When Melody Was Queen – As Music Changed Character

The Magic of RD Burman

As you grow older and the world changes, you slip into periods of nostalgia now and then, looking back to the road you have traveled. It is in those moments that you remember music that you loved, food that you enjoyed and some of life’s great reads, just to name a few. For me, music has always been an integral part of my life so far and Hindi film music has been at the fore, starting right from my high school days.

Last evening, we attended a lovely program by a Bombay based troupe called Niche entertainment working with the Dhristi foundation and titled ‘Gata Rahe Mera Dil’. It was a revelation, for it was so beautifully crafted and conducted, with awesome (a word I do not use normally) singers and a brilliant orchestra to boot. The evening was filled with some 4 hours of SD Burman’s songs and the team on stage took us to another decade, a period when melody was Queen. Milind Oak’s production with classy singers and a scintillating orchestra including ace keyboardist Darshana Jog, made it truly memorable. And that got me to continue on with my study on Bombay filmdom’s music, this being the third installment after two articles covering its early years and the making of a song.

The late 60’s were the days when the music of SD Burman was at its peak, Hemant Kumar had just slipped away into retirement, Salil Chowdhary shone in flashes now and then, drifting into prominence at distant Kerala, while Lakshmikant Pyarelal and Kalyanji Anandji came up with great stuff here and there. Peeking through their midst was a young RD Burman, nicknamed Pancham. There are interesting asides about how his cry as a child was always in the Pa or 5th note and I would assume that it is all hyperbole from his khaas fans, nevertheless Pancham was the name Rahul was stuck with, though he was called Tublu at home.

Courtesy Indian Express
RDB started his own compositions during his late teens after obtaining a firm footing assisting his illustrious father, accompanied by his father’s team of brilliant musicians. It should have been a relatively seamless entry, but it was not. His ideas, his methods and his music were at most times different, though at times, some of his compositions made you wonder if the score was really his or if it was inspired by his father’s style. Most of all he proved to be a changer of the industry’s style which had become set between the 50’s and the 70’s, heavily influenced by a folk and classical base. It was not that RD did not have a classical base, in fact he was reasonably well trained in the tabla by Brajen Biswas, the sarod by Ustad Ali Akbar and Aashish Khan and was a great harmonica player while at the same time assisting his well-entrenched father with traditional music composition and arrangement for decades. 

A couple of his earliest compositions which you will all readily recognize and stand apart, found their way into his father’s films one being Sar jo tera chakkraye filmed on the inimitable Johnny Walker in Pyaasa. Even though his formal entry with the baton was in Chhote nawab, he left only a few hits in the 60’s. The 70’s however belonged to Panchamda and nobody else. Every film of his was a hit, every song still remains on our lips. Such was his grip on the youth of that era. Kati Patang, Caravan, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, Amar Prem, Jawani Diwani, Parichay, Yadoon ki Baraat, Heera panna, Anamika, Namak haram, Khel Khel mein, Aandhi, Khushboo, Sholay, Balika Badhu, Mehbooba, Hum kisise kum nahin, Ghar, Kinara, Shalimar, Golmal….the list simply goes on and on, signifying a production rate of hits which can simply not be rivaled by anybody. Let’s now figure out what made him tick.

I was in college those days and listening to almost all of it either on the Vividbharati Aap ki farmaish or Radio Ceylon with Amin Sayani’s Binaca Geetmala. In those days music was released on LP and EP records and we would somehow scrounge money to buy and collect some of these records, a few of which I still have in my collection. After a while they got scratched and irritated you no end, till the Cassette player and CD player appeared to make life a bit easier.

