'Bohut dard hai': Pancham’s painful end is a tragic tale

·8-min read
'Bohut dard hai': Pancham’s painful end is a tragic tale

Son of maestro S D Burman, Rahul Dev Burman was to classical music born. Along with the rich heirloom he brought in ‘the groove’ to Hindi music with a dash of jazz, rock and pop.

Arraying African drums, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, madal, shakers, bongo and tabla… his racy rhythms and electronic sounds found patronage amongst the youth.

In fact, with Duniya mein logon ko he brought in ‘scat singing’ (use of nonsense syllables) straight out of vocal jazz.

It needed a maverick to create music from everyday sounds. Like he used the sound of a spoon striking a glass for the tinkling lead-in into Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko…

He blew into beer bottles to produce the opening beats of Mehbooba o mehbooba followed by the Iranian santoor.

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The Sholay theme tune, in fact, is enough to unite a diverse nation.

If he rubbed a comb on a coarse surface to produce the whizzing sound in Meri saamne wali khidki mein (Padosan), for Satte Pe Satta, he captured singer Annette Pinto’s gargle for the intimidating background score.

And yet who can forget the sublime serenity of Roz roz aankhon tale, Rimjhim gire saawan, Aap ki ankhon mein kuchh…?

At 40, young RD, was serenaded as the Midas man. And it all changed overnight.

Blame it on the end of the romantic era with actioners becoming the norm, the influx of ‘pots and pans’ potboilers or the disco craze spearheaded by Bappi Lahiri in the ’80s… RD soon found himself deserted by the fraternity.

The composer, who once used to be swamped with projects, spent the last evenings of his life solitary in his balcony, gazing at life that had moved on oblivious of him. His favourite song those days was his own zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain (Aap Ki Kasam)

Of course, 1942 – A Love Story in 1994 brought him unprecedented glory.

But RD was not there to enjoy his exoneration…

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Rahul Dev Burman was born on June 27, 1939 in Kolkata to renowned musician S D Burman and his lyricist/singer wife Meera Dev Burman.

Burmanda nicknamed him Pancham because as a child, when he cried, he’d apparently hit the fifth note – pancham in Hindustani classical music. Another story says that the prodigious baby would cry in five different notes.


In Mumbai, RD (as he grew to be called) trained under sarod maestro Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and tabla wizard Pandit Samta Prasad.

Initially, he assisted his father. He played the harmonica and even composed tunes – like Ae meri topi palat ke aa (Funtoosh 1956) and Sar jo tera chakraye (Pyaasa 1957).

The haunting piece, which plays each time Guru Dutt’s character sees ex-love Mala Sinha, in Pyaasa was composed by RD. He also played the harmonica in Burmanda’s Hai apna dil toh awara (Solva Saal 1958).

RD’s first break came with Mehmood’s Chhote Nawab (1961). The semi-classical Ghar aaja ghir aaye sung by Lata Mangeshkar and the club duet, Matwali ankhonwale, by Mohammed Rafi-Lata proved his range.

Nasir Hussain’s Teesri Manzil (1966), directed by Vijay Anand, was the turning point. O haseena zulfon wali, Aaja aaja, O mere sona… the tracks set Shammi Kapoor-Asha Parekh on a roll.

Nasir Hussain signed RD-Majrooh Sultanpuri for six films including Baharon Ke Sapne, Pyar Ka Mausam and Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1967-1973).

Super ’70s

In the ’70s, RD and Kishore Kumar were catalysts to Rajesh Khanna’s stardom. After Aradhana (1969) with inputs by RD, came Kati Patang (1970) with melodies like Yeh shaam mastani and Yeh jo mohabbat hai.

1971 is memorable for Dev Anand’s cult film, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, the Asha Bhosle rock number Dum maro dum still inspiring remixes. Usha Uthup’s flower-power chorale, I love you remains another pub favourite.

Amar Prem, the same year, with Kuchh toh log kahenge and Chingari koi bhadke… showcased RD’s classical proficiency. While films like Jawani Deewani, Khel Khel Mein and Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (between 1972-1977) made RD a pop icon.

RD courted writer/filmmaker Gulzar’s poetry with his mellifluous tunes as in Beeti na beetayi raina (Parichay), Iss mod se jaate hain (Aandhi), O manjhi re (Khusboo) and Naam gum jayega (Kinara) between 1972-1977.

However, critics slammed the influence of Burmanda’s music in his work. Perhaps that’s why even Amar Prem went unrecognised. Eventually, RD won back-to-back Filmfare Awards – Sanam Teri Kasam (1982) and Masoom (1983).


RD gave great music for launch vehicles of stars sons Sanjay Dutt (Rocky), Kumar Gaurav (Love Story) and Sunny Deol (Betaab) in the early ’80s.

But during the mid-’80s RD found himself being displaced. According to author Khagesh Dev Burman, of R D Burman - The Prince Of Music, Dev Anand was reluctant to work with RD after the debacle of Swami Dada and later Anand Aur Anand.

