His music lives.
Ironically during his last years, though, Bollywood’s supreme trendsetter -- R D Burman, pet-name Pancham – had virtually no plum film assignments on his plate. His health was failing. Yet, his pulse throbbed with music right till the end which came on January 4, 1994.
RD Burman passed away at the age of 54. And it was only posthumously – or should I say belatedly? – that he has been acknowledged as a music wizard. An icon who broke and mended the shibboleths of movie music.
I’d met RD Burman on and off at the recording studios, conducted a lengthy interview (only once, alas). And have frequently asked Asha Bhosle, his muse and wife for nearly a decade-and-a-half, to give me an insight into the man and the maestro that was.
Here then are excerpts from my conversations on RD over the years, with Asha Bhosle:
Q: Cover versions of RD Burman’s songs abound on internet sites, at club lounges, on reality shows…and er…even you’d cut a remix album Asha Bhosle Reveals the Real RD Burman. Would he have approved?
Asha Bhosle: If the originals haven’t been ruined, I think he would have been glad that his music has become a craze. As for my album of remixes, I wouldn’t have dared to go that route, if I wasn’t sure that he would have approved. Remixes can revive the compositions of music directors who were popular some decades ago. Or else the past could disappear.
Pancham’s songs, which were recorded in mono, are accessible to the new generation, thanks to remixes in stereophonic sound. That’s why the RD magic is still so alive and kicking: Sona re sona (Teesri Manzil) and Piya tu ab to aaja (Caravan) are played endlessly at the discos.
Q: What’s your take on this belated craze?
AB: Dukh toh hota hai aisi baaton se. It’s sad but then Mozart died unsung too. And today thousands flock to his grave in Vienna. Pancham didn’t get his due during his lifetime but he will be remembered forever. I guess he was at least 50 years ahead of his times.
Q: How would you describe your marriage?
AB: It was a second time around for both of us. He was divorced, and I’d lost my husband. Aur kya kahoon?
“Music was the basic foundation of our marriage: We could listen to Bismillah Khan, the Beatles, Shirley Bassey..and so many more for hours and hours. Pancham would emerge from his shower, in a lungi kurta, at 9.30 am and till 3 pm, we’d be humming together to the albums of John Coltrane, Earth Wind and Fire, Sergio Mendes, Santana, the Rolling Stones, Blood Sweat and Tears, Chuck Correa, Osibisa…oh so many. Our taste for music was eclectic, and that was our everlasting bond. Without him, I do feel…(stops).”Asha Bhosle
AB: Yes, but then I tell myself that a heart has several compartments – for a husband, for one’s children and the few friendships which have lasted. So whenever I’m lonely or restless, I grab a tanpura and chant ‘Om’.
Obviously, I miss Pancham, very very much. He was my best friend. He was five to six years younger than me. He was a great comedian, he’d keep me in splits. Since I’ve a fetish for cleanliness, for my birthday he once gave me a gift-wrapped jhadoo and a rose.
Once he scared the daylights out of me by wearing an Afro-wig in the dark. He’d mimic everyone, including me. For years, he’d send me flowers anonymously. One day, the roses were delivered in the presence of (lyricist) Majrooh saab and Pancham. I said, “Throw them away. Some fool keeps wasting his roses on me.” Pancham’s face fell. That’s when Majrooh saab laughed, “It’s this fool who’s been sending you the roses.”Asha Bhosle
Q: Would he serenade you with songs?
AB: Yes, romantic ones but when he was sad, he’d sing, Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain jo muqaam (Aap ki Kasam).
“We’d take off for drives to Khandala, he’d curl up his left foot on the seat, keep a lit cigarette between the fingers of his left hand and drum a beat on the car’s roof. That’s how, he composed the tune of Khullam khulla pyaar karenge hum dono (Khel Khel Mein). On rainy nights in a rundown hotel in Khandala, he’d record the sound of crickets. He loved natural sounds.”Asha Bhosle
Q: How did RD Burman propose to you?