Interestingly, RD’s first film Chotte Nawab, starring Mehmood (where his son Lucky Ali played a toddler) was rejected by his father SDB and Mehmood who was good friends with RD, chose him. The songs barring one were not noticed by the public, though if you listen to them today, you wonder why! RD was somewhat upset and went into his shell and back to assisting his dad, till Bhoot Bangla came by. There was another movie from Guru Dutt’s stables which was meant to launch his talents, named Raaz which unfortunately got canned after Dutt became morose with Kaagaz ke phool’s failure. He was 21 then and SD was not happy that Guru had chosen his son to direct music, thinking that he was too raw then. A song from that movie was his very first official composition with Lata Mangeshkar, ‘Ghar aaja ghir aye’, a lovely song which many pundits grumbled seemed to be a gift from his father. Around that period, SDB had a heart attack and slowed down.  If you recall the famous harmonic interludes in Hai apna dil to awara and the super famous Dosti songs, it would be interesting to note that they were done by RDB.

People wonder where a person who had this amount of solid classical music exposure found an avenue to imbibe the western touch. Well, that came from the hip Calcutta music scene actually where RD perused all the new pop and jazz records and formed a troupe called Melody Chimes. Western classical never interested him though and after moving to Bombay (he was apparently forced to move by his dad who felt he was drifting into bad company at Cal), the collection of Kersi Lord - a famous arranger, accordion player and son of Kawas Lord, was his mainstay (Kersi was the person who introduced the synthesizer and glockenspiel (a metal xylophone) to Indian film music).

No music director becomes great without trusted aides who are brilliant in their own right. RD made some great friends from his father’s troupe and three of them who stayed with RD for a long time were Manohari Singh on the sax (or any tube instrument), Maruti Rao the rhythm king and Basu Charkraborthi a cello and strings maestro. But there were many more in his creative team, like Bhupinder Singh, Ramesh Iyer, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Louis banks, Hari Prasad Chaurasya,  just to name a few.

After a hiatus of 4 years in the 60’s, things were changing in Bombay, Guru Dutt was no more and RDB was depressed what with people muttering that he was being gifted tunes by his dad, but ge continued on gamely. Remember Kishore’s ‘Jaago Sonewale’? That was from Bhoot Bangla and in it there was also Aao Twist Karen, a song you would never expect from the great Mannadey. That movie also bombed accolades came when the songs of Teesra kaun were a hit and in this movie he met his to be partner in life Asha Bhonsle, to form a lovely singing directorial combination. Teesri mazil followed, a hit (it took some effort to make Shammi Kapoor a super star then to accept RDB as his MD!) with an elevated brass section departing from tradition and using an electric organ for the first time. The Nasir Hussain - RDB combo was to continue for a long time after that super hit.

In fact it was about then that his father accepted that he should strike out on his own and be different. It was going to be a huge challenge, with SD churning out hits after hits under the Navketan banner, with Guide, Jewel Thief, Bombay Ka babu and Tere ghar ke samne. An amusing incident shows how disruptive RD could be, during the composition phase of one film, SD insisted that RD be kept away from the room, lest he westernize the song. RDB, with Asha in tow, in his next attempt introduced the Bossa Nova style in Pati Patni. Try listening to Maar Dalega, it is mesmerizing. It was Jaikishan of the Shankar Jaikishan duo who first stated that RD was the best among the upcoming MD’s and he went on to state that RD’s mixing of sounds would set a trend which will remain for a long time to come and even force others to make changes. The change agent was finally arrived, in Bombay’s music scene.

I still remember Regal in Colaba, even in our times, it was a nice theater to watch a film. It was here that RD met a fan named Rita Patel for a movie, as part of a bet Rita had with her friends. Rita slunk away after getting RDB into the theater, but RD was intrigued enough to chase her down later and make an acquaintance which blossomed into a whirlwind romance. They married in secret and a second time with the parent’s blessings. As was bound to happen, the wanton hours of life in the film-world, the fact that RD was strictly a Bong non veg and Rita was a chaste Gujju veg etc. were reasons for a drift in the union, some years later.

Padosan followed, a classic in many respects, where Kishore and RD simply rocked it. SD in the meanwhile came up with the block buster Aradhana and slowly the wheels had turned around with murmurs going around that Aradhana’s music showed bits of RD’s style and less of SD’s. Perhaps that was because he was continuing to help his ailing father arrange music.

