Burman : Trendsetter
by Raju Bharatan
He was a jet-set trend-setter.
Naushad Ali, in his prime, was referred to as 'The Maestro with the Midas Touch'. I would likewise refer to Rahul Dev Burman as 'The Maestro with the Mod Touch'.
"RD Was by far the stand-out talent among the younger line of composers, at all times innovative like me, at all times experimenting like me,'' says Salil Chowdhury. "In fact, I would go step further and rank him alongside all the top composers of my generation, such was his range and variety.''
Salil is never one given to sentiment, not even when he is speaking of a composing prodigy who is no more. Salil, in fact, has no great opinion of Naushad. But he does rate RD highly. Salil's point is that Naushad was, at all times, predictable, RD was not.
To each his own view. But RD's early passing should teach us vintagers a permanent lesson: Never to be dismissive of young talent. The Naushad-S.D. Burman generation consistently ran down R.D. Burman. Today, when so many of RD's tunes live on in the mind and heart after his death, the generation is constrained to revise its view.
That is why I would not hesitate to pass instant value judgment on either Nadeem-Shravan or Anand-Milind. Copy they may, but was there any composer in his time who was accused of being more imitative than R.D. Burman? The point is, within the ambit of being imitative, you can be creative. You can bring your own stamp even to a tune whose base is borrowed. This RD consistently did. Much of his early work was considered inspired by foreign composers. Yet he stayed on to become an inspirational influence to the younger array of composers. So fresh-sounding was RD that you just could not believe he was on the scene for 33 years. RD, in his lifetime, could not even dream of the possibility of his death meriting an editorial in The Times of India. Even his illustrious father was not accorded this editorial distinction when SD discovered, on October 31, 1975, that somebody up there liked him even more than we mere mortals on earth did.
Dada Burman composed some of his best tunes for Bimal Roy's Devdas: Talat's Mitwa mitwa yeh kaise anbhuj aag re and Kis ko khabar thi kis ko yakeen tha, Lata's Ab aage teri marzi, O jaane wale ruk jaa koti dam, Jise tu kabul kar le, Geeta-Manna's Aan milo aan milo Shyam saanwre, Saajan ki ho gayi gori and, not the least, Mubarak Begam's Who no aayege palat ke and Rafi's Manzil ke chah main. When word spread that R.D. Burman was scoring the music for Gulzar's 'Devdas', the idea of his compositionally measuring up to his father was treated with withering contempt. But, today, can we be sure tht RD would not have done as good a job as SD on 'Devdas'? After all, RD had his roots in Ali Akbar.
Just think, would the Gulzar-RD teaming not rank as being as creative as any musical collaboration we have known in our films? Who but the Gulzar-R.D. Burman du could have got Lata-Kishore to articulate, as tellingly in 'Aandhi' as these two singers did, Tere bina zindagi se koyi shikwa to nahin, Is mod se jaate hain and Tum aa gaye ho noor aa gaya hai? Who but this team could have got Bhupinder to blend so sensitively with Lata in Beeti no beetayi raina ("Parichay"), Meethe bol bole bole paayaliya ("Kinara") and Naam gum jaayega chera yeh badal jayaega ("Kinara").
Lata's articulation of Meri awaaz hi pehchan hai gar yaad rahe has become the Gulzar-RD puchline by which her velvety vocals are treated by us now and forever. Much like Asha Bhonsle, in her profound grief, being left all to herself today in a Bharat Vyas-. Bulsara vein of jag ke liye, aaj rone do mujhe pal ek apne bhi liye.
The Gulzar-RD combine, on Hema Malini in 'Khushboo', offered us a spot comparison of the best that could be drawn out of Asha and Lata alike on the same heroine: Bechare dil kya kare sawwan jale bhadon jale, on the one hand, do naina mein ansoo bhare hain nindiya kaise samaye, on the other.
I have studiedly touched on the softer side of RD, which was best represented in his case by Gulzar, to bring home Pancham's true intrinsic worth as a composer. As the pace-setter, RD was the trend-setter in the 70s. If the 90s found him confused and uncertain about what to give, it was because RD made the cardinal mistake of going public, in the film glossies, about the fact that 23 of his films had flopped in a row.
You do not do this in films, where a 24th film could prove a superhit and wipe out the memory of all earlier failure. As it turned out, that 24th film was 'Sunny', the film in which RD showed his class afresh the way he got Asha and Suresh Wadkar to vocalise the tandem: Aur kya ahd-e-wafa hote hain. But the resurrection came too late. RD had irretrievably damaged his cause with that '23 flops' acknowledgment. Look at Naushad, to this day he carries on as though nothing has happened.
