Pancham: 7 Birthday Pickings

Seven musical notes. Seven days a week. Twenty-seventh day of the sixth month. It’s impossible to compress Rahul Dev Burman into any number of notes, writings, books, or analyses. And yet, here’s that urge to randomly pick seven numbers to culminate a week of celebrating him. A week is but a tiny fraction in Pancham‘s cosmos. But every little flash of burn counts. Here goes, in no particular order or theme.

Jhanak Jhan Ghungroo Baja (1970)

The energetic violins herald in some tightly knit percussion pieces to begin the celebrations. This fast-paced foot-tapping beauty overlays the melody that courses all through. If the orchestration’s got an ominous touch, Rahul Dev Burman provides rose-petal succor through some lovely snatches of santoor. 

As usual, Pancham’s antara mantra works mesmerizing magic, a river breaking through the sluice of the interludes, and then rising through the estuary of a high rise urgency to misleadingly come into his mukhda. And who else but Lata Mangeshkar to scale those unimaginable heights? But it’s in the way Pancham makes her go soft for an antara that shows mastery over his notes. He makes that river roar and then gurgle along the same route.

Ae Sagar Ki Lehron (1985)

Before the Worli sea link and all such manners of architectural wonders, Rahul Dev Burman created a bridge of hypnosis to connect his Saagar leitmotif (that went further back in time) to the fantastic Tune Kiya Kya Jaadu (Apne Apne) via this oceanic beauty’s opening. 

Pancham synthesizes immeasurable depths and width of a sparkling blue vista that bobs up and down on his octapads and keyboards that reaches as far as his imagination takes you. Long after the syncopated beats fade, the synth and vocal refrains stop, what remains with you is the shaken and stirred feeling of joy that is this number’s residue.

The song flows through crests of electronica but nothing feels artificial, with Pancham using guitars, the triangle, and an extended ride on cymbals to whiplash your senses, the spray of oceanic foam to open each antara. Plus there’s Lata Mangeshkar pepping up the ride after her calm, low tide opening. And Kishore Kumar, majestic as always, owns all the water bodies that his composer creates and skis on. 

It is in the final interlude when Pancham clatters guitars and drum sticks just for a brief, suspenseful splash is when you realize he’s like the oceanic mass he throws you into. Stunning. Deep. Endless. And breathtakingly unpredictable.

Mohabbat Mein Ajii Kya (1978)

What all can a santoor do? When Rahul Dev Burman helms a composition, it can do plenty. It can come running down a hillock to greet a loved one, as it does here. It can wink pertly, bounce a saucy bit off the rhythm. And when Lata Mangeshkar mischievously completes her mukhda opening, followed by Mohd. Rafi‘s slightly more sober, serenading bit, it can fill in the pauses with love’s stolen glances and looking away. It can green-carpet interludes, it can sprinkle the aroma of longing. 

When it comes to conversational banter, Pancham unfailingly enacts the scene in his mind and fevers your imagination. Here, with Anand Bakshi’s easy-going lines, he takes the back-and-forth gentle volley across a love-all courtship, employing just that dash of impish rouge in what is essentially a complexion of melody. But when it comes to the antaras, he adds notes of mildly intense beseechment, even as the conversation veers in the cross-over to a lovely violin cloud of high before softly landing on to the mukhda‘s toes. 

Mohd. Rafi, debonair and gentlemanly, respectfully strolls around Pancham’s notes, a ringer for Dharmendra’s presence onscreen. And for Lata Mangeshkar, Pancham reserves his special semi-giggle even as he makes her ease out the number with a haunting murki

And that santoor? It doesn’t arrive when you expect it the most. That disappearing act is what makes Pancham a magician.

Baaj Uthe Ghungroo (1990)

When the ghungroo is a key player in a number’s lyrics, the key is to desist from making it an in-your-face sound clatter. For the words are waxing eloquently about the effect they’re having on fluttering hearts. What then, is a composer to do?

Rahul Dev Burman keeps the ghungroo as a rhythmic accouterment once he sets the opening piece to announce their overall importance in the scheme of his soundscape. But to match those hearts that beat in anticipation of meeting in the great outdoors, he employs a tight ghatam piece that keeps the beautiful mukhda on its dainty toes. Plus his chorals may rush to greet you, but in the stunning first interlude, he pivots to an ornamental beauty that adds their notes of haunting cuts, switching to a Carnatic structure to fade them out. 

Pancham adds dashes of a mouth organ as another theme and a flute that hovers uncertainly over the antara before it relents. That lovely, feeling-mushy antara is also where he uses his favorite ploy with Amit Kumar, playing with the song’s meter and the words so it sounds as if the singer’s playing hopscotch on the tune. 

There’s Asha Bhosle who carries this song with zest, always tight on that Pancham-pause that catches you off-balance, a musical thrill that you can’t get enough of—is it Asha Bhosle or the ghatam-ghungroo who’ll stop, or both, or neither? There’s the title song (Aaj Ka Daur) as a continuous refrain, its synthesized frenzy replaced by a wavy treatment, to completely mask that titular origin. 

But it’s in the way the composer employs the flute that’s mesmerizing. Post its first appearance, it rests, knowing it has an important atmospheric on its way. In the coda, it creates a mist of emotions that stir you, envelopes you in a fog that blinds your way forward. Which is just as well. There’s nothing ahead. All that is, is what Pancham’s left behind.

Jo Bhi Hua Hai (1973/1983)

How do you infuse an apology with an irresistible hook that swims high on melody shots? Rahul Dev Burman adds a dash of bright energy, a spoon of sweetener, and toppings of sheer joy. This, in a number that belongs to a movie that took a decade to wallow towards its inevitable position of unmitigated disaster. The song, along with others for the movie’s soundtrack continues to shine as its lighthouse, long after the ship smashed into smithereens in a part of the box-office island that’s forgotten and unexplored. 

Pancham lilts the hai afresh for each occurrence, a minor reverse loop even as the tune nudges the word forward. And only Kishore Kumar could execute this complex touch of emotion with such aplomb. His voice sounds as if that from heaven, descending with a coat of the golden sun onto Pancham’s canvas that begins with a