Remembering RD Burman

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  • Journey from great to immortal
‘Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. It appears that God works the same way, only His tragedies are performed by men in real life. RD Burman was one such hero. In a film industry infamous for its crass happy-endings, and where he spent all his working life, RD – despite his genius, or probably because of it – failed to have one. However, he is getting bigger and bigger with each passing year after his death. While his greatness was never in doubt, somewhere along the way RD has achieved immortality.
It’s been 25 years since that fateful 4th of January when that harmonium went quiet for the last time. The headline reporting it in the daily Jang the next day read, ‘Ye kya huwa’, the title of the composer’s landmark 1971 song.  It doesn’t feel it’s 25 years after RD because his music never died. In fact, he is more relevant today than ever before. He is probably the biggest inspiration for more composers in the subcontinent than anybody else – and composers of the stature of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal-Shekhar! At the same time, as Vishal Bhardwaj points out, the greatest challenge very often is not to sound like him, and to make sure one avoids what has already been done by him all those years ago. While the Filmfare award mysteriously kept eluding him year after year, since 1995 there’s a Filmfare RD Burman award for new music talent. The darling of the masses, the music connoisseurs, as well as the singing competition contestants and cover singers, his relevance is expected to only increase in future.
What’s the reason behind this longevity? Of course, there’s the quality of mukhra and antara tunes, which don’t sound dated so many decades later. But there’s more: the orchestration of the preludes and the interval pieces, which although modern, are minimalist – that is, not over-done in any way. Above all, there are no wasted seconds: a note either does a specific job or isn’t there to start with. The result is that at no point one feels the song to be dragging along: RD’s songs are consistently of shorter duration than the average (at any rate, one invariably feels they end too soon). He had an exceptional team of assistants and musicians, all of whom were masters of their crafts, and all of whom chipped in with significant creative contributions.
That a man with such a track record struggled to get much work after the mid-eighties is one of the great artistic tragedies of the 20th century. Commercial success was always crucial in the film industry, but in the pre-satellite-TV era (and two decades before YouTube) it was also the only way one’s music reached the masses. Even in that lean period, songs such as hum na samjhe the, dharkan pal pal, roz roz aankhon, dekho ye kaun aya, ae sagar ki lehro, kis kaaran nayya, kahaan se laayi dhoond ke, ye mera dil to paagal (to name a few) were in no way inferior to the celebrated work that he had done at his commercial peak. And film-makers realised this: according to Sonu Nigam, one producer told a younger music director that he wanted music like Pancham da’s. If only he had gone to Pancham da! But in the film industry, success and failure sometimes become sticky labels that are hard to shake off. The RD brand was not viable for financiers any more. It would once again become attractive after 1942-A Love Story, but the script writer had other ideas.
In fact, considering how far ahead of his time he was, it’s a miracle how RD managed to get so much work earlier. The answer of course lies in his unmatched ability to produce a body of work for the ages that was also popular in its time (a rare combination); for works of art that win instant popularity usually age badly with time, while works of exceptional merit generally take a while before the public appreciates them. It’s worth noting that even at the peak of his popularity RD had his share of critics: He was always up against the musical sensibilities of the all-important North-Indian populace: UP-Bihar, and partly Delhi-Punjab, where the low-on-sophistication dholak based music (as opposed to the more urban music championed by RD) was more likely to touch people’s hearts. It can be said that that audience, over the years, has evolved in its tastes and sophistication to be able to finally appreciate him.
While the Filmfare award mysteriously kept eluding him year after year, since 1995 there’s a Filmfare RD Burman award for new music talent
The talent for that had to be there of course, but RD’s training couldn’t have been better. After all, how many men get the opportunity to learn the tricks of the trade in the music room – and indeed, the home – of the great SD Burman? But this was a double-edged sword: being SD’s son made it much harder for RD to be taken seriously in his own right. Of course, he proved equal to the challenge. In the Dev Burmans, we have father and son between whom it’s impossible to say who’s greater. This is extremely rare, especially in creative fields. After SD (who hardly ever recorded a sub-par score), RD probably has the lowest ratio of forgettable songs among his compatriots. But then RD, being much more prolific than his father, also has a greater number of good songs to his credit. Also, nobody exploited the phenomenon called Kishore Kumar better than RD – not even SD, who had first recognised Kumar’s prodigious talent.
RD had his fair share of shortcomings. He didn’t possess a shrewd business mind, which in a creative soul is understandable. To a lesser extent, he probably suffered from an undue loyalty to the Mangeshkar sisters, especially in the 80s. Kalyanji-Anandji, Laxmikant and other contemporaries were shrewd enough to break away from the Mangeshkar duopoly in favour of fresher female voices – something RD could never do, probably to his detriment.
Long live the king!