But RD, he was incredibly naive for one who had hit the high spots. For one who had been a wave-maker, RD just did not know how to blow his own trumpet, he needed Bhupinder to do that for him! RD strangely had no comprehension of his own talent, no sense of achievement. Even his father did not settle for the 'Chalti ka Naam Gaadi' attitude that RD did. This, when RD was no less adept at scoring in every idiom, ranging from Kishore-Manna-Mehmood's ek chatur naar kar ke singar ('Padosan') to Asha's Mere kuchh saaman tumhare paas pada hai ('Ijaazat').
Asha aptly pinpointed RD's contrasting class when she named Mera kuch saaman tumhare paas pada hai ('Ijaazat') and O mere sona re sona re sona re ('Teesri Manzil') among her ten best of all time. Likewise, Kishore Kumar had accorded RD a rare honour when be picked not one but wo of his tunes among his all-time ten best: Chingari koti bhade (from 'Amar prem') and Mere naina saawan bhadon (from 'Mehbooba'). No doubt, Kishore Kumar was to RD what Mohammed Rafi was to OP. Yet there was no cause for RD to have sat paralysed for as long as he did when Kishore passed away. It was a body-blow, of course. But never in this industry must you give the impression that it is a death-blow. RD did exactly that on the passing away of Kishore.
With reason, you might say. After all, who but Kishore could have rendered for RD with such meaning and feeling, O mere di ke chain ('Mere Jeevan Sathi'), Kehna hai kehna hai khena hai aaj tume yeh pehli baat ('Padosan'), O maanjhi re ('Khushboo'), Musafir hoon yaaron ('Parichay'), Yeh jo mohabbat hai ('Kati Patang'), Raat kali ek khwab main aayee ('Buddha Mil Gaya'), Diye jalte hain ('Namak Haram'), Zingadi ke safar mein ('Aap Ki Kasam'), Meri bhigi bhigi si ('Anamika') and Kuchh to log kahenge ('Amar Prem') to mention just a fistful of tunes that lend teeth to the argument that RD it was who, even more than SD, switched the aural-oral allegiance of a whole new generation from Rafi to Kishore.
RD had proved with 'Bhalika Badhu', in 1976 itself, that he had only to wok on son Amit Kumar to draw out of him the Kishore Kumar effect: Bade ache lagte hai, yeh dharti yeh nadiya hey raina aur tum. It would have needed very hard work on RD's part, no doubt, to get Amit going in Kishore's footsteps in the quicksands of filmdom. But he should have readied himself for this slog after having already scored with the same Amit Kumar in 'Love Story'. Yet Pancham just sat back, arguing Kishore was Kishore. This was true. But only upto a point in films, where a music director has to be something of a quick-change artist. I am not arguing against Kishore Kumar, only for Amit Kumar. RD's music had got so cast in the Kishore mould that, immediately, Pancham needed a prototype. And what better prototype than the son?
Of course, RD was unlucky that Kishore's passing was followed by the first signs of a sway, in the industry, away from Asha Bhonsle. None of the new singers were a patch on Asha. But a younger set of music directors wanted younger singers. The Bhappi Lahiri challenge had built up to a point where RD should more urgently have explored variety in the voices he employed, without really moving away from Asha Bhonsle. But here, too, RD was slow to react.
Once again I am not arguing against Asha Bhonsle, only for R.D. Burman and the spirit of youth he had represented when he made his big breakthrough with the same Asha through 'Jawani Diwani', 'Yadon Ki Baarat' and 'Khel Khel Main'. Asha, as the Mera naam hai shabnam - Piya tu ab too aa ja - Chura liya haim tume ne jo dil do - Sapna mera toot gaya girl had sex-symbolised the ethos of RD's music in the 70s. But the 80s was a new decade that called for new adjustments.
RD, at one point, had overtaken the formidable team of Laxmikant-Pyarelal. But he let himself be beaten back by vastly inferior talents in the 80s, while Laxmikant-Pyarelal fought back like tigers. In retrospect, it can therefore be said that RD faltered at the crucial moment, LD didn't. And this is an industry in which you are only as successful as your last film. A record of 23 flops took some living down. RD buckled under the pressure.
All this cannot alter the fact that RD set a trend with Asha as he did with Kishore. No other composer would have dared to jettison Rafi the way RD did -- even Dada Burman was hesitant in making a switch here. But RD showed the way and others followed suit, courtesy Rajesh Khanna. Amitabh Bachchan, to beat Rajesh Khanna at his own game, had to take on his voice. Kishore thus became established as the Voice of Youth and it was RD who had set the course for this. RD's hold on electronics, his insights into Western notation, gave him a rare edge. But, minus Kishore, RD found his keen edge blunted. There was a generation change due in our film music. RD failed to see this change coming in 1987 as he had one in 1971. The cross commercialism of the neo-film industry also undid him. When Bhappi Lahiri started quoting less at one point, RD should have stuck to his price. He caved in. And paid the price.