The 70’s arrived and most of the stalwarts had faded away with SD and Madan Mohan continuing on. RD scored big with Kati Patang and new instruments like the Roland echo machine and the grand piano were being used to good effect. Mukesh got one lovely song in, since Kishore was traveling abroad and as Rajesh Khanna would not favor Talat Mahmood. Many a music form crept into those Kati Patang compositions according to experts, RD had samba, paso doble, calypso and jazz to fuse with Indian classical to create magic. But by this time marital discord had reached a pitch in their personal life and RD moved away to live at Hotel Creasers palace. Eventually RD and Rita Patel decided get divorced and Asha entered his life.

Purists like Naushad complained that RD was forcing listeners towards western music but then RD proved that that was not the case when Amar Prem, another classic hit the scene with stupendous songs like Raina beeti jaye, Yeh kya hua, Kuch to log and of course Chingari koi bhadke. It became clear that even though RD used western touches now and then, he was adept at basing his songs in traditional classical fashion. Hare Rama Hare Krishna followed, Dev Anand and RD met a singing Usha Utup, but a duet conceived to be between her and Lata ended up as the super hit title song, an Asha solo ( Asha mentions - "Sachin Dev Burman didn't want to compose for this film because it dealt with drugs and hippies, so Pancham took over). The song was a raging hit and Usha and RD continued to remain friends, sharing their common love for western music and Calcutta. With this film, the Navketan banner welcomed one more Burman in their logo, the younger RDB. Bhupinder mentions that a new style of guitaring, different from the older Goan style soon evolved where bending the notes and adding vibrato was prevalent.

The early 70’s with RDB rocked on and many a western tune or style which inspired RD, could be seen in his compositions. His tunes for Rajesh Khanna a.k.a. kaka had the pulse of Bombay racing, but it was not to last long for the mega star Rajesh was soon to start his downward spiral even though RD’s scores remained on the top of the charts with him working virtually round the clock. Yadon ki Baraat and its songs, especially Chura Liya still remain in our minds. Namak Haram from 1973 had truly inspiring songs like ‘main shayar badnam’. Aap ki kasam was another of the greats at that time, so also Ajnabee, Parichay (where Bhupinder came out with his amazing voice) and of course, Khel Khel Mein where he even sang with Asha. Khushboo continued in the same vein, and then there was the spellbinder Aandhi where people asked ‘did RD really do the music for this film?’ Tere bina zindagi remains one of the most popular Hindi songs to date. There are so many hits from his 70’s years which you can talk about on and on, covering them can fill up a book!

Booth who studied those compositions in depth states that the arrangements in Burman’s songs were more poly-rhythmic, more varied, and more carefully structured, while his construction of musical time often more aggressive and more global. Lord hit the vein when he argued that it was Burman’s successful integration of a western rhythmic feel within an Indian musical framework that distinguished his music from that of his predecessors and competitors and that made his film songs so popular among younger Indians, “the college crowd” of the late 1960s and 1970s. Booth explains that Burman, through his use of musical/rhythmic gesture and his remarkably linear music, established a clear break with previous musical practice in the Indian film songs and established the basis for a more successful engagement with the melodies, rhythms, and styles of Western pop. In doing so, he also changed the possibilities for choreographers and dancers. Ultimately, Burman’s rhythmic practice was a major factor in the revolution in film song sound and choreography that resulted from his music.

I recall Sholay’s music and that was a revelation, what with it defining Stereo and multi-channel recordings from a listeners point of view not only with respect to songs but also the background scores. That was the first film which released records that had dialog and background music to boast of. And there was Mehbooba Mehbooba, what a song that was! Sadly, as all that was going on, the legend SD Burman passed away. Incidentally RD was the first to employ a recording assistant, using technology and the first of the lot was Deepan Chatterjee working in his recording room boasting the latest in recording technology. RD was much loved, not bothered about status, working closely with his entire team, and his rhythm section was renowned, sometimes borrowed even by his competitor LP.

