Posted on July 2, 2016


A bit of a rant about how we keep dusting off the same set of “greatest hits” every time we want to remember a composer.

It was RD Burman’s 77th birthday last Monday. Google honoured the composer with a doodle. Behind an illustration of RD that made him look like a round-faced schoolboy, there were representations of scenes from films he scored music for. I had to squint, but I thought I saw the giant Daliesque eye from O haseena zulfon wali (Teesri Manzil) and Kajal Kiran borne up by balloons in Yeh ladka haye Allah (Hum Kisise Kum Nahin). It’s understandable that they chose images from his greatest hits, because you want the viewer to get it in an instant. When you want to make a quick Sholay reference, you’re going to choose Gabbar Singh, not Ramlal. A similar philosophy was followed by a local radio station, which played greatest hit after greatest hit: Oh Maria, Keh doon tumhe, Dil dena khel hai dildar ka, Duniya mein logon ko, Aa dekhe zara… The purpose was achieved. We remembered the great composer with fondness, with nostalgia, with sadness.

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But if a newcomer to the RD-verse had tuned in, he’d have slotted the composer in the wakao genre, a creator of high-energy tunes that make it unnecessary to go to the gym because you’re burning many, many calories through all the involuntary head-shaking, finger-drumming, foot-tapping… Mercifully, as the programme continued, we got non-wakao numbers as well: Roz roz aankhon tale, Chand mera dil, and that exquisite ode to the modest dream (a little earth, a little sky, a little house made of straw) sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Bhupindar, Thodi si zameen. But again, very popular numbers. And again, for good reason. You want to satisfy all listeners (or all viewers, in the case of TV), so you choose the most popular songs, the most characteristic songs, the songs that most easily, most instantly define the composer.

And in RD’s case, that’s the rock-based wakao song. No one else burned up the dance floor so inventively, so consistently. Also the jazz-based cabaret number, which he elevated to ostrich-feather heights. Which is why radio stations keep returning to Bachna ae haseeno and Piya tu ab to aaja to remember RD Burman. There’s another reason. Radio’s job is to play music that becomes the background for chores, and you want “happy music,” music that makes the chore seem less… chore-y. There’s a meme that goes “When you’re happy you listen to the song, when you’re sad you listen to the lyrics.” It’s something like that. RD was no slouch in composing songs situated at the other end of the emotional spectrum from his wakao/cabaret numbers. But when you listen to Main shayar badnaam, the part of the brain that allows you to multitask gives way to the part haunted by ghosts from the past. You cannot work. You can only wallow. These songs are why night was invented. If they were played during the day, you wouldn’t be driving, humming along. You’d have pulled the car over and dredged up a few hundred sad memories.

But do we diminish the legacy of a composer when we dust off the same set of “greatest hits” every time we want to remember him? This isn’t just about RD. This reductionism happens with everyone, and it results in (1) the composer being typecast in the mind as the creator of X type of song (and thus being perceived as less versatile than he was), and (2) a large portion of his work remaining unknown, and, over generations, vanishing from public memory. RD is rarely singled out as the creator of – for instance – songs that play over situations that aren’t exactly sad, and are yet tinged with a peculiar wistfulness, even melancholy. I’m talking about Panna ki tamanna, Bechara dil kya kare, Neend churake raaton mein, O hansini, Bade achche lagte hain, or even Baahon mein chale aao, which can easily become a “sad song” with a different kind of percussion. Listen to the line “Humse sanam kya parda.” If you didn’t know it was a naughty-flirty situation on screen, you may be forgiven for thinking this is a snatch from one of those heartbreaking ghazals Madan Mohan kept tuning for Lata M.

This is my favourite “genre” of RD song. It’s characterised by a strong vocal performance, with the instruments receding to the background (the beats scurry in and out almost apologetically) – and yet, the song isn’t complete without these instrumental touches. And it sounds so… personal. Listen to Aaja piya, tohe pyaar doon, and you feel Asha Parekh is singing only for Rajesh Khanna, and we’re eavesdropping on a private moment. RD wasn’t the first to compose this kind of song, but his era was the last to give it a place of pride. Ironically, he was one of the reasons for its demise. His wakao numbers became such blockbusters that the Hindi film soundtrack became increasingly instrument-heavy – even the love songs became less velvety, interrupted constantly by insistent beats. Listen to Kya yehi pyaar hai, from the 1980s. That whispered-into-the-night quality of RD’s earlier love songs is gone. Maybe it’s fitting, after all, that we choose to remember RD Burman as the wacky wakao man!

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