The great sarod maestro and musician Ali Akbar Khan told me once this about Rahul Dev Burman, “Pancham (R D Burman) could pretty much do anything with music. He just lived music.” That was sometime in 1999, at Khan’s music academy in San Rafael, California where I had gone to interview him.
Khan was visibly happy to hear Burman’s name and, in fact, quickly hummed the great composer’s first song “Ghar aya ghir aayi” from the 1961 film ‘Chhote Nawab’ sung brilliantly by Lata Mangeshkar. Khan had a special fondness for Burman because as a child in the 1940s the latter learned the sarod under him. “He did not want to make a career as a Sarod player but strengthen his foundation as a music composer,” Khan told me. Being a son the illustrious Sachin Dev Burman and himself a preternaturally talented musician, Pancham had his career laid out for him. People are surprised when they realize that he would have been 75 today had he lived past 1994 when he died at 55. At some level Burman seems like a figure from another era but at another level he is easily the most current of all Hindi cinema music composers.
I had the good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Burman at his apartment in the suburb of Khar in Mumbai in 1994, barely a few months before he died. I had gone to interview him. I vividly remember entering his music room whose floor was covered with wall-to-wall mattresses in spotless white sheets with half a dozen bolsters, also in white covers thrown about casually. Burman was sitting cross-legged and playing his harmonium. He was singing/humming something he had just composed. By the time I met him, he was well past his prime and made it a point to tell me that. “I have at least 1000 compositions sitting with me as of now,” he told me, “But no one wants them.”
Burman was then in the midst of composing for his last film ‘1942: A Love Story’ directed by Vidhu Vinod Chopra. The songs from the movie became widely popular. He asked me to accompany him for a recording of one of the songs at a studio in Mahalaxmi. I remember Burman, lyricist Javed Akhtar and I took a cab from Khar to Mahalaxmi. Once at the studio, he told me that he had unabashedly copied “Baba”—his great composer father Sachin Dev Burman—in some of that film’s music. In particular, he pointed out that interlude from the song ‘Jane who kaise log’ from the 1957 classic ‘Pyasa.’ “If you pay attention, you would feel as if your are listening to Baba’s composition,” Burman said.
That particular day Burman was recording a singer called Shivaji Chattopadhyaya for the song ‘Yeh safar bahut hai kathin magar na udas ho mere humsafar’. Being a Bengali speaker he had trouble with some of the pronunciations which Akhtar, a stickler for such details, kept correcting. It took some effort for Chattopadhyaya to nail it. I could see the Burman was getting restless and at one point said as long the singer sang it right they might have to compromise on his pronunciation.
In my book, Burman has always been one of the five greatest composers of Hindi cinema in this order—S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman, S.D. Burman, R.D. Burman and the fifth position changes among the others. That may seem like a controversial thing to say but we have to judge a Hindi cinema music composer, just as we have to do a cinema lyricist, by employing many varied yardsticks. The father and son have been unsurpassable from that standpoint.