And with that came a slack in RDB’s work schedule, and one could see he was becoming more selective and perhaps a bit withdrawn, nevertheless I can think of one movie which had a number of great songs, that being Mehbooba with ‘mere naina’ leading them. Navketan was churning out lesser hits with an ageing Dev Anand. Hum Kisise kum Nahin then burst into the scene with a whole lot of hit numbers again making people recall the genius of RD. After that came Shalimar with good songs, especially Usha Utup’s One two cha cha cha and Kishore’s Hum Bewafa.

The emergency came along and got Kishore Kumar into some amount of trouble, but the song that got me most interested and remains one of my all-time favorites is the RD composed Amit Kumar hit Bade Acche lagte hain. A recent version by Shreya Ghoshal only added to its everlasting allure. What a song that is! Ghar followed with memorable songs, the movie itself a sordid tale of rape and it’s after effects. Love Story and Satte pe satta had some rollicking numbers, with Masoom’s hits to follow, one or two in Dost and Parinda, but the magic of RD was starting to wane with only Shaan and Sanam teri kasam to show up in the hit parade. On a domestic front, Asha and RD formalized their relationship and then disco arrived with the lovely Nazia and Biddu, Bhappi Lahiri and Mithun in tow, heralding a new style of music to the hipsters of Bombay.

In general the quality of music declined during the mid and late 80’s while cost cutting came to the fore. RD suffered a heart attack in 1985 and his team started to break up with Bhupinder and Basu Chakravarthy stepping away into their worlds. As the ship started to leak, Vasudeo (longtime arranger) had a heart attack and after his nephew Bablu was hired by RD, deserted RD. Maruti Rao (table) and Homi Mullan (strings) also moved on with Sunil Kaushik and Uttam Singh doing much of the strings to follow. The RD sound and the composers magic were quickly forgotten.

The film fraternity started labeling him ‘unlucky’ after a string of flops and RD’s greatest asset, Kishore Kumar, the legend passed away. It appears he lost interest after that. His heart ailment took to the worse necessitating a bypass surgery and this was a period when a certain amount of coldness was noticed by some, in his relationship with Asha Bhosle. RD got back to work after surgery and did a few insipid Hindi, Tamil and Telugu movies in the 90’s, some with SPB and KS Chitra on the vocals. He was largely forgotten except for the Gen X and the baby boomer generation who remembered his 70’s and 80’s compositions, people like me. Perhaps one could summarize that his output declined markedly in those years as a result of his own declining health, his declining reputation, and the gradual disintegration of the team that had worked with him so happily through the early 1980s.

And then he simply burst back into the scene again, one last time, as we would see, with simply mind blowing music in his swan song film, 1942 a love story. He decided to put his mind and soul into it as Manohari Singh came back to join him as the arranger. RD was content, he had earlier mentioned to his doctor – Ab heart theek hain, music bhi. Vidhu Vinod Chopra for whom he had done Parinda a few years back, pushed him hard and RD finally composed with his heart leading the way, just the way it was, when melody was king….

The music of 1942 a love story was stupendous hit and stuck to basics, no electronics, and mainly Indian instruments focusing on the vocals. As Booth put it succinctly - For a composer who had found so much of his inspiration in Western music, the 1942 – ALS soundtrack was distinctively and unequivocally Indian. Burman had always been concerned with sonic clarity; he was known for his sophisticated approach to rhythm and for arrangements that did not obscure the song’s lyrics. The romantic flavor, minimal and carefully managed orchestration, and unique formal and other musical features of these immensely popular songs (in 1942 ALS) show him breaking a path that popular young composers like A.R. Rahman and Uttam Singh would later pursue. This final soundtrack, coming in the midst of a new wave of melody-oriented, romantic soundtracks; significant changes in recording technology; a new generation of film playback singers; and the return of middle and upper-class audiences to the theaters, reflects on both the past and future of Hindi film song.
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I for one was happy that RD had finally silenced his critics. The movie won him a third Filmfare Award posthumously. His next film would have been Priyadarshan’s Thenmavin Kombathu in Malayalam and he had just signed up for it. But it was not to be, for a couple of weeks later he was no more. Lata Mangeshkar said in an Indian express interview ‘it was twice that my recording for Pancham for ‘1942: A Love Story’ got postponed. Finally, I was in Delhi when I heard he passed away. I recorded the song ‘Kuch na kaho’ posthumously for Pancham with a heavy heart’. But he left behind precious memories for all of us with his timeless scores, ironically he left behind just Rs 5 in his bank locker, or so it seems.