AB: He’d say, “Asha, only you understood sur. You can never go off-key even if you try to.” I felt flattered but I didn’t want to make the mistake of marrying again. He was after me for years to get married. After much persuasion, he convinced me that he’d fallen in love with my voice, it fascinated him. So finally I said, “Okay.”
Q: What was the reaction of your sister Lata Mangeshkar?
Didi didn’t react at all. To date, she hasn’t spoken about Pancham’s relationship with me.Asha Bhosle
Q: Yet he mostly gave Lata Mangeshkar the songs of the heroine.
AB: He composed songs depending on the artiste who’d perform it on screen. Didi got the sweet heroine songs.
“I got the jazzier songs performed by supporting artistes and cabaret dancers. But these songs are terrific. They’ve stood the test of time, I wouldn’t have wanted Pancham’s songs any other way. They were more tedhe medhe, complicated like Teri nazar hai mujh pe (The Burning Train) which had to be sung in a westernised style for Parveen Babi and in an Indian style for Hema Malini, simultaneously. Then there were Daiya main kahan aa phansi and Piya tu ab to aa jaa (Caravan), Meri jaan maine kaha (The Train) and Aaaja aaja main hoon pyaar tera (Teesri Manzil).”Asha Bhosle
My all-time favourite Pancham song is Do lavzon ki ek kahani (The Great Gambler), from our collaboration nothing compares to that one.
Q: Which was the first RD song playbacked by you?
Maar daalega dard-e-jigar from Pati Patni. That wasn’t our first meeting though. He’d come to see his father (S D Burman) record Chaahe tum kitna bhulao for Armaan at the Famous studio in Mahalaxmi. He was a thin, pale boy in white, wearing thick glasses. Since he was short, he looked younger than his age. The boy asked me for an autograph and said he’d heard my Marathi natya sangeet on the radio.Asha Bhosle
Next, I met him at a recording for Dev Anand’s Nau do Gyarah. He’d dropped out of college in Kolkata. I told him, he should should have completed his graduation. Phir kya? He sulked for the rest of the recording.
Q: Which was the last song you recorded for him?
AB: Can’t remember, I sang so many numbers for him…but it was probably Mera kuch saaman for Gulzar’s Ijaazat.
Q: The last time you met him?
AB: I was pre-recording a TV show, on December 30, for the New Year. I was performing his songs for the show. After the shoot, I went to Pancham’s house in Khar. He snapped, “Why have you come? I’m going out somewhere.” I asked, “Where? With whom?” He said, “Khandala, with some friends.” That was that. I returned to Khar on January 2, he wasn’t at home. Then I got a call, saying that saab wasn’t well.
He wasn’t breathing properly, he’d been operated for his heart in London. We were told that after such an operation, a patient lives on for 25 years, or five to six years at least. He didn’t last for even five months.
My son, Nandu, and I rushed him to a hospital in Khar. An oxygen tank couldn’t be located for hours at several hospitals in the area, which shut their doors on us. He kept saying, “I’m in pain…bahut dard hai.” He was also trying to say my name, “Aa..aa,” but couldn’t complete it.
Q: Would he have lived longer if he’d stopped drinking?
Q: RD Burman would be extremely depressed during his last years.
AB: Naturally, he couldn’t understand why the film industry had stopped giving him work. He only had 1942: A Love Story. He was disillusioned by the groupism but then he would smile, “Chalo, never mind. This is show business.”
Q: Can there ever be another R D Burman?
AB: He believed that a young composer who brings a new sound to music would become big. I think he would have liked AR Rahman…and there’s Vidyasagar whose compositions for the Tamil film Chandramukhi had an element of freshness.
But seriously, no one can ever cover Bollywood beats, jazz, rock, pop, semi-classical the way Pancham did. For another RD Burman, he would have to be re-born.
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and weekend painter.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on January 4, 2016 on the maestro’s death anniversary.)