. You had to know him to recognise his tremendous erudition, the fact that he was far superior to every other music
director in the industry."
This erudition, the cornerstone of Sajjad's work, is recalled affectionately by Naushad. "He took pride in his ustaadi," he says. "He'd tell the producer,
'I've created a tune which even Lata can't sing.' And the producer would say, 'If Lata can't sing it, how do you expect the common man to sing it ?' But at
the same time he did create simple, yet extraordinary, compositions -- for example, "Yeh kaisi ajab daastaan ho gayi hai" from 'Rustom Sohraab'."
Indeed, as far as Sajjad's formidable talent goes, there are no two opinions. Madan Mohan, when confronted with the charge of plagiarism, reportedly told
him, "I take pride in the fact that I lifted your tune, not that of some second- or third-rater." Anil Biswas, himself hailed as a creative genius,
declared in an interview that Sajjad was the only original composer in Hindi films. "All of us, including myself, turned to some source for inspiration,"
he said. "This, Sajjad never needed to do. Each note of the music he composed was his own."
Sajjad's rather chequered career began in 1944 with Shaukar Husain Rizvi's 'Dost'. Assistant to Master Ali Bux at that time, the young man's tunes were
favoured over those of Bux -- indeed, his "Badnaam mohabbat kaun kare, dil ko ruswa kaun kare", rendered by Noorjehan, is remembered to this day by
connoisseurs. His range was noteworthy -- if the music of 'Dost' had the "Punjabiat" that Rizvi demanded, Sajjad could also come up with lilting Arabic
melodies as in 'Rustom Sohraab' or classical Hindustani tunes. All this from a man whose only formal training in music was a stint on the sitar under his
Sajjad's talent was only matched by his almost compulsive perfectionism. He was perhaps the only music director who had no assistants and did everything
himself, from the initial tuning of the lyrics to the orchestration. "He would even write down the bols for the tabla player," says his son Nasir Ahmed. "It
was not like he'd begin the song and accept any theka the tabalchi chose to strike; everything had to be done according to his dictates."
"He was very particular," recalls Lata Mangeshkar, who was known to be almost apprehensive of a Sajjad recording. "If even a minor instrument went slightly
out of sur, he'd stop the whole recording and begin again." This perfectionism necessitated 17 re-takes for "Yeh hawa yeh raat yeh chandani", but Sajjad still
remained unsatisfied with an interlude piece in the song -- played by a sitar and a sarangi maestro who are among the top names in classical music today.
"Till the day he died, whenever he heard the piece he'd sigh, "They didn't play it like I told them to," recalls his son amusedly.
This perfectionism extended to his own scores as well. "Sajjad is the only composer I know who used to rethink his own work," says Bharatan, "and that is
a measure of growth. For instance, he used to say that Lata's "Aaj mere naseeb mein" from 'Hulchul' was his best work, but later began to feel it could have
been much better. He'd also dismiss his compositions like "Phir tumhari yaad ayi ay sanam" and "Dil mein sama gaye sajan" out of hand. "They're perfectly
ordinary compositions," he told me. "Why are you making such a big deal of them ?"
If Sajjad was known primarily for his film scores, there was also another facet to his art -- he was an accomplished albeit self-taught mandolin player who
could stun even purists with his ability to play Hindustani classical music on this rather uninspiring western instrument. His performances at concerts
alongside the biggest names in classical music spurred rave reviews, and connoisseurs would be agog at his ability to coax the meend, for instance, out
of the instrument of play entire ragas with the help of the tuning key. "In the hands of Ustad Sajjad Husain," said a review of a Madras concert in 1982, "the
mandolin bore the halo of a Ravi Shankar sitar or [an] Ali Akbar sarod. His playing is that of a mighty maestro."
The genius of the man, however, was destined to remain unsung. His uncompromising nature and marked indifference to material comforts pushed him
further and further into oblivion. But even in the last years of his life, he retained his imperial pride -- Lata Mangeshkar, the one person in the film
industry he was very close to, recalls how, when she offered to arrange his mandolin concerts, he retorted, "If you want to hear the mandolin, I'll come
and play for you at home, but I don't want you arranging anything for me."
On July 21, the 79-year-old composer breathed his last. The leitmotif of his lifetime, isolation, cast its shadow over his death too, when, with the notable
exception of Khayyam and Pankaj Udhas, nobody else from the film industry bothered to turn up to pay him their last respects. "It hurt," admits his son,
"but what is far more important is that to the last day of his life, my father was happy. There was no bitterness, no regrets. He could have been hugely
successful, made piles of money, but the only thing he wanted was to be acknowledged as a great musician, and to live life on his own terms. And I
think he achieved that."