A reformer named Rahul Dev Burman
Rahul Dev Burman was a magician who reformed music forever and like never before. Be it mainstream Hindi film music, regional music - Bengali non-filmi releases - or Bengali film music, he changed the texture and the orchestration of music. He celebrated the etherealism of Indian classical music, punctuated it with international sound, and presented a cocktail which was quintessentially Indian but with global reach. Indian classical music deserved this cosmopolitanism. Others exploited Indian classical music, but he tapped into international music to add flavour to it, to give it life for generations.
In the last five years, more than half of Bollywood films have carried remixes of his numbers, the FM channels live off his music and the DJs of the nightclubs love the ever-growing demand for RDB music for the dance floor. He was a successful reformer with a glowing career which ran parallel to the reigns of three superstars – Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan - and the vocal quartet of India, namely Kishore, Rafi, Lata, and Asha. He ruled with innovations, which is a rarity in the quicksand of Bollywood’s ever-changing commercial tilt, pandering to ‘popular’ demand.
In Bollywood, the eternal question is who comes first – the consumer or the producer? But RD Burman’s was a lab which produced music never known before and which could be experimented with ever after. The reformer provided a template, brilliant, awe-inspiring, and yet unprecedentedly popular.
His music was succour to middle-class dreams and romances because then India was different. Without TV, without much hype, he was the front-ranking composer, crafting tunes which we all felt we knew, which resonated with our moods and yet were so distinctly stylish, and our very own. It was so close to one’s aspirations, one’s inner beats. There was mono and then came stereo and he ruled with his exceptional sound sense which is a rage now in Dolby. That was him. Timeless. Much later we came to know that for "Chura Liya", he used spoons with glasses and for "Bas Mere Yaar" (Sagar) he used combs. But when the music was made, it took us there, to the spot, the scene, the sequence.
The visuals were not very realistic or sophisticated as they are today, but the music was far ahead of its times. It was a world away from the humdrum of everyday existence.
He brought global sophistication to our living rooms. It was my initiation to westernization in a complete Indian context. RDB’s association with Gulzar was a phase which was remarkable for its authenticity and depth in research and creativity. He experimented with almost everything in filmy and non-filmy music. Dil Padosi Hai album is a treat and remains unprecedented and inimitable. So were his Bengali Pujo numbers. "Tumi Koto Je Dure" is global, tremendously swanky, and dangerously contemporary. That’s why many did not understand him when he made the music.
It was probably his “undoing” to be so unbelievably progressive, creative, and original, while straddling genres. It is always safe to hail mediocrity and that’s what many did when he was alive and tried to belittle him. When have reformers ever been affected by undervaluation?
His use of the saxophone, or the usage of guitar strums while winding their ways, be it in dhano ki ankhon mein (kitab) or Hum kisise kum Nahin, gives me goosebumps even now. With the same gusto, he made beeti na bitaye raina with Lata and Bhupinder. His range was unlimited. From "Aaja Aaja Main Hun Pyaar Tera" (Teesri Manzil) to thumri "Hame Tumse Pyar Kitna" (Kudrat) to "Ek Chatur Naar" (Padosan) and the once-in-a-lifetime "Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi" (Aandhi), he could do anything.
When he was making Panchamda, towards the end, he was unhappy. Now, after his death, we understand that we have to earn his music. We definitely did not deserve his high quality, ethereal music. We were happy with Oh Taki Oh Taki.
I met him once in Cuttack. It was a meeting that lasted roughly two and a half minutes. But it was like time stood still. I was meeting my Icon. I had so many questions but couldn’t speak. This was a once in a lifetime moment for me and I still feel blessed.
Icons like RD reform lives. His compositions have reimagined our existence. He was a musical genius. Once, in order to properly convey the sound of raindrops, he spent the whole night on his balcony in the rain, recording the sounds that he wanted. This is just one story. There are so many. Gulzar rightly says that he was as good a craftsman as he was a musician.