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Celeb Corner

RD Burman: Misunderstood in Life, Celebrated in Death

On RD Burman's birth anniversary today, June 27, we look at the life story of the genius composer
Asha Bhosle and RD Burman made some wonderful music together

If you are active on social media, love Bollywood music and do not mind indulging in a bit of nostalgia every now and then, there is one Facebook page we recommend you follow – Pancham Music. As the name suggests, it’s a page solely dedicated to the evergreen songs of RD Burman, the late genius music composer who celebrates his birth anniversary today. Every post on this page, describes the nuances of an RD number and each time you read it and listen to the song, not only are you left awestruck by the sheer melody, you can’t help but applaud the technique and clever use of instruments and gizmos. This you’d know, even if you are not well-versed with the notes and chords that make up a song or are not musically knowledgeable.

RD Burman is India’s greatest composer

  • Not many people know that many of his father SD Burman’s compositions are actually RD Burman’s.
  • RD Burman’s filmography includes 330 films.
  • He did find fame as a music composer, but when he was alive, he was never considered the best.
  • RD tried to move with the times and compose peppy numbers like Bappi Lahiri, but couldn’t survive in the changing scenario.
  • He was quickly forgotten by the industry and he stopped getting work.
  • Vidhu Vinod Chopra gave RD Burman 1942: A love story when he was down and out.
  • The music became an all-time hit, but RD Burman passed away before that.
RD Burman is a musical genius from India
RD Burman, Prem Chopra and Asha Bhosle Image source

The beauty of RD Burman’s music is its simplicity

That’s the beauty of RD Burman’s music. You need not be an expert or a connoisseur to enjoy it. You just need to listen to his song to feel all is well with the world again. To be sure, there are equally great, even better musicians than him in Hindi cinema, but RD or Pancham da, as he was fondly called, has a place of his own. One of the biggest reasons for his popularity is arguably, the lack of recognition during this lifetime. We, in India, celebrate people only after their death. While alive, they are either taken for granted or purely ignored. RD Burman had to suffer both – being ignored and being taken for granted.

The man who gave Hindi music its grammar

Today, most composers and singers might vouch for his talent and rave about how far ahead of his time he was, but RD suffered on many fronts. It’s well known that he was always in the shadow of his great father SD Burman. In fact, legend goes that some of the popular tunes credited to his father were actually composed by RD and these include some ever-popular numbers like Sar jo tera chakraye (Pyaasa), Mere Sapno Ki Rani Kab Aayegi Tu (Aradhana) and Kora Kagaz Tha Yeh Mann Mera  (Aradhana) to name a few. But RD never said a word. Never said that it was he who composed the music actually.

RD Burman was forgotten when he was alive
RD Burman Image Source

RD Burman’s life story is about constant struggle

Did the lack of PR or the ability to blow his trumpet, do him in? After all, in Bollywood – be it in the 1950s or 2000s, networking and being in the right place at the right time is a necessary evil. When he turned independent music composer, he did find fame, but sadly was never considered the best. Or perhaps, others were thought to be better than him. It wouldn’t be a stretch of imagination to say that perhaps it was this quality that unknowingly, he shared with his soul mate Asha Bhosle. Asha, like RD, was supremely talented and had a huge number of hits yet when it came to the listings game, it was her sister Lata Mangeshkar who was ahead. Both RD and Asha, were non-conformists who had to fight their way through.

Pancham da’s sad downfall

RD’s downfall, Bollywood history says, came during the 80s. Melody had taken a backseat and mediocrity ruled supreme. Rajesh Khanna had given way to action hero Amitabh Bachchan in whose films, music played little role. Filmmakers like Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai, who were churning out hits after hits, turned to newer composers who could deliver. Then came the horrible phase where the Jeetendra-Sridevi-Jayaprada starrer South remakes ruled the marquee.

Bappi Lahiri with his gibberish sounding music and bizarre lyrics ruled the roost. Unable to sell his kind of music, RD took a back seat.

He tried though, and he had several successes through the 80s with films like Sagar, Sanam Teri Kasam etc proving to be musical hits, but those were few and far between. He tried changing his style, composing peppy numbers to keep up with the times, but in the end they became an also-ran. Of course, now those very numbers (Manzil Manzil, Rocky etc) are considered classics.  The death of Kishore Kumar in 1987, with whom he had forged a very good partnership, proved to be the last nail in the coffin.

An unforgiving industry forgot RD Burman

RD didn’t withdraw from the scene, but an unforgiving industry forgot him. He stopped getting work, some of his best songs came in the wrong films (remember Roz Roz Aankhon Tale? It was lost in a little known Sanjay Dutt film that flopped miserably) and in some cases, the films just didn’t release. This was the age when piracy was at its peak and video cassettes had all but destroyed the industry. The changing tastes and the pace simply didn’t suit him and he sunk further into the lonely spiral.

After he suffered a heart attack in 1988, times proved to be even tougher for him and Asha. He composed songs, even during this period, but they never released.

RD Burman and Asha Bhosle made a lovely couple
RD Burman and Asha Bhosle Image Source

Then came his last opportunity

One filmmaker stuck his neck out. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, for whom he had composed in Parinda in 1989. Vinod Chopra was making a period love story, 1942: A love Story, an unusual theme for the early 90s when contemporary dramas reigned, and he signed RD Burman.

Nobody was excited and a music label allegedly refused to support the project unless the composer was changed. But Chopra stood by RD.

Just a few weeks before the film’s release, RD passed away. A quiet death, in loneliness. But by then India was changing again. Satellite TV was just coming in and people were slowly getting exposed to different kinds of music including the songs of the past. Music shows and hit lists were catching the fancy of the audience. And guess what? RD’s songs – past and present – were ruling. The music of 1942 released and the canny promotions focused on the music and lyrics. The death of the composer added poignancy to the tunes and soon every single number – from Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh to Rimzhim Rimzhim – were topping the charts. The beautiful choreography and the hype surrounding the film, helped.

The genius finally got his due after death

It was as if suddenly, the world had woken up to the talent of the genius. Accolades followed. The awards followed. Rewards were announced in his name. There was renewed interest in Asha Bhosle too, and the singer kept her husband’s legacy alive remarkably well.  However, the man himself had died without seeing one tenth of the fame bestowed on him. Yet, his music lives on. Perhaps that’s the least we can do to ensure the great man’s memories never fade out – by listening, appreciating and passing on the joy that his songs gave us. And keeping in tune with current fads, increase the ‘likes’ on the page that celebrate RD Burman’s enduring music.

A museum is being planned in RD Burman’s memory in Tripura. The museum will have a rare collection of Pancham Da’s music, photographs, recordings and books. His personal belongings will also be put up at the museum.

This is how geniuses live on. If not in life. But in death.

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