But the price never did matter much to RD. This way, he was like Dada Burman, who was happy working only in his set-ups. RD always was a bit of a loner, comfortable only in his own selection company. He was unsuited to the totally groupy style in which the industry began to function in the 80s. As Gulzar too began to lose commercial clout, there was less and less opportunity for RD to make a different kind of music, which he loved to do. He needed Gulzar badly to balance his hula-hula stuff. The 'Ghar' style of Gulzar option, by which RD could come up with something like Aaj kal paaon zamin par nahin padte mere (Lata) and Aap ke aankhon mein kuch mehke huye se raas hai (Lata-Kishore), was no longer available to RD in the late 80s.
RD's mod image as a youth composer also became a bar to his inevitable growth as a composer. When 'Shanarabharanam' was to be remade in Hindi, the point about who should compose for the film was referred to me. I suggested the name of R.D. Burman and then rang to ask Pancham whether he was game. "I would love to do the theme, be sure I'll surprise them with the purity of my classical score,'' RD said.
Yet his image was all wrong for the theme. There was no chance, I was told, of the distributors accepting the label, 'Music R.D. Burman', in a weighty remake of the scale of 'Shankarabharanam'. The remake finally went to Laxmikant-Pyarelal as 'Sur Sangam'. The K. Vishwanath film flopped in the face of a thematic enough score by LP. What kind of a score would RD have created? The same kind as he would have evoked for Gulzar's 'Devdas' vis-a-v9s S.D. Burman. But the RD image just did not classically jell.
It was this image that RD unsuccessfully fought in the later part of his career. As convener of the Sur-Singar Samsad Film Awards committee, i remember RD's Lata classic from 'Chandan Ka Palna', O Ganga maiya paar laga de, coming up for live consideration. But it was finally rejected, not on its own merit, but on the grounds that Sur-Singar's name would be in the mud if it presented a classical award to R.D. Burman.
In the end, therefore, RD discovered that he was acceptable neither as a light composer nor as a serious one. Result: he got confussed about what to give. And once this confusion enters a composer's mind, it is the end.
Yet the end, when it came, saw those who had come to scoff, remain to praise. RD had become part of our vintage mind-set without our being aware of it. We knew, in our heart of hearts, that he was as much a trend-setter as his father, if in a different style. But we had religiously refused to acknowledge his fibre and calibre. Those who the gods love, die young. And when they die after having influenced a whole generation in its musical thinking, we finally grudgingly accept that the jet-setter was like one other in films.
For a composer of the depth and dimension of Salil Chowdhury to rate R.D. Burman alongside the top composers of his era is, indeed, acclaim indeed. It needed uncommon talent for the son to emerge from 'The Jet' shadow of his father. Pancham came into Dada Burman's music room as early as 'Nujawan' (1951). And even at that early age had a keen enough musical ear to question SD's use of Rabindra-sangeet in the purely Goan setting of Kaise yeh jaagi agan ('Jaal').
Handpicked by Guru Dutt to score the music for his 'Raaz' at the age of 19, RD discovered that this cineaste was never firm on any tune he okayed. ''I don't know about other composers,'' Pancham told me, ''but I personally found Guru Dutt could never make up his mind about the final tune he wanted. You could never say he had finally okayed a piece of music and that, to my way of thinking, is not the sign of a direction who knows his mind. Raj Kapoor, by contrast, was totally different. He okayed the very first tune I played for 'Dharam Karam', the tune that acquired on him the grab of Ek din bik jaayega maati ke mol''.
Hear this 'Dharam Karam' tune carefully again, is it in any way inferior to any of the many straight-line tune Shanker composed for Raj Kapoor? Give credit to RD for the fact that he instinctively recognised what, precisely, Raj Kapoor wanted. And got it right the first time out. RD thus tuned as easily with Raj Kapoor as he had with Dev Anand. He vibed easily enough with Rafi when that singer was at the top. And then helped turn Kishore into a singing legend. If O.P. Nayyar peerlessly exploited the bass in Asha's voice, it was RD who discovered her true range to strum.
RD's spaciously ambient music room at Santa Cruz in Bombay, to who does it go? to Asha Bhonsle as his legally wedded wife? If so, what does Asha do with it? I know Asha Bhonsle has always secretly nursed this ambition of being a composer herself. Will Asha take up where RD left off? The spirit of RD, will it come back to us through the still resonant vocals of Asha Bhonsle? and what of younger singers under the baton of Asha Bhonsle? A baton what would have been handed on to Asha by her very own Pancham?
Come on Asha, there still is the Santa Cruz room at the top.