When the beat stopped....
by Ajitabh Menon

R.D. Burman's tragic demise

1994 had finally arrived. The new year had begun with a big bang. High hopes, high spirits and great expectations for happiness, peace and prosperity. There was no place left for sadness or gloom. And yet, it found its insiduous way into our hearts on that unfortunate winter morning.

January 4,1994,3.45am R.D.Burman, one of the greatest music directors of all times passed away after suffering two heart attacks, one after the other. Indian cinema had lost another genius.

I was rudely awakened by the news of his untimely demise and soon found myself making my way to his Santa Cruz residence in a daze. I reached his house in the early hours of the morning to find a deafening silence greeting me. The music room that was always reverberating with his melodies was now quiet. The only sounds one could hear were the broken sobs if his bereaved wife, singer Asha Bhonsle with her family rallying for support. Only his closest friends had arrived yet while they stood in the balcony speechless, I went to the airconditioned room where his body lay. I had never seen a body so much at peace.Yet, I felt a deep sense of loss to see the vivacious Pancham Kaku (uncle) I had known lying, bereft of any life in him. The king of rhythm was lying without a beat.

Friends who were seeking solace in each other were musicians Kesri Lord, Franco,Tony Vaz, Bhanu Gupta, singers Jolly Mukherjee, Bhupinder, Shailendra, Chhaya Ganguli And best pals Polly Gupta, Bubbles Behl and Bharat. Polly, one of his most loved ones cried helplessly. "I hate early calls," she said. "They are mostly bearers of bad tidings. When I was informed by Bharatbhai at 4a.m to come immediately as Panchamda was very ill, we started with a grave foreboding. But I still refused to think that it could be all over. When I entered his house, Sudam (one of his servants who was like a son to Pancham whose most loved ones were always friends and servants more than relatives) started weeping like a baby on my shoulder. The reality of the situation sank in. My Panchamda was gone. Never again can I tie a rakhi or do tikka on Bhaidooj to him."

The scene became more heart wrenching as one by one, all his close friends broke down. Ashaji refused to be taken to her husband's room. She wailed, "Main uss kamre mein nahin jaaoongi. Main usse mara hua nahin dekh sakti. Main usse zinda dekhna chahti hoon," Gulzarbhai hugged her and comforted her. Bubbles, Ashaji's daughter Varsha and son-in-law Hemant were constantly by her side. It was still quite earlyin the morning when Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan arrived. Jaya read the 'Gita' in front of the body so that his soul may rest in peace.

Soon thereafter, the apartment was filled by old associates, friends and admirers. The crowd began swelling outside the apartment building to get a glimpse of their favourite stars as they came to offer their condolences. From the music fraternity, there were music directors Laxmikant, Usha Khanna, Jatin-Lalit, Nadeem-Shravan, Annu Malik, lyricists Anand Bakshi, Gulshan Bawra, Majrooh Sultanpuri and singers Amit Kumar, Kavita Krishnamurty, Alka Yagnik, Anuradha Paudwal, Suresh Wadkar, Jolly Mukherjee, Sudesh Bhonsle, Sushma Shreshta, A.Hariharan and Nitin Mukesh. Panchamda's long time associate lyricist Gulshan Bawra spoke of Pancham as a "music director who was 20 years ahead of the rest. Aaj ke jo composers hain, woh to Pancham ka hi kha rahe hain. What Raj saab was to cinema, Pancham is to music. Today, I am a shattered man. My last friend has also gone. I hope that it is my turn next." According to lyricist Majrooh saab,"This is the end of an era in the music industry." Singer Amit Kumar was inconsolable, "He spoke to me last night on the phone,"he said, "He talked excitedly about a recording he made on January 12 for the film Gang. He optimistically said, 'Amit, 1994 will be our year.' And all of a sudden, he is no more. After my father's death, this is the worst blow I've ever felt. "Jolly, who in his formative years spent a lot of time at Panchamda's music sittings recalled, "Even as a child I idolised him. He was very encouraging. I had dubbed for the title song of the folm Shahenshah. Music directors Amar-Uttpal approached R.D. to sing it. But when he heard that I had dubbed for it, he turned it down. That was how great he was." Classical ghazal singer Dilraj Kaur still has Panchamda's voice recorded on her answering machine two days before his death. She remembers him as "a very simple and non-egoistic person. I was still a newcomer when he rang me up and said,'Mera naam Pancham hai. Mere liya gaaogi?' I jumped at the offer."

