Burman, Rahul Dev

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Rahul Dev Burman

The wildly eclectic scores of Indian composer Rahul Dev (R.D.) Burman (1939–1994) did much to define the internationally popular "Bollywood" sound of Indian film music, which became internationally popular as electronic dance producers with Indian roots began to draw on Burman's music as raw material.

The music from Burman's more than 300 scores furnished an inexhaustible trove of samples for dance recordings and remix specialists. Some of Burman's compositions, sung by top Indian movie stars in films filled music, became hits. At the center of Burman's achievement, however, were his film scores themselves. No musical genre anywhere in the world could be ruled out for potential incorporation into Burman's kaleidoscopic scores, which featured flavors from Indian classical and regional traditions, jazz, rock, swing, circus music, Mexican mariachi, and Brazilian bossa nova, among other styles. Burman also numbered the leading contemporary classical string quartet in the United States, the Kronos Quartet, among his admirers.

Started on Harmonica

The son of pioneering Indian film composer and singer Sachin Dev Burman, Burman was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on June 27, 1939. For most of his life he was commonly referred to by the nickname Pancham, which he acquired as a baby, according to one story, when Indian singer Ashok Kumar heard him babble the syllable "Pa" repeatedly. "Pa" was the name of a note in the Indian scale system, meaning "fifth" in Sanskrit and comparable to "sol" in the Western solfèe scale. Burman built on this promising musical beginning. He was raised mostly by a grandmother in Calcutta while his father spent time in the film industry center of Bombay (now Mumbai), and he knew India's urban poverty. At one point Burman's family and another family shared a one-room house. But he learned the harmonica well enough to perform at a school assembly, and his father, in attendance, realized that his son had musical talent. The next morning, Burman's father asked him how long he had been practicing. "I replied that I'd been having a go for the past eight months and wanted to be a better music director than he," Burman recalled in a Filmfare interview reproduced on the Pancham Online website. "My answer must have surprised him."

From that point on, S.D. Burman took a greater interest in his son's musical education. At first, Burman was given a grounding in the basics of India's complex classical music system. His father groomed him as a composer and encouraged him to learn different instruments so that he would become familiar with their capabilities. Beginning in his pre-teen years and starting on the tabla drum, he then studied the sarod, a difficult Indian stringed instrument, with Ali Akbar Khan and Ashish Khan, two of India's greatest classical musicians. Burman went on to write some scores in traditional classical styles, and he included elements of classical instrumentation in many others. He also began writing songs in the manner of those heard in India's growing film industry, which became the largest in the world.

Burman's father wanted to take him from Calcutta to Bombay to train him in film composition, but his grandmother resisted the idea because she believed the environment of the film industry would have a corrupting influence on Burman, who had already begun to take a rebellious attitude toward his studies. Once, Burman's father asked his son whether he had done any composing, and Burman responded by playing 15 songs he had recently written. A year later, watching a film called Funtoosh, Burman heard a familiar-sounding song in the score his father had composed. "I blurted out aloud—'My God, that's my tune,'" he told Filmfare. "I wrote and accused my father of flicking my tune and he admitted he had." The song, entitled "Ae meri topi palat ke aa," went on to become a big hit, strengthening Burman's determination to become a composer.

Burman finally began working in films as an assistant to his father, earning his first credit on the 1955 film Pyaasa. He played several instruments on that film's soundtrack, and his father began schooling him in the finer points of film composition and assigning him to work with different singers and directors. More and more actual composition work was handed off to Burman, who was often credited as assistant music director on films scored by his father in the late 1950s, and the two developed a spirit of friendly competition that honed Burman's skills. Burman was signed as music director for a 1959 film called Raaz, but the film was shelved before shooting could be completed. His first official credit as music director was Chhote Nawab (1961).

Quoted Chubby Checker Song

Burman worked as assistant music director on several more of his father's films in the early 1960s and began to add non-Indian influences to his musical makeup. He accompanied jazz musician friends to recording sessions and developed a strong appreciation for the form, believing that a knowledge of jazz and its improvisation techniques were essential for an Indian film music director. The international Twist dance craze also marked the beginning of a strong Western pop influence. Burman featured a tune very much like that of American vocalist Chubby Checker's "Let's Twist Again" in the 1965 film Bhoot Bungla. By that time Burman was consistently working as a music director rather than as an assistant to his father.

