RD Burman: The man who made music with bottles and matkas

  • Rezaul H Laskar, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jun 27, 2015 14:41 IST

As Jay and Veeru sneaked up to Gabbar Singh’s camp for what should have been a thrilling attack, things were suddenly interrupted by a song. As a young kid watching Sholay for the first time on the big screen, I thought to myself: “Oh no, another kabilas-in-the-camp song.”

But what happened next was something I will never forget. The strangely dressed gypsy singer began duck-walking like Chuck Berry and yodelling in an unforgettable voice against a throbbing backbeat with a Middle Eastern feel. This clearly was no ordinary “kabila” song.

That extraordinary burst of music – Mehbooba Mehbooba – was my first real introduction to the music of Rahul Dev Burman, though I had probably heard more of his songs in our music-crazy home. And it was fitting that it ended with the explosions triggered by Jay and Veeru as they demolished Gabbar Singh’s camp.

RD Burman, or “Pancham” to his friends and colleagues in Bollywood, entered the music industry in the 1950s under a huge shadow – the one cast by his legendary father Sachin Dev Burman. But it didn’t take RD long to blaze his own trail and go on to compose the music for a long string of classic films.

Music was so much a part of RD Burman’s life that there are even apocryphal tales that his nickname “Pancham” was derived from his ability as a child to cry in five different notes.

This was a classically trained musician – one who learnt the basics from greats like Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Ashish Khan during his early years in Mumbai – but RD Burman always appeared restless, on the lookout for new vistas, new influences that could take his music in new and exciting directions.

Spending the late 1950s and early 1960s as an apprentice to his father, RD Burman notched up valuable experience while working with the senior Burman’s orchestra and assisting with the scores for a string of classic films such as Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Kaagaz Ke Phool, Tere Ghar Ke Saamne and Guide.

RD Burman’s first film as music director – Raaz – never saw the light of day as it was shelved and it was the comedian-director Mehmood who gave him his first big break with Chhote Nawab (1961). His delightful use of castanets, horns and flamenco-influenced guitars in the song Matwali Ankhowale showed he was clearly eager to branch out in new directions to give listeners something new.

Thus it was that RD Burman’s musical journey introduced Indian listeners to the rollicking beats of Ao Twist Kare (from Bhoot Bangla, 1965) and the bossa nova strains of Mar Dale Dard-e-Jigar (from Pati Patni, 1966).

The big breakthrough came with director Nasir Hussain’s Teesri Manzil (1966), when RD Burman’s jazz and rock influenced songs set a new trend. It also marked the beginning of a collaboration with Hussain that encompassed hit films such as Baharon Ke Sapne, Pyar Ka Mausam (with the ethereal Ni Sultana Re, Caravan (with the classic Piya Tu Ab To Aja), Yaadon Ki Baraat and Hum Kisise Kum Nahin (which had the hit Kya Hua Tera Wada sung by Mohammed Rafi in glorious form).

RD Burman also went to great lengths to create the sounds he wanted for specific songs – using desks from a school classroom as percussion instruments, blowing into bottles filled with different levels of water for the distinctive sound of O Majhi Re from Khushboo and getting percussionist Vijay Indorekar to develop a "pedal matka", a matka with its opening covered with a piece of leather that could be stretched using a foot pedal, for the song Samne Ye Kaun Aya from Jawani Diwani.


RD Burman (extreme left) with Mahmood and others.

The 1970s saw RD Burman providing music for a string of hits starring two major stars of the era – Rajesh Khanna and Dev Anand. The hits came fast and furious as his compositions were performed by Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar.

Ironically, one of his biggest hits from this era – the rock-influenced Dum Maro Dum from Hare Rama Hare Krishna wasn’t used in full in the film because Dev Anand thought it could overshadow Ram Ka Naam Badnam Na Karo, which the star thought was central to the film.

The hits continued into the early 1980s with films like Sanam Teri Kasam (which won him his first Filmfare Best Music Director award), Rocky, Love Story, Satte Pe Satta and Masoom, but by the end of the decade, his star appeared to be on the wane. RD Burman was also plagued by health problems and underwent bypass surgery after a heart attack in 1988.

Though he continued composing songs, there was no longer a queue of filmmakers outside his home. It was at this time that Vidhu Vinod Chopra signed him to do the music for 1942: A Love Story, which became RD Burman’s swan song, being released after his death in 1994 at the age of just 54.

Pancham may have left us too soon but his music – an amalgam of frenetic and exuberant beats with influences as diverse as rock, disco, jazz and Arabic – will be around for many decades, much to the delight of remixers and his numerous fans.

Read:Happy birthday RD Burman - His tunes that are still alive

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