Rahul Dev Burman, the Indian music composer, was born on June 27, 1939 in Kolkatta to music director S.D. Burman and Meera Burman, and moved to Mumbai as a child with his family in 1944. He is popularly known as Pancham or Panchamda. The story goes that actor Ashok Kumar named him Pancham because as a child R.D. Burman cried at the fifth note, “Pa” or “Pancham”, of the musical scale!
S.D. Burman sent Pancham to Kolkata to do his schooling and it is here that Pancham spent his formative years. Seeing his disinterest in academics, his father enrolled him in music classes. Pancham learned to play the tabla from Brajen Biswas and sarod from Ali Akbar Khan. It is through these classes that Pancham got his grounding in classical music.
Pancham returned to Mumbai in 1955 and started working with his father as an assistant music director. Pancham’s first contribution to his father’s music was a tune he had composed as a young boy. S.D. Burman used that tune in “Aye Meri Topi Palat Ke Aa” (“Funtoosh”, 1956) without telling him. Pancham’s next significant contribution was the superhit song “Sar Jo Tera Chakraye” (“Pyaasa”, 1957) but he was not officially credited as an assistant. S.D. Burman started officially crediting Pancham as an assistant music director in “Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi” (1958). Apart from assisting in music composition, he also played the harmonica and the sarod, in his father’s songs. The harmonica in “Hai Apna Dil To Awaara” (“Solva Saal”, 1958) is his.
While his first film as a music director was Guru Dutt’s unreleased film “Raaz” (1959), his first released movie was Mehmood’s “Chhote Nawab” (1961). Despite some stellar tracks, the score failed to make an impact. Over the next few years, he continued to assist his father in films like “Bandini” (1963), “Teen Deviyaan” (1965) and “Guide” (1965). It was Mehmood again who tried to resurrect Pancham’s flailing solo career with “Bhoot Bangla” (1965). This time his music was noticed and the rock n’ roll track “Aao Twist Karen” (inspired from Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again”) became a big hit.
By this time, it was evident Pancham had talent but he also needed a little luck to succeed. For his movie “Teesri Manzil” (1966), producer Nasir Hussain wanted to sign S.D. Burman as the music director but because he was ill, he took lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri’s advice to bring on board the young R.D. Burman instead. Pancham then had to interview with the film’s hero Shammi Kapoor, who preferred Shankar - Jaikishen, to clinch the job! What followed was a musical score that changed Hindi film music forever. Not only did the songs of “Teesri Manzil” become monstrous hits, they also ushered in a new kind of music in Hindi films - one that married Indian melodies with Western and Latin instruments and rhythms. There was no looking back for Pancham after that and he delivered several successful scores through the late 1960s including “Padosan” (1968) and “Kati Patang” (1970).
If Pancham was successful in the late 60s, he completed dominated the 70s. With “Amar Prem” (1971), he earned the industry’s respect and with a string of blockbuster hits - the title song of “Hare Rama Hare Krishna” (1971), “Duniya Mein Logon Ko” (“Apna Desh”, 1972), “Jaane Jaan Dhoondhta Raha” (“Jawani Diwani”, 1972) - he gained mass appeal. The seventies marked the beginning of his relationship with lyricist Gulzar that would last his lifetime. Starting with “Parichay” (1972), the two would create songs with evergreen appeal in movies like “Aandhi” (1975), “Kinara” (1977) and “Ghar” (1978). Pancham also became romantically involved with singer Asha Bhosle during this period and married her in 1980, nine years after divorcing his first wife, Rita Patel.
Pancham’s career in the 1980s was relatively lack-lustre but he continued to enjoy success with scores in films like “Kudrat” (1981), “Masoom” (1982) - which won him a Filmfare Award - and “Saagar” (1985). The high point of the decade was his composition for “Ijaazat” (1987) - once again, written by Gulzar and expressed by Asha. His commercial appeal had faded by then and he was now competing with a new generation of music directors. A bypass surgery in 1989 slowed him down further and as a result, he got fewer offers.
Pancham’s last successful score was also his last one ever. He died of heart attack on January 4, 1994 before he could enjoy the success of his compositions for “1942: A Love Story”. Filmfare awarded him the Best Music Director award for the film and starting 1995, instituted the R.D. Burman Award for New Music Talent.
Pancham’s legacy can be heard in his influences in present day Hindi film music and the covers and remixes of his songs. While Pancham primarily composed for Hindi films, he also has a significant body of work in Bangla films.