Considered a visionary legend and an icon by youngsters, Rahul Dev Burman, or R.D. Burman or Pancham, as he was more commonly known, would have entered his 75th year if alive today.
It is another matter, of course, that most of those who repeat his name like some magic mantra do not know much about his music than some thirty or forty rhythmic songs that are dance-friendly tracks or remix fodder. Mention rarer brilliant scores like Chandan Ka Palna or songs like ‘Koi Aur Duniya Mein Tumsa Haseen Hai‘ (Pyar Ki Kahani) and they would be fogged, if not unimpressed!
Ask what the initials R.D. stands for and they would not know the answer. And what was the relevance of Pancham? How many know that the late legendary thespian Ashok Kumar, who had introduced R.D.’s father Sachin Dev (S.D.) Burman in films and was like family, had given him that pet name because of his mastery over the fifth note ‘pa‘ (or Pancham Sur). Simple explanation, whoever this ‘Ashok Kumar’ was!!!
And what was the man like behind the musician who is considered synonymous with youth to the extent that he even died young? Well, Pancham was – like his music again – an eclectic but very human mix.
I met him only once – in his last days when he was down (but not out, emphatically!) and no one wanted even interviews of him. A 15-day delay because of an indifferent secretary working for him was thankfully overcome when I tried his home number (mobiles were not around then) and the maestro himself picked up the receiver.
Profusely apologetic about what had been happening (he did not even know me) he humbly told me that I could decide when we could meet! And who would not grab such a chance? In the next hour, I was parked at his drawing room. We talked music for almost two hours. The topical interview part (of his being the eldest of the second generation composers, that is, sons of composers who were also in the field) was over in less than thirty minutes when he compared himself with his late father, usually to his own disadvantage!
Humble, warm and seemingly laidback otherwise, he was electric when it came to matters musical, and charged about a film that he had just signed for the only filmmaker then who seemed to want him and him alone – Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Pancham told me that he was changing his team – to Kumar Sanu, Kavita Krishnamurthi Subramaniam and lyricist Javed Akhtar for a period film called 1942 – A Love Story. â€œI will make a comeback,â€ he smiled gently. Why them in particular? I enquired.
â€œI do not want anyone to say that I have ridden piggyback on people with whom I have had famous associations in the past,â€ he replied, again with that gentle smile. â€œAmit Kumar is like a younger brother. But this time I want someone else,â€ explained the Kishore Kumar addict about choosing Kumar Sanu.
The hits he had delivered with Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle were legion – the latter even being his wife, but Kavita was someone he admired and had used in several songs, but without any huge chartbusters.
The implications about the lyricist were also clear – Pancham had an envious track-record with Anand Bakshi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Gulshan Bawra and Gulzar. Though Saagar had a hit soundtrack, and he had worked with Javed in some other films too, he was the obvious name with whom Pancham was familiar but had not formed a powerful team. Javed also had the caliber needed for the songs of this story.
As we chatted, the picture of an unworldly genius began to take shape as surely as something being painted in definite hues on a canvas.
A sentimental person, Pancham even blamed himself for his erratic relationship with Asha Bhosle, confessing that his weakness for smoking and alcohol had angered her a lot. And he spoke about how his father, Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmikant-Pyarelal would meet up â€œat least once a weekâ€ in that same room, party, and do music together!
â€œWe would help each other in the songs that were being made,â€ he said. â€œAnd no one knows or will ever know which of our hit songs had been actually composed – in the receiving composers’ style! – by someone else among us! We were competitors at work, but so close as friends!â€ There was a pause before he hinted, â€œIn those lovely days, Shankar-Jaikishan were jealous of us, but that did not matter!â€ That was the closest R.D. must have got to bitchiness!
Contrary to popular perception, he had a good head for business, but stopped short at manipulations. Playback singer Abhijeet later revealed that when he was struggling, the composer had asked him what he would charge for singing on his shows, and then paid him twice the amount the singer had hesitantly quoted!â€
When we met, the staunch R.D. loyalist Shakti Samanta had just signed Bappi Lahiri for the film Geetanjali. But R.D.Burman dismissed the ‘ditch’ with a wave of his hand. â€œShakti-da is family!â€ he said gently. â€œI even attend his sittings and recordings whenever others do his films. I like the songs Bappi has recorded!â€
And yet Pancham did lack the grit and toughness of his father, S.D.Burman, who was a ‘fighter’ to the end. Kishore’s death demoralized him and he truly missed the singer who dominated his soundtracks. No one – not Suresh Wadkar, not Shailendra Singh, S.P. Balasubramaniam or the Rafi clones Shabbir Kumar and Mohammed Aziz and not even Amit Kumar could quite take Kishore’s place in his world of creations.
Yet another weakness in Pancham was the cultivation of acolytes, including assistants and staff, which led to professional blunders. Fed up of the same errant secretary, producers in his lean days moved to other composers, placing calls to them ironically from Pancham’s residence (and with the consent of his housekeeper!) because neither the composer nor the secretary were present when they arrived by appointment!
Pancham would frequently leave the execution of song recordings to uncongenial assistants, something no enduring composer ever did. He was sometimes prone to a quick temper and abusive language, and for someone who was so innovative and experimental, had a very rigid mindset in certain matters – like rejecting spontaneous improvisations by singers, his overdependence on just Kishore, Lata and Asha and a few lyricists, and his conviction (as expressed through a warning to friend Laxmikant) that certain genres of films like mythological and devotionals should be avoided by those wanting to make the top-grade.
But his wry, quirky humour surfaced on apt occasions too. When L-P won the Best Music award for Karz, he good-humouredly told Pyarelal, â€œSaale suaron, yeh award bhi le gaye! Modern music to main deta hoon! (You pigs! You took this award too when I am the one who composes modern music!)
On the plus side, music for Pancham was a round-the-clock obsession. His first marriage to childhood sweetheart Jyoti ended bitterly because she was given second preference to music. R.D.Burman composed when driving in the middle of the night, walking on the beach, in the middle of the shower or just while standing by the window.
His songs reflected his voluminous listening and absorption of music from all over the world. Said Majrooh once, â€œPancham would listen to and also absorb every kind of music, and then come up with an original melody that integrated those elements!â€ And so his songs, even the fusion or Western numbers, remained as traditional and Indian at the core as, say, Naushad’s or Madan Mohan’s melodies.
Perhaps that remains the one vital difference between him and the current bratpack that emulates him or bandies his name without really understanding the true genius of Pancham.