The book quotes RD as saying, “Since Dev saab had seen me in my nappies. I’d no ego problem in pleading with him not to leave me. ‘If you leave me, everyone will leave me,’ I told Dev saab.” But business stakes prompted Dev to move on.

Similarly, old faithful Nasir Hussain did not sign RD for his production Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak as Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai, Manzil Manzil and Zabardast earlier were no-shows.

Subhash Ghai, who’d apparently, promised RD Ram Lakhan gave it to Laxmikant–Pyarelal instead.

Khagesh’s book adds, “Yash Chopra dropped him even after the grand success of Deewar. Manmohan Desai, having used RD for Aa Gale Lag Ja, his best musical… never said a word in his favour afterwards.”

The book, R D Burman - The Prince Of Music, further states, “RD was an inarticulate dipsomaniac, whose world revolved around his music and… friends. Even when he was cheated, he had neither any personal clout nor a caucus in the film circle to voice his protest.”

Also, the ascent of the ‘angry young man’ and the easing out of the romantic superstar Rajesh Khanna staggered RD’s run.

In R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music, authors Aniruddha Bhattacharya and Balaji Vittal point out two other enervating factors.

The first was the trend of gaudy South remakes, which had ‘pedestrian’ music. The other was the disco fever, spearheaded by Bappi Lahiri with Mithun Chakraborty as mascot. 

Kishore Kumar’s passing away in 1987 aggravated the stillness in RD’s life.

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Even a brilliant Ijaazat (1987) couldn’t re-route RD’s decline. Chhoti si kahani se, Khaali haath sham aayi hai, Katra katra and Mera kuchh samaan (won Asha Bhosle the National Award) captured the emotion-dense premise of the film. But sadly, the poetic offerings were overlooked in the rave wave.

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As wife and muse Asha Bhosle once pointed out, “With the coming of Bappi Lahiri, his producers disappeared. If they get a plagiarised tune at a lower cost, why would they come to the original?” (Cineplot)

“For a composer as talented as Pancham to be jobless was a living death… He would sometimes share his grief with me… how cruel the industry was to Pancham just because some of his music didn’t do well,” reportedly said Lata Mangeshkar (IANS).

Singer Bhupinder Singh seconded that (in the twin books Knowing Pancham and Pancham Unlimited) saying, “In his best days, people thronged him, and partook of his generosity. But in his bad days, he was alone. Where did everyone go… How could he die like that alone?”

A dejected RD suffered a heart attack in 1988. He underwent bypass surgery a year later at The Princess Grace Hospital in London. The next year, he composed music for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989), which had soulful songs like Tumse milke and Pyaar ke modh pe.

Vidhu, who was privy to RD’s dwindling self-confidence mentioned, “People close to him… had left him. He began thinking that he lacked the ability and was burnt out (www.beingindian.com).”

But the director had faith in him and signed him for 1942: A Love Story (1994). 

“The first song we did was Kuch na kaho. He made a tune… I was appalled. I told him, ‘You’re the best music director in the country… I’m looking for him… Next week, he started the song with SD Burman’s note… RD came back from selling music to creating music (www.beingindian.com),” recounted Vidhu.

Ab main demand mein nahin hoon. Log synthesizers par music banate hain. I need a full music arranger. I can’t cheat people. Also, I can’t sell myself,” RD said in an interview on TV Today, in late October 1993 unaware that the coming year would bring him huge recognition – albeit posthumously.

The new year had just begun when RD fell ill again in the first week of January 1994. He suffered from breathing problems. Reportedly, wife Asha Bhosle and her son Nandu (from her first marriage), rushed him to a hospital in Khar. 

“An oxygen tank couldn’t be located for hours at several hospitals... He kept saying, “I’m in pain…bahut dard hai (The Print),” she was quoted in a feature in The Print. RD passed away at 54, on 4 January 1994, after reportedly suffering two heart attacks.

Raakhee, his neighbour and friend Gulzar’s wife, sprayed his favourite colognes Grey Flannel and Dunhill on him. He was draped in a silk dhoti and kurta that she had bought as a gift for Pancham said an article on www.panchamonline.

RD's mother, who was 82 and suffering from age-related ailments, refused to believe that her son was no more. Apparently, she kept repeating in Bengali, “This is not my son. This is someone else’s body.”

1942 – A Love Story (1994) released three months later on 15 April 1994. The album, RD’s swan song, is perhaps his most sublime one. Compositions like Ek ladki ko dekha, Kuch na kaho, Rhimjhim rhimjhim, Ye safar bahut hai kathin magar… lyricised the turbulent love story set against the freedom movement. RD won the Best Music Director Filmfare Award but he was not around to receive it.

“Mozart died unsung too. Today thousands flock to his grave in Vienna. Pancham didn’t get his due during his lifetime but he will be remembered forever… he was at least 50 years ahead of his times,” muse Asha Bhosle was quoted saying in a feature by Khalid Mohamed for The Print.

She couldn’t be truer.

More from Yahoo Tragic Tales series:

Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.

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