Pancham: The Angst of Why

If there’s one word that hit us all in 2020 after “pandemic” made it to the top of the pops for dictionaries, it was looking at the smoking ruins of dreams, plans, and lives in the rearview mirror.

If there ever was a time to mark the chasm of economic plates with deep, dark red, this was it. Lines of unemployed strugglers. Workers gasping to trawl that one asphalted hope of burning desire to reach home. Stragglers dying on the way to achieve home nirvana.

Protests. Food producers dying of starvation. Unpaid rents. Homeless lining the streets when they ought to have been lining their erstwhile homes’ windows with festive lights.

Loved ones lost. The pandemic sweeping the brave frontline workers in the same killer wave as those surfing the corners of life’s streams. It was a year of asking “why?”

If there was a song set to play to the documentary of what humankind’s facing now, it’s one that was made in 1985.

“Why?” This quiver of angst spills like a melodic sob in composer Rahul Dev Burman‘s soulful Aisa Kyon Hota Hai (Why Does This Happen) for best pal Amjad Khan‘s directorial venture Ameer Aadmi Ghareeb Aadmi (Rich Man Poor Man)—as it turns out, their final collaboration in this role combination.

Pancham gives it all he’s got, putting heart and tears into this magnum opus of a painful beauty. Asha Bhosle‘s staying-beautifully-afloat vocals amidst the roiling and Nida Fazli‘s poignant lyrics row on the composer’s heavy bass wave, that he magically remixes to stay in the background, bubbling it up only when he gives his singer a thoughtful pause.

Pancham’s minimum percussion is a weary heartbeat, while he uses the flute to paint that very heart with pain and that troubling question: “Why?”

A violin that Rahul Dev Burman uses twice as an emotional scalpel, just to make sure he gets your attention right at the beginning, and that same heartbreaking piece in an interlude. And when Asha Bhosle sings the opening lines, he accentuates that troubling question with a tinnitus-like synthesiser note, just to keep you awake at night.

The sitar that plucks you where it hurts, and Pancham, knowing when to stop, uses it sparingly. Powerful. Searing. Melodic. Like his sweeping multi-stringed guitars that provide a blanket of temporary warmth.

After the fourth January 1994, that question keeps coming up. Again and again.

“Why?”

Did these songs not drown the airwaves when they released?

I’d always hoped Pancham would collaborate with Jagjit Singh. That fantasy was sealed this day, 27 years ago. This song is the closest we’ll get to hear what they’d have sounded like together.

“Why?”

Didn’t this happen?

Rahul Dev Burman never actually went away. His assignment list may have dwindled. His style may have gotten mellow. But he remained a fine, enigmatic, melodic creator.

Given a choice between Pancham remaining an in-the-groove, high-on-mojo, active, living composer and a God and an untouchable legend, I’d have selfishly chosen the former. As I’m sure he would.

But he was plucked for the latter insignia. Does he wonder, I wonder, as so many of us do:

“Why?”

The question remains, Pancham: “Why?”