D Burman: A Continuing Nostalgia
by Anirudha Bhattacharjee
In the business of music, the ultimate merit in the eyes of peers is success. Everything else is secondary, if at all, relevant. Paradoxically, if Rahul Dev Burman, the best loved music composer of Bollywood ever inspires universal awe, admiration and nostalgia, it has more to do with the longevity of his compositions rather than sheer success. It is also the rediscovery of musical essence of the vast repertoire of melodies that did not do well during their times, mostly due to bad promotion.
Is there a key to the secret of RD's success? There are some obvious, facile answers. Like, he cared a lot for the situation, that he poured every ounce of his inspiration and creative energy into planning the movement of the song, that he knew how to best use the voices of Kishore and Asha, that he knew when exactly he needed the little extra from Lata or Manna Dey. But there was something more. RD could feel the need of the era. The early seventies was troubled times. Hippie Cult, Flower Power, Naxalite, Leftist, etc. were words that were no longer taboo. The common denominator was that the term 'youth' was growing in importance. RD, himself a rebel, understood the pulse of the youth. And that was his most coveted secret in the string of success he had in that period. As more and more films were being focussed on the youth, RD used this opportunity to compose with the young listener in mind. It was with this force that RD brought to our film music a new look, a new vitality, as a composer who understood Western harmony, Indian melody, recording technology and unexpressed sentiments of the youth. And in the process harped upon the basics of any creative pursuit: innovation. His thorough knowledge of both Indian classical music and Western chord system also came in handy in composing songs that were a mix of multiple ragas and chords. For example, Kuch to log kahenge from the film Amar Prem, uses the ragas Khamaj and Kalavati, while the progression is definitely chord based. Innovation was not restricted to composing the songs only. They extended to use of new instruments, recording technology, beat forms, composing without using the tabla, creation of special instruments to convey a specific effect in mind, capture natural sounds, and a lot many more. Who can forget the memorable banshee wails created specially by an instrument developed by RD for Gabbar's signature tune in Sholay?
Is there a key to RD's longevity? If one considers the fact that RD could compose an exceedingly soulful number like Aja piya tohe pyar doon (Lata in Baharon ke Sapne) where the entire rhythm has been maintained on an electric guitar and not use the tabla at all, way back in 1966, yes. As a composer, he was, in the opinion of many, light years ahead of his peers. Rahul Dev Burman's foremost desire when writing music was to express himself in a simple and unadulterated way. He regularly consulted his panel of assistants and musicians for genesis of ideas that could later be translated into complete songs. He believed in the concept of jamming, a term of common usage in Western music, and many of the tune and rhythm forms were the result of his jamming sessions. But in carving out the final output, he kept his own counsel and ultimately, like his father Sachin Dev, followed his own hunches and judgements.
Like any successful personality, he too plagiarised, but kept his unique stamp of authority over the number. Today, most of the originals may have been wiped off from memory, but the inspired numbers remain. His inspiration was not the commonly understood syndrome, 'copying the tune'. It extended to incorporation of different forms of tunes and rhythm patterns into his music. This stemmed mainly from his deep knowledge of jazz and Broadway/Off-Broadway based musicals. For example, he was the only Bombay composer to use the song as the medium of conversation, the basic technique of Hollywood musicals, for instance, in the song Suno, kaho (Aap Ki Kasam). Here, lyrics needn't be verbose, only basic conversation would be needed to be conveyed in a vibrant and colourful manner. This also reflected the changing attitude of the youth who had lesser time for churning out poetry in praise of a mole on their beloved's ankle. As a supplement to his preference for clarity, Pancham religiously avoided the kind of heavy orchestra, which often used to determine the clout of the composer. When a whole lot of upcoming composers were keen to emulate the number of musicians used by Naushad in Aan or Shankar Jaikishan in so many Raj Kapoor films, RD struck to the staid, modest rule laid by his father who insisted that the number of instruments should never outweigh the singers voice. His brand of listeners, RD knew, loved not only to hum his songs, but also considered them as a way of life. His intention was not to augment the turbulence affecting the listeners. Even his loudest and fastest songs had orchestration that was uncluttered and gave the numbers an unhurried feel.
For all the glory he had earned, RD was an introvert when it came to self-publicity. This resulted in his losing out on many prestigious ventures. Directors who dropped him without any tangible reason included greats like Ramesh Sippy and Shekhar Kapoor. Subhash Ghai had once assured him that they would work together. In reality, he never did. Yash Copra dropped him even after the grand success of Deewar. Manmohan Desai, having used RD for Aa Gale Lag Jaa, his best musical by a mile, never said a word in RD's favour in the future. But these were not isolated incidents. RD was in reality an inarticulate dipsomaniac whose world revolved around his music and his close circuit of friends. Even when he got cheated, he had no real clout in the Bombay film circle to voice his opinion, let alone bloat it.
His last years were rooted in disappointments that were directed at various levels, mainly at the way the music industry promoted non-talents for reasons other than music. Like every superstar, RD needed to be constantly reminded of his greatness, the lack of which forced him into a self-appointed seclusion. Sachin Bhowmick, his chum and confidante, summed it up as, "It was loneliness which killed him. Loneliness which is supposed to be the critical foe of heart patients."
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