In 1993, when director Vidhu Vinod Chopra was thinking about getting a music composer for his film, ‘1942 – A Love Story’, he thought of Rahul Dev Burman (nickname: Pancham – the fifth musical note). At that time, Pancham had been in the wilderness for eight years. From the mid 1980s, he had 27 flops in a row. And he was short of confidence. He did not know why the people had rejected him. And it was then that Vidhu approached Pancham out of the blue. He told the film’s story and after a week, he went to listen to the tunes.
Pancham began singing a song in the style of the mid 1980s, with a tabla providing the music. Then Pancham stopped and said, “What is your first reaction?”
A disappointed Vidhu said, “You are the finest music director alive today and is this what you are giving me?”
One by one the other musicians left the room. There was only Pancham and Vidhu in the room.
In the sudden silence, Pancham said, “Am I doing the film or not?”
Clearly, this was the lowest point of the legendary Bollywood composer’s life.
Vidhu said, “Dada, don’t give me this emotion. Give me the music I am seeking from you. And, of course, you are doing the film. You are the best.”
And, eventually, Pancham lived up to Vidhu’s confidence. The songs of ‘1942 – A Love Story’ were chart busters and are now regarded as classics. But unfortunately, Pancham was not there to enjoy his redemption. A few weeks before the audio release, Pancham died of a heart attack on January 4, 1994, aged 54.
This interview with Vidhu was shown during a riveting two-hour production, called ‘Pancham...the immortal Note’, which was staged by the Pune-based Niche Entertainment at the JT Pac, Kochi. It traced the life of the composer from his childhood days till the end.
“Pancham spent his childhood in Kolkata under the care of his maternal grandmother,” said Milind Oak, the director and anchor of the show. “At that time, his father Sachin Dev Burman was making his mark in Mumbai as a music composer.”
When the boy had grown up a bit, he would go to Mumbai during the summer vacations and stay with his father. Once playback singer Asha Bhonsle, who was six years older, was introduced to a thin fellow. “Pancham has come for his school holidays to Mumbai,” Sachin Dev told Asha. A few months later, Asha again saw Pancham. So Asha asked Sachin, “Are there more holidays now?”
Sachin Dev said, “He has failed.” And Pancham stayed on and became an assistant to his father and worked on many films.
Later, he began composing on his own. But it was his fifth (Pancham) film, Teesri Manzil (1966), directed by Nasir Hussain which was a hit. He never looked back. Hit after hit followed. And it was a pleasure to hear the songs – from films like Kora Kagaz, Kati Patang Amar Prem and Aradhana – sung with felicity and verve by singers Hrishikesh Ranade, Jitendra Abhyankar, Rama Kulkarni and Priyanka Barve. Sometimes, there were dances, done ably by Kunal Phadke and team. And every now and then, there would be video interviews with luminaries like Gulzar, Usha Uthup, Shiv Kumar Sharma, Shankar Mahadevan, Rishi Kapoor, Javed Akhtar Shammi Kapoor and Laxmikant Pyarelal.
And all had praise for Pancham “I have seen Padosan more than 100 times,” says Pyarelal. “But even today if it is shown on any TV channel, I stop all my work and keep looking at the film and listen to the songs, because nobody, other than Pancham, could make music like this.”
Not many people know that Pancham had a hugely talented orchestra to back him up. They included stars like Louis Banks on the synthesizer and piano, Hari Prasad Chaurasia on the flute, Sultan Khan on the sarangi, and, occasionally, Shiv Kumar Sharma on the santoor.
“One reason they worked for him was because he was simple, humble and caring,” says Milind Oak. In fact, when Ranjeet Gazmer, one of Nepal’s leading composers, who was nicknamed Kancha bhai by Pancham, had a slipped disc and was bedridden for six months, the latter visited his house every day with food and medicines. Incidentally, Kancha Bhai played the madal (a Nepalese hand drum).
Pancham’s career went on and on. In the end, he scored the music for 331 films. These included 292 (Hindi) 31 (Bengali) and the rest in Telugu, Tamil, Oriya, and Marathi.
What was a revelation was that during the Durga Puja celebrations in West Bengal, Pancham regularly brought out Bengali albums, in which he himself sang, that were hugely popular.
In his personal life, Pancham was briefly married to Rita Patel, a fan who had met him in Darjeeling. They split up and Pancham’s unforgettable ‘Musafir Hoon Yaaron’, (Parichay) was composed by him, when he was staying at a hotel following the separation. Later, Pancham married Asha Bhonsle in 1980 but the relationship went through troubled times.
In the end, Pancham’s life and career were unforgettable and so was the stage show by Niche Entertainment.