Another close friend, Bubbles, wife of late Ramesh Behl (Pancham kaku's producer from the Jawani Diwani days) said, "I knew Panchamda as a child. He was my uncle's friend and he visited my granny's place quite often. At that time, I used to call him 'uncle'. It was only after marriage that I started calling him Panchamda. He was as good a man as a music director. He was the best friend that one could ever wish for. He was always like an anchor for me and my family." Tina, his favourita niece cried,"He was very fond of me. I was his pet. I know him for for as long as I can remember. He was a man of simple joys and pleasures. He had a passion for four things-good food, hats, watches and if course, music. He knew how to make another person feel nice and important. Whenever he recorded a new song or album, he could always send me a master copy inscribed with a message to me. I will never part with him for my life. I had never thought that I would need momentoes from him." Her voice trailed off as she stared at his photograph sadly.

Among the actors and actresses who came for a last glimpse of the maestro were Rakhee, Rishi Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor, Rajeev Kapoor, Mazhar Khan, Jackie Shroff, Anupam Kher, Aamir Khan, Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Amrish Puri, Kalpana Iyer, Padmini Kolhapure, Poonam Dhillon, Neelam, Anil Kapoor, Nana Patekar, Deepti Naval, Sanjay Dutt and Leena Chandravarkar. Neelam described Panchamda as "the most loving, jovial and good hearted person I have ever met. I was very attached to him. I remember the fun we used to have during the music sittings for my first film Jawaani. I was just a kid then. He would jokingly chide Ashaji asking her to sound more like a little girl. I will always miss him." Kalpana Iyer wept bitterly. "There cannot be another Pancham," she said. "The last of the great has gone. I loved him like a daughter would love her father." Poonam said that she had always been an ardent admirer of R.D. "Never has there been such effective music. On New Year's eve this time, I was at the Oberoi's Towers and I saw that even today youngsters were swinging to 'Piya tu ab to aaja.' He was a composer for all times."

The last rites were being conducted. Raakhee made a brave attempt to fight back her tears while she bustled around the house helping out with the arrangements. She had lost one of her dearest friends, who was her neighbour as well as ex-husband Gulzar's closest friend. Raakhee perfumed his body with his favourite colognes Grey Flannel and Dunhill and brought the beautiful silk dhoti and kurta that she had bought for Pancham as a gift but which he never lived to see. It was decided that he would be taken on his last journey in those clothes.

Panchamda's mother, Mrs.Meera Burman was brought to his side. Mrs. Burman who is 82 years old, is suffering from severe brain damage and can move from one room to another with the aid of a nurse. She refused to believe that her son was no more. She persistently repeated in Bengali,"This is not my son.This is someone else's body."
Directors Shakti Samanta, Debesh Ghosh, Yash Chopra, Bimal Dutt, Mukul Dutt and Vidhu Chopra were also present. Both Shakti Samanta and Mukul Dutt, husband of late Chand Usmani, wept at their friend's side. It was Gulzar who offered his shoulder to almost every other person to lean on and cry his sorrows out. With each person, he would also shed a few tears. Bhanu Gupta, one of the most sought-after musicians in the industry and the most loyal of Pancham's friends stood aside, shocked and speechless. After two days when I spoke to him, he said,"Pancham and I started our careers together. I've assisted him in all his films since 1965. Never has our friendship faced a therat, even in our worst times. To me, my career was Pancham. Yesterday, at another recording for the first time in all my years of experience, I made mistakes. Everyone knew how close I was to Pancham and they comforted me. I just guess I'll have to learn without him now."

Lahirida, an old man who was pancham's local guardian in Calcutta, performed his last rites. A little afternoon, as the body was being taken away to be cremated, a deafening chorus if cries and wails rent the skies. The beloved Panchamda was on his way to another world.

As I watched the cremation proceedings on my TV set late in the evening, I recalled our last meeting. I had gone to visit him with my cousin. He had a touch of malaria and was sitting alone in the balcony. He looked so lonely. How was he to know that a few weeks later, thousands would come to see him? (Asha would live in her own house and would him on and off.) He thanked us profusely for dropping by and proceeded to be his own funny,talkative self. He told us about his current assignments which included Gang and 1942 and his other apartment which he was decorating. "Bas, abhi iss ghar ko chhodna chahiye." Little did he know that this would happen so soon.

Now, his apartment echoes with silence. Her ailing mother is confined to her room with her nurse. She will now spend the rest of her life in the loving care of his servants-once Asha makes all the arrangements. Even now his servants, who he loved like his own children, keep of thinking of the unfortunate day when their attempts to save their father's life were in vain. The strret mongrel Badshah, whom Panchamda fed regularly with his own hands, still lurks in the compound waiting for his master to come back. My heart goes out to them all. The lady housekeeper sits in the balcony, staring at the endless skies. "Kitne acche aadmi the woh, Bhagwan se bhi bhadkar. Kya maloom ab hamara kya hoga. Bas ek unhi ka toh sahara tha."

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Source: Movie, February 1994
Author: Ajitabh Menon
Posted by : Anshul Chobey

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