Booth believes that Burman’s adoption of Hollywood scoring techniques and linear notions of rhythm and time (in contrast to the cyclical nature of Hindustani’s tala) made his films more viable and current with a younger and more globally oriented generation. Ashok Ranade however believes that all sounds were basic raw material for RD’s music, be it a human sigh, a rattle, an electronic noise or even bits from somebody else’s musical work. His primary objective was to make an impact and to achieve it he used non-traditional means, like multi layered approaches, double voice recording and even atonal and unmusical vocals! Ranade concludes that RD work was perhaps secondary melodic imagination, based on a basic statement.

As you will all agree, there will be no end to the discussion of who is good, better or best. There are people who will say Chembai or Bhimsen Joshi defined music in their purest form and there will be others who say Chembai sounded absolutely terrible, but well, those forms gave way to popular music and popular music adapts itself to newer and newer boundaries as time goes by, becoming global as the Indian becomes more global and situated well beyond the Indian subcontinent. Melody came in between classical and rap…and this melody was then further shaped by reggae, blues, jazz, rock, pop and what not…we will surely see more, we will hear more and we will enjoy, while nostalgically musing about forms long gone, but fortunately preserved these days as digital files… In the end music is mostly nostalgic and the music business, a business of nostalgia…

I guess it is now time to listen to that classic song with nutty orchestration which only RD can accomplish, Khullam Khulla from khel khel mein, that still reminds me of the day we cycled from the SSB center to a theater in Jabalpur late in the night, sans headlights to see the film with Rishi Kapoor and the gorgeous Neetu Singh…..

RD Burman The man, the music – Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal
Behind the curtain – Gregory D Booth
Hindi Film Song – Ashok Da. Ranade
1942 – A Love Story R.D. Burman’s Posthumous “Comeback” at the End of Old Bollywood - Gregory D. Booth from the book Music in Contemporary Indian Film: Memory, Voice, Identity - Jayson Beaster-Jones, ‎Natalie Sarrazin
R.D. Burman and Rhythm: “Making the Youth of This Nation to Dance” - Gregory D Booth
The “Foreign” Influence in Discourse and Practice in the Music of R. D. Burman - Gregory D Booth

Once again I want to repeat - One of the finest books on Bollywood music out there is Gregory Booth’s ‘Behind the Curtain’ and my humble thanks to him for taking me through those hallowed corridors with his fine writing. To that book, I have to add three more of his papers, referred above for they provide even more depth to the character and work of RD Burman.

You may have wondered a bit about mentions of linear rhythm. Rhythm is the element of ‘time’ in music compositions.  Actually there are two types usually employed i.e. cyclical rhythms, which involve simple intervals of repetition, and alternating (or linear) rhythms. Take for example a rattling train in the passenger’s perception. That is a never ending standard linear rhythm, and then there are more complex versions as applied to music. Traditional Indian classical music talas (adi, roopaka..) are always cyclic and form the metrical structure that repeats, in a cyclical harmony, from the start to end of any particular song or dance segment. To understand RD’s technique, I would suggest that the reader peruse Booth’s fine paper on the subject.

The one aspect RD was always accused of was plagiarism – Bhattacharjee and Vittal explain. “Right through his career, this was probably one question that Pancham had to defend himself against, in most of his interviews, and he often clarified that inspiration was part of the game in any field of art and that his rule was to use one line and recreate an entire song out of the same, something that most composers did”… Just listen to any two versions and you will figure this out yourself, never the whole, but only the start. And if you still want to take that discussion to more depth, read The “Foreign” Influence in Discourse and Practice in the Music of R. D. Burman” by G Booth.