Remembering RD

Pancham’s madness and his melodies live on in our hearts even 20 years after his death

Remembering RD
If one were to hurriedly prepare a random playlist of Hindi film songs on one’s laptop, to be played at a gathering of like-minded friends meeting over drinks in the evening, the selection inadvertently comes to be dominated by a name whose music was an integral part of one’s growing up years and still evokes the same euphoria as they did decades ago.

It has been exactly 20 years since RD Burman died — on January 4, 1994 — of a massive heart attack brought on by heavy drinking and smoking, aggravated by diabetes and a lonely life. He was 55 and had just emerged from a long hiatus of professional inactivity, brought on by a series of flops that led him to be shunned by filmmakers and music companies.

It was director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s faith and passion for his music that brought him out of his reluctant exile and led him to compose for 1942—A Love Story. The world suddenly woke up to the magic the man once spelled and electrified a nation obsessed with Hindi film songs.

It took us a long time to recognise the genius responsible for all our favourite childhood songs. We were too young to know that Dum Maro Dum, Panna Ki Tamanna Hai, Yeh Shaam Mastani, Aapke Kamre Mein, Nadiya Se Dariya, Saamne Yeh Koun Aaya, Vada Karo Chodoge … that endless list of songs that we broke into without understanding their lyrics at that time, were all put to music by Pancham, as RD was popularly known in the industry. Of course, we recognised the distinctive voice behind Duniya Mein, Mehbooba-Mehbooba or Dhanno Ki Aankhon Mein or the cult Bengali song Monay Poray Ruby Raye.

A casual glance at the songs composed by RD, as we came to call him, would reveal the range that he was capable of. When Gulzar chose Pandit Ravi Sankar over his favourite Pancham for a biopic on Meerabai, RD was hurt, stating that he was equally capable of composing for the film, which relied on classical music.

But despite his expertise in raga-based songs, he came to be mainly associated with catchy melodies, inspired by Latin American Bossa Nova and heavy rhythm sections. His musical arrangements, contributed immensely by a team of talented musicians that swore by him, helped him create a unique style that was far ahead of its time and immediately endeared him to listeners. His sound was radically different from his contemporaries and evoked an instant heady feeling. And despite its varying moods, was elegantly structured yet freewheeling, easy on the ears and immensely hummable.

This curious blend of western styles and cool melodies that sometimes relied on Indian folk too, still exerts a tremendous influence 20 years after RD’s death. Most remixes that play on television these days can be traced to him, proving the timelessness of his oeuvre. And there is hardly a contemporary music director who does not owe his idiom, in some manner or the other, to the man.

Whether one is driving from Bombay to Goa, or jiving to nostalgia at a party comprising people who were kids when RD died, there is no escape from the enchantment that his music weaved, and continues to weave, to the extent that an eigh-year-old girl, mesmerised by the music that belts out from the speakers, demands that it be played once again without knowing the man behind the creation! That is the magic of Pancham!

It’s rumoured that he had just Rs 18 left in his bank at the time of his death. It’s not surprising for a man whose sole purpose in life was to live for music, who was too ‘classy’ to stoop to ask for work and worry about money. His working style was radically different from the brash young music directors that had begun to come into the scene at a time when his output had begun to wane, not because he had ceased to surprise, but as one close to him put it succinctly — he was spinning on his own axis, while the world was spinning on its own.

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