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Ode to a Magician

If one were to hurriedly prepare a random playlist of Hindi film songs to be played at a gathering of like-minded friends meeting over drinks in the evening, the selection inadvertently comes to be dominated by a name whose music was an integral part of one’s growing up years and still evokes the same euphoria as they did decades ago.

RD Burman (b.1939) composed for 331 films in his lifetime, but died a sad man, on 4th January 1994 – of a massive heart attack brought on by heavy drinking and smoking, aggravated by diabetes and a lonely lifestyle. He was 55 and had just emerged from a long hiatus of professional inactivity, brought on by a series of flops that led him to be shunned by film makers and music companies. It was director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s faith and passion for his music that brought him out of his reluctant exile and led him to compose for 1942 – A Love Story. The world suddenly woke up to the magic that the man once spelled and electrified the nation obsessed with Hindi film songs.

It took us a long time to recognize the genius responsible for all our favorite childhood songs. We were too young to know that Dum maro dum, Panna ki tamanna hai, Yeh shaam mastani, Aap ke kamre mein, Nadiya se dariya, Saamne yeh koun aya, Wada karo choroge na… that endless list of songs that we broke into without understanding their lyrics at that time, were all put to music by Pancham, as RD was popularly known in the industry. Of course, we recognized the distinctive voice behind Duniya mein, Mehbooba-mehbooba or Dhanno ki aankhon mein or the cult Bengali song Monay Poray Ruby Raye.

A casual glance at the songs composed by RD, as we came to call him, would reveal the range that he was capable of. When Gulzar chose Pandit Ravi Sankar over his favourite Pancham for a biopic on Meerabai, RD was hurt, stating that he was equally capable of composing for the film which relied on classical music.

Despite his equal expertise in raga-based songs, he came to be mainly associated with catchy melodies, inspired by Latin American Bossa Nova and heavy rhythm sections. His musical arrangements, contributed immensely by a team of extremely talented musicians that swore by him, helped him create a unique style that was far ahead of its time and immediately endeared him to listeners. His sound was radically different from his contemporaries and evoked an instant heady feeling. They were all, despite their varying moods, elegantly structured yet freewheeling, easy on the ears and immensely hummable.

This curious blend of Western styles and cool melodies that sometimes relied on Indian folk still exerts a tremendous influence 27 years after his death. Most re-mixes that play on television can be traced to him, proving the timelessness of his oeuvre, and there is hardly a contemporary music director who does not owe his idiom, in some manner or the other, to the man.

Whether one is driving from Bombay to Goa or jiving to nostalgia at a party comprising people who were kids when RD died, there is no escape from the enchantment that his music weaved, and continues to weave, to the extent that an 8-year-old girl, mesmerized by the music that belts out from the speakers, demands that it be played once again without knowing the man behind the creation! That is the magic of R. D. Burman!

It’s rumored that he had just Rs 18 left in his bank at the time of his death. It’s not surprising for a man whose sole purpose in life was to live for music, who was too ‘classy’ to stoop to ask for work and worry about bank balance. His working style was radically different from the brash young music directors that had begun to come into the scene at a time when his output had begun to wane, not because he had ceased to surprise, but as one close to him put it succinctly – he was spinning on his own axis, while the world was spinning on its own.

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