The iconic R.D.Burman

Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle and R.D. Burman, Photo: Publicity Photo

He passed away on January 4, 1994, a year that musically came to be known as the year of his swan song, 1942-A Love Story. 28 years later, R.D. Burman remains an icon.

Rahul Dev Burman’s destiny was written by a particularly-eccentric emissary of God. Check his history: by birth a prince of Tripura, he was drawn into music by both his genes (his father S.D. Burman, who relinquished the throne for music) and his environs (his dad’s career as a top-flight Hindi film composer.

Success never came easily to Pancham, named so by the late Ashok Kumar for his command on the fifth Indian musical note, Pa. As assistant to his dad, he obviously had to ghost-compose a few songs, but the latter exercised his filial rights to pilfer his tunes (among them Sar jo tera chakraye used in Pyaasa and reportedly Tu kahaan yeh bataa from Tere Ghar Ke Saamne) on the pretext of testing them on the public!

When Guru Dutt signed Pancham for a film in the late ‘50s, Dad(a) Burman made the filmmaker back out, stating that his son was not yet ready enough. And when Mehmood finally gave him his debut film, Chhote Nawab, in 1961 and also Bhoot Bungla in 1964, he had to wait five years to be really noticed (with Nasir Husain’s Teesri Manzil) as a solid talent, and four more before he struck it commercially big with Ramesh Behl’s The Train (1970).

R.D.Burman’s genius lay in his seamless blend of the conventional and the path-breaking. What else explains how his different songs—songs that broke the mold of the conventional keherva-dadra structure—yet resonated with all generations of music listeners, if not immediately then certainly over the years?

As lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri put it, “Other composers also incorporated Western music directly, but Pancham listened and absorbed, and came out with his own ingenious mix of the West with his own style.” His was the style that was ultimately to become a trendsetting blueprint for composers from Bappi Lahiri all the way to so many names in the millennium.

And while it is doubtful whether Pancham, had he lived on, would have been able to thrive in the millennium when he could not adjust to a Bappi Lahiri blitz in the ‘80s, the fact remains that Rahman downwards, everyone could dare push the envelope, flirt with fusion and break rules only because of the Pancham precedent as the incentive.

And yet, all through his lifetime, Pancham never could match the mass-appeal and wide canvas of the music of the three duos, Shankar-Jaikishan, Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmikant-Pyarelal. or even his father, who were much more Indian yet more versatile.

Wrongly termed a “disgrace” to his father because of his over-indulgence in Western beats and rhythm, it took good friends L-P to term him “more talented than his father” and Jaikishan to say that “It is RD who is really someone to watch out for among the new lot”. But then, ironically, a lot of RD’s upswing in the early 1970s came about because Jaikishan passed away and several S-J loyalists like F.C. Mehra, G.P. Sippy and Bhappi Sonie shifted to Pancham rather than continuing with Shankar.

Fate, however, dealt R.D. its cruelest card when it decreed that the genius would get much more fame only after he passed away suddenly in 1994, on the eve of his spectacular comeback in 1942 – A Love Story. In my only meeting with the composer in 1991, he had expressed a touching gratitude to “The man who believed in me—Vidhu Vinod Chopra!” and was so obviously charged, his morale up for the first time after loyalists dumped him one after the other.

“I am going to completely change my team!” he told me excitedly. The idea was clear: Pancham wanted to reaffirm his credentials in the eyes of the industry minus props like top singers close to him and his pet lyricists. So out went Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Amit Kumar and lyricists Anand Bakshi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Gulshan Bawra and Gulzar, and in came Kumar Sanu, Kavita Krishnamurthi Subramaniam and Javed Akhtar!

Asha Parekh with Rajesh Khanna as he enacts Jis gali mein tera ghar in Kati Patang. Photo: Trailer Video Grab

Ever since he exited, Pancham has been fortune’s favorite child among our composer legends—living or otherwise. By a carefully-orchestrated strategy that takes advantage of uninformed young music lovers, who have not been around during his creative and commercial peak (1970-1985) and their resultant ignorance of the contributions to innovation, trends and creativity in film music of RD’s contemporaries and seniors, thanks partly to social media as well.

And unlike in his lifetime when some of his greatest compositions missed the bus, this time so much of his inferior work is being palmed off in remixes or re-creations and given the undeserved “honour” of being classics. And the saddest part is that the simple, non-manipulative soul in Pancham would have been the first to run down this outright injustice perpetrated on his colleagues and peers by his so-called loyalists who have little time for his greatest creations and just love a few dozen of his tango-worthy songs.

For them, RD may be just an icon, a term to be whispered in awe even if unaware of what he actually means, but to his genuine lovers, Pancham will always remain the innovator who showed that different could be great too.

The Rare Rahul

  1. Aasmaan se ek sitara – R.D. Burman / Raahi Badal Gaye
  2. Aayo kahaan se Ghanashyam – Manna Dey / Buddha Mil Gaya
  3. Ab ke saawan mein jee dare – Kishore Kumar & Lata Mangeshkar / Jaise Ko Taisa
  4. Aise na mujhe tum dekho – Kishore Kumar / Darling Darling
  5. Chekhush nazarein – Mohd. Rafi / Pyar Ka Mausam
  6. Chori chori solah singaar – Asha Bhosle / Manoranjan
  7. Jis gali mein tera ghar – Mukesh / Kati Patang
  8. Paar lagaa do mere – Lata Mangeshkar / Chandan Ka Palna
  9. Pyar hai ek nishaan qadmon ka – Mohammed Rafi / Mukti
  10. Sajti hai yoon hi mehfil – Asha Bhosle / Kudrat


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