Music was a gift bequeathed to Rahul Dev Burman by his father, Sachin Dev Burman. If Burman Dada immortalised himself with his two manjhi songs — O re manjhi (Bandini) and Sun mere bandhu re (Sujata) — Burman Baba belted out O manjhi teri naiyya se chhoota kinara in that long-forgotten river-bank(rupt) bilingual Aar Paar directed by Shakti Samanta.
This timeless manjhi song proved that Papa and Burman Jr were sailing in the same boat. Sadly, by the time RD’s boat sailed into the 1980s, it developed a leak. If the song hadn’t gone unnoticed, RD would surely have sung more such reflective quasi-philosophical songs.
Doubtless, the distinctive voice of R.D. Burman was capable of conveying the emotional of a lyric as well, if not better than some male playback singers who sang for him. This is specially true of RD’s tunes for Amit Kumar. In the popular Bade achhe lagte hain (Balika Badhu), Amit’s voice synchronises so well with RD’s that listeners can scarcely tell when Pancham stealthily slips into the number with the boatman’s clarion call O manjhi re jaiyo piya ke des… R.D. Burman often contributed key lines to his compositions without claiming credit. Though the legendary cabaret number Piya tu ab to aaja in Caravan is credited only to Asha Bhosle, Pancham’s banshee cries of Monica o my darling have rooted the number in the public’s mind.
In the hauntingly bare Kishore Kumar-Lata Mangeshkar love duet Hum dono do premee duniya chhod chale (Ajnabi), the composer chips in as the bystander at the railway station to ask where the fugitive lovers are off to.
In Lata’s version of Phoolon ka taron ka sab ka kehna hai (Hare Rama Hare Krishna), Pancham sings for ‘Daddy’ Kishore Sahu — with Daddy ka mummy ka sabka kehna hai ek hazaron mein teri behna hai… These incidental vocal appearances verify Pancham’s casual yet unforgettable artistry.
Recalls Gulzar, “Pancham was an excellent singer. He knew the nuances of classical singing. For my films, he sang only a couple of songs. But he lent his voice even so often. For instance, in Jabbar Patel’s Musafir, the boatman’s voice-over, is Pancham! As a singer, he would perfect a tune by singing it repeatedly. In the album that I did with him in 1994, listen to how well he has sang the numbers Raah pe rahte hain and Koi diya jale kahin (later rendered by Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle, respectively).
Then in Dil Padosi Hai, the original soundtracks by Pancham before they were dubbed by Asha Bhosle are superb. They show his range as a singer.
The solos and duets that R.D. Burman sang in the ’70s asserted his growing reputation as a rock-`n’-roll renegade. Somehow the serious songs sung by Pancham (such as the manjhi number in Aar Paar) never got their due. The hits that Pancham sang were almost invariably gimmicky.
With Mohammed Rafi, RD was heard in his element in the yummy Yamma yamma number in Shaan. RD’s most memorable duet of male bonding was the zany jazz-tinged title song of Gol Maal. Sung with Sapan Chakravarty, the song’s verve is unmatched by any other song of male bonding in the ’80s except perhaps Jaan-e-Jigar, the groovy Goan gaana that RD `dared’ to duet with his favourite male singer, Kishore Kumar in Pukaar.
Whenever R.D. Burman went solo, he made sure it was a song that needed his voice, and no one else’s. Incredibly, the all-time favourite Mehbooba oh mehbooba (Sholay), might not have been sung by Pancham at all. At first, this vibrant sexy titillator was to be sung by Asha Bhosle. When Jalal Agha was brought into the picture to lend a vocal drizzle to Helen’s sizzle, R.D. Burman was considered by Javed Akhtar, Anand Bakshi and Ramesh Sippy as the best bet for this number inspired by a Demis Roussos chart-topper.
Equally accomplished was Pancham’s interpretation of the locomotive rhythms of Dhanno ki aankhon mein raat ka surma. Gulzar’s words in Kitaab were transported to a wonderland of images. It became a voyage of self-discovery for Pancham. Equally devil-may-care was RD’s interpretation of the number Kal kya hoga kisko pataa (Kasme Vaade) and Samundar mein naha ke (Pukar).
And how elegantly Pancham wore the shirt of hurt into the two Nasir Hussain musicals Hum Kisise Kam Nahin and Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai. In the ever-young songs Tum kya jaano mohabbat kya hai and Dil lena khel hai dildar ka, R.D. walked tall over a terrain of pain.
The most meditative solo melody that Pancham sang was Yeh zindagi kuchh bhi sahi in the flop Kumar Gaurav-Poonam Dhillon starrer, Romance, containing some of RD’s best compositions ever. The emotional grip of the lyrical delivery rivals Kabhi palkon pe aansoon which Kishore Kumar sang for R.D. Burman in Harjaee.
With his singing soul companion Asha Bhosle, R.D. created a dense romantic atmosphere. Though they sang no more than seven or eight full-fledged duets, the slender repertoire created a voluminous impression because of their impact.
The first duet that R.D. and Asha sang was O meri jaan main ne kahaa (The Train). The Rajesh Khanna-R.D. Burman team that bloomed in the ’70s was in its infancy when R.D. composed and sang with Asha for The Train. The film had two strikingly original-sounding solos Gulabi aankhen by Mohammed Rafi and Kis liye maine pyar kiya by Lata. Inadvertently, the RD-Asha duet was left out, sidetracked.
R.D. Burman and Asha Bhosle had their revenge the very next year when their uptempo number outpaced all other chartbusters of Apna Desh. Their heat-and-run number? The high-pitched ode to raunch — Duniya mein logon ko dhokha kabhi ho jaata hai. The number stressed the outlandishness of Pancham’s vocals. Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz were dressed as a couple of freakos in this climactic song.
Just when you thought they were the ’70s version of Sonny and Cher, belying all expectations, the RD-Asha pair hit an all-time high of emotional expression in Sapna mera toot gaya in Khel Khel Mein. While Kishore Kumar accompanied Asha in all the frothy fun duets in the film, R.D.Burman stepped in to create waves in this memorable song of parting and remembrance.
Peculiar, passionate and palpably Pancham is Na jaa jaan-e-jaan that largely ignored, scene stealer RD-Asha duet in Joshilay. Here and in the disco-very-very special of the ’80s, Jaan-e-jaan o meri jaan-e-jaan in Sanam Teri Kasam, Pancham stepped back into the shadows to let Asha `squeal’ the limelight. But his contribution to the two duets is like a mistletoe decorating a Christmas tree.
The last duet that R.D. Burman sang with Asha was Yeh din to aata hai (Mahaan). Sadly by then R.D. Burman’s career was under a cloud.
There’s an interesting end-game associated with R.D. Burman’s career as a singer. In the selective, reluctant and meagre repertoire of songs that the chameleon composer chose to sing, one song is extra-special. Kya bhala hai kya bura in Gulzar’s unreleased Libaas. It’s one of the few film songs that dares to make light of the burden of existence.
The song is special for another reason. It’s the only time, Rahul Dev Burman dared to face at the microphone with the singer who had seen him as a child fooling around in shorts at his papa’s recordings… and whom the young adult-Pancham hesitantly approached to sing the first song that he ever composed.
That duet with Lata Mangeshkar was the last song R.D. Burman ever sang in a film.