The many and varied borrowings of non-Indian music that were characteristic of Burman's scores occasionally led to charges that he had simply copied Western hits, perhaps illegally. Burman disputed the allegation, telling Filmfare that "If I like a particular line I take it but after that I improvise. I only borrowed eight bars from Abba's "Mamma Mia." He pointed to the fact that he had not encountered significant copyright problems: "If you copy in toto you may have trouble. Again, there are common phrases in music … and two people using the same may just be a coincidence." The list of Burman songs modeled on Western hits is a long one, and Burman enthusiasts have compiled his borrowings on websites.

Burman's breakthrough film was Tesri Manzil (1965), for which he landed the position of music director after director Vijay Anand arranged a session with producer Nasir Hussain at which Burman could demonstrate some of his tunes. Actor and matinee idol Shammi Kapoor, listening in, is said to have "screamed 'Yahoo' in sheer appreciation" (according to the Down Melody Lane website), and Hussain signed Burman to a six-film contract. Burman's "Aaja Aaja" soon became one of Indian cinema's famous seduction songs, and his career ascended rapidly. At the height of the Brazilian bossa nova craze in 1966, he introduced the style into his score for Pati Patni, and he continued to adapt other international popular styles as fast as his ear could soak them up. He was equally adept, however, in using purely Indian traditions, including Indian classical and folk genres. Burman often based his original music on tunes he heard while dreaming.

In 1970, Burman scored fewer than ten films and this qualified as a rest break for the composer. He hit a lifetime peak in 1972 with a staggering 19 scores, but his output in several other years was slightly lower. Burman occasionally was heard as a singer on his own soundtracks, usually overdubbing on-screen actors. He scored a solo hit with "Mehbooba Mehbooba" from the 1975 film Sholay, but more often he was heard in duets with another vocalist, Asha Bhosle. Burman had married a woman named Rita in 1960. They divorced in 1971, and Burman and Bhosle added a personal relationship to their professional one, marrying in 1980. Bhosle's became the voice most prominently associated with Burman's music. Thanks to his prolific musical output, she became by some accounts the most recorded singer in human history, with more than 13,000 recorded songs.

Used Bottles as Instruments

Between 1980 and 1985 Burman's output of scores never dropped below ten per year. He kept up with new developments in pop electronics coming from the West, but he also had a knack for matching sound to situation using very low-tech means; he used soda bottles as instruments, and on "Mehbooba Mehbooba" he played on a Listerine bottle. When the Kronos Quartet gathered Burman material for its 2005 album You've Stolen My Heart, they tried to replicate the varied instrumental sounds of Burman's sound-tracks but were understandably unable to identify the Listerine bottle without help. "When I think of Burman as an orchestrator, he belongs in the same sentence as a Stravinsky or a Debussy," Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington told Ernesto Lechner of the Chicago Tribune. Burman won Indian Filmfare awards in 1982 (for Sanam Teri Kasam) and 1983 (for Masoom).

Burman's popularity finally was dented somewhat by new styles in the late 1980s, and demand for his services, although not his productivity, dropped off. After a 1988 heart attack, he claimed to have composed 2,000 new tunes in his head while recuperating. He remained active in the early 1990s, composing music for several little-known films and bouncing back with one widely acclaimed masterpiece, the film 1942: A Love Story (1993). The movie won Burman's third Filmfare award, but sadly was not released until after his death on January 4, 1994. He had composed music for 331 films: 292 were in Hindi, 31 in Bengali, three in Telugu, two each in Tamil and Oriya, and one in Marathi. One film, a 1980 Indo-Russian co-production of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, contained Russian-language songs. Burman also released five albums unconnected with films and wrote non-cinematic songs for other artists, mostly in the Bengali language. Indian-American director Mira Nair included Burman's "Chura liya hai" in her 2000 film Monsoon Wedding, an affectionate tribute to Indian cinema.

The continuing presence of Burman's creations in the language of Indian music was ensured when a generation of dance music creators who had grown up with his music began to use it for samples and remixes in new dance-oriented recordings. As Indian fusions gained popularity in England and even in the United States, Burman's name became better known. Kronos Quartet violinist Harrington began to investigate Burman's career when he realized that it was Burman who had composed his favorite Bollywood scores, and the result was the 2005 album You've Stolen My Heart, which brought the septuagenarian Asha Bhosle out of retirement to perform on the album. That collection of 12 Burman songs promised to provide a new springboard for the appreciation of the man whom many considered Indian film music's greatest composer.


Chicago Tribune, September 25, 2005.

Denver Post, October 16, 2003.


"Biography," http://www.panchamonline.com (February 13, 2006).

"R.D. Burman," http://www.downmelodylane.com/pancham.html (February 13, 2006).

"R.D. Burman: 'My God, That's My Tune,'" http://www.panchamonline.com (February 13, 2006).

"Rahul Dev Burman," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005983 (February 13, 2006).