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Shine on, Pancham
A new biography on RD Burman, the composer who could shake music out of aluminium foil, attempts to explore his successful and tragic life.
Seventeen years after his lonely death, RD Burman continues to quicken the music in our bones. His tunes are download favourites, his songs among the most remixed and jingled and his rhythms still floorscorch nightclubs. That's not all. A documentary on the musician's life and work was released last year. And on Friday, a movie named after one of his signature tracks - Dum Maro Dum - opened countrywide. RD continues to invade our lives in more ways than we realise.
Ironically, though, the deification of Pancham, as the music director was fondly called, is primarily a 21st-century phenomenon. During his heyday in the '70s, the composer was often accused of peddling plagiarised Western music. Nothing, not even his sublime Hindustani classical-based compositions in movies like Amar Prem and Kinara, could stop the sniping. In his lifetime, RD was seldom understood and appreciated for what he really was: a genius comfortable with every genre of music.
But now a richly detailed biography titled RD Burman: the Man and the Music (Harper Collins) not only seeks to decode the Bollywood composer's creative process but also unravels an extraordinary amount of trivia about his life and times.
How many of us know that actor-director Mehmood had first offered the role of protagonist Bhola in Padosan to Pancham before Sunil Dutt? That Dum maro dum, the hip-swinging chartbuster of 1971, was first conceived as a duet for Lata Mangeshkar and Usha Uthup? That the music director wanted to use Talat Mahmood for a song - most probably Mukesh's Jis gali mein tera ghar - in Kati Patang? That Mone pore Ruby Ray, his most famous Bengali composition, had its origins in Chhobi Ray, a young woman who had spurned the affections of film-writer Sachin Bhowmick? And that Asha Bhonsle was his second wife, and Rita Patel, a girl he first met at Bombay's Regal Theatre to watch James Bond's Goldfinger, the first?
In their college years, the authors - Anirudha Bhattacharjee works with IBM and Balaji Vittal for The Royal Bank of Scotland - were quiz addicts, that furious trivial pursuit of the '80s. That's why, when they started working on the book in July 2008, the duo already had a repository of information to start with. "But we also interviewed close to 40 musicians, singers, actors, directors, composers, lyricists, DJs, screenplay writers and also a medical practitioner, " says Vittal. "We wanted to approach established facts with a fresh perspective. "
The writers believe RD's extensive knowledge of both Indian and Western music made him a cut above the rest. "Pancham knew the basics of Indian classical music, Bangla folk, and remained a keen student of Western scales and genres like the blues, rock and roll, funk, Latino music, Cuban Big Band music, jazz, " says Vittal. "Jazz, especially, helped Pancham in identifying the potential behind attributes like uncluttered arrangement and getting the best out of the instruments. He blended and innovated, rather than merely copy. A diverse range of interest in music gave him strong knowledge of the rhythm section which became his greatest strength eventually. "
RD emerges as a restless musician obsessed with creating new sounds, living and breathing music all the time - always alert to the possibility of finding a new tune in a mundane moment. "Pancham had an unearthly sense of sound which he used to introduce little-known side percussion instruments, or, in some cases, to generate music even from aluminium foil, sand paper, asbestos sheets, half-filled beer bottles, " says Vittal. "His sound mixing was outstanding;his sense of melody unmatched."
Which takes us to one of the most troubling mysteries of Bollywood: why did the master composer go through such a rough patch before his death? Everybody knows that the music director enjoyed spectacular success beginning with Teesri Manzil (1966). His slide started in the mid- '80s when he couldn't attune his music to the changing needs of the audience. As films started flopping, he began doubting his own ability. The big banners left him. So did his friends. His music suffered too. It is hard to recognise RD's compositions in films like Zalzala and Aag Se Khelenge. The night he died there were only servants at home.
Then 1942: A Love Story happened like a prayer for the dying. The movie fared modestly but the music was a chartbuster. It was a fitting epilogue that left his fans wondering whether RD would have regained his place at the top if he had survived the heart attack that felled him.
Bhattacharyee and Vittal believe he might have because the music's success showed that his "melody-based compositions" were acceptable to "the majority". More importantly, there was a slow but gradual return to a more sophisticated form of music that RD typified.
Perhaps what Javed Akhtar says in the book best sums up the musician. "Pancham is becoming more important with time. Earlier, he was merely successful. Now, with more distance, the contours are becoming more visible. Pancham is a milestone in music: a certain sensitivity, modulation, a certain sound, a certain beat.
RD urbanised Hindustani music and brought it closer to world music. Pancham's music sounds universal and international. It is not getting obsolete. Rather, it is becoming more modern because our society is reaching the point to which RD's music had taken a leap ahead of time. It is now contemporary. "
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