The Story of RD Burman: Inside and Outside the Recording Studio

Anecdotes from the life and times of RD Burman, as told by film journalist and author Chaitanya Padukone. 

6 min read
Hindi Female

On a particularly rainy Mumbai weekend, film journalist Chaitanya Padukone reminisces the decade he spent shadowing music maestro Rahul Dev Burman, in and out of recording rooms, as he created the soul of Bollywood. Though he’s narrated stories galore in his book titled RD Burmania: PanchaMemoirs, our conversation brings me face to face with the animated fanboy that the book conceals.

We start talking about RD and every anecdote is sprinkled with some crooning, almost involuntarily. “How did you manage to get a spot in 50-60 of RD Burman’s recording sessions?” I ask curiously. Padukone says that initially it was simply because he was persistent. But RD agreed to give him an interview only if he came as a critic, not as a smitten fan.


Aaj Kuch Naya Karte Hain

RD wanted to be an unconventional artist. Padukone recollects an observation that Zeenat Aman made to sum up RD’s attitude, both in his life and music.

Zeenat Aman told me that RD’s attitude in life is summed up very well in one line of the song Dum Maaro Dum. The antara of that song has the lyrics hum sab ki parvah karein karein kyun, sabne humara kiya kya? He was never bothered about what the public will say if he sings in his deepest voice, or adds heavy breathing sounds to a track, or tries something new. He did things nobody has ever done in Hindi film music. To use his own mukhda, he believed that meri awaaz hi pehchan hai. In fact superstar Rajesh Khanna, who was very close to RD, was fascinated by his unique style of singing. He insisted that RD sings a song picturised on him. That finally happened in Apna Desh (1972). RD told him that this will be a gem his fans will never forget. 
Chaitanya Padukone, Film journalist and author
Reinvention was his middle name. Padukone recalls that the energy in the recording studio was driven by the thought ‘aaj kuch naya karte hain, aaj kuch aur try karte hain.’

The Eccentric Maverick

Padukone says RD Burman was known as BOSS both out of love and fear. While he was a very sensitive man, inside the studio he was a strict disciplinarian and a perfectionist. He was also short tempered. When he got angry, people used to shiver, he recalls. But he took inspiration from everything and everyone.

I asked dada once about the different sounds he uses in his compositions. He told me that even a motorcycle wheel could get him thinking of a tune. In the song Kal Kya Hoga from Kasme Vaade (1978), he used the recorded sound of a motorbike and also created it vocally himself. The musicians never knew what’s going to happen during his recordings. He was always whimsical and spontaneous, like a genius. Even in Mehbooba Mehbooba from Sholay (1975), the song begins with the sound he created by blowing from his mouth into half filled cold drink bottles. Nobody before or after him has had these ideas. 
Chaitanya Padukone

Suddenly, mid conversation, something makes Padukone laugh. I prod him and he gives in easily.

RD’s sense of humour was just as quirky as his music. During our initial meetings, he told me that if I see him speaking to someone cordially, it means they share a formal equation. But if I see him giving someone gaalis, it means that they share a deep friendship. He had quirky ways of showing his appreciation and affection. I got a gaali in our third meeting (for not showing up for the previous recording) and it made me so happy that the legend thought of me as a friend. He also used two codes in the recording studio that only his musicians understood- KBH and KBN. KBH meant kya baat hai. Every musician would eagerly wait to hear him say this. But when any of them made a mistake or went off track, they would apologise and he would tell them KBN...koi baat nahin
Chaitanya Padukone
Anecdotes from the life and times of RD Burman, as told by film journalist and author Chaitanya Padukone. 
RD Burman with his musicians. 
Photo courtesy:

RD loved everything spicy and believed that film songs too must have a teekha element, wherever the situation allowed it. As a matter of fact, he grew chillies in his garden at home and brought back a particularly pungent variety from the West Indies.

The foodie that he was, RD never held back from reaching into a musician’s lunchbox and helping himself to a snack, without even asking. It made all the difference. He wasn’t one for barriers of any kind. Though he loved mirchi, he couldn’t hold a glass of hot chai. If someone got him a glass of piping hot tea, he would add cold water to it, much to everyone’s shock. He was impulsive and impatient, but if you were sitting opposite him in a game of chess, he would patiently defeat you.

Padukone clearly remembers that even at the peak of his career, RD always said that his musicians work with him, not for him. He would sit and chat with a lift man, a delivery boy, a chai wala, and ask them about what songs they’ve been listening to.

What I learnt from dada was humility. He would always ask a lift man or his canteen boy or his driver about the songs they were tripping on, or the films they were watching and discussing. Naturally, they were full of praises for his compositions. But RD always cut them short and asked about songs composed or sung by others. He was extremely open to feedback and I think this was why he had his finger right on the pulse of his fans. 
Chaitanya Padukone

Every Song A Masterpiece

You can envy him, but you can’t not be an RD fan. Even Lata Mangeshkar held him in very high regard.

Even someone of Lata ji’s stature, RD made her sing the way he wanted to, not the way she wanted it. In the song Dilbar Dil Se Pyaare from Caravan, there’s a part where Lata ji had to sing the words ‘lehri naino waale. She sings it in five different variations. Lata ji gave me this example. Even Kumar Sanu told me about Ek Ladki Ko Dekha from 1942 A Love Story. He has sung the word ‘jaise’ at least seven times, each time there is a slight variation, a different emotion. For RD, every song had to be a masterpiece. 
Chaitanya Padukone
RD gave Padukone a quote that truly defines the man he was, “every song of mine has my autograph, but it has the signatures of all my musicians.”

Rajesh Khanna used to fondly tell the legend, someone he was quite emotionally attached to, that for him RD meant romantic diehard. After Mere Sapno Ki Raani from Aaradhana, RD became his lucky charm. RD played the harmonica in the song (as associate music director) and Rajesh Khanna, who was present during the recording, was mighty impressed, forever.


RD Burman always made a song for the actors in it. The songs of Betaab (1983) for example, were made keeping in mind that Sunny Deol had two left feet. But when he composed for Rishi Kapoor, his music had a totally different energy.

In fact, it was RD who suggested to Barkha Roy that the hat with the white feather in Jana O Meri Jana from Sanam Teri Kasam (1982) should levitate and dance, before landing on Kamal Haasan’s head. That song got RD his first Filmfare award too.

I asked dada once, ‘what is your criteria to measure your success’? He smiled and said that if a wedding band is playing his music in the baraat, or if people walking on the road are whistling or humming his tunes. That’s the only reason why his music still works. His own favourite was Zindagi Ke Safar Mein from Aap Ki Kasam (1974). If you close your eyes you can visualise the four different seasons. 
Chaitanya Padukone

Padukone ends with a memory he holds very near his heart. A few days before RD Burman’s demise, he pointed out his car’s registration number to Padukone. It was BMC-1139. At that time he was working on Ek Ladki Ko Dekha from 1942 A Love Story. It was an experiment of sorts because the song didn’t have an antara. It’s mukhda went on and on, he was trying something new.

RD said ‘meri gaadi ka number note kiya kya?’ I said ‘haan dada, it’s BMC-1139’. He said ‘Don’t mistake BMC for Bombay Municipal Corporation. I’m hoping that next year, when the music of 1942 releases, I’ll be recognised as the Best Music Composer aka BMC.’ As fate would have it, the album made him the Best Millenium Composer.
Chaitanya Padukone

(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark RD Burman’s death anniversary.)

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Topics:  RD Burman   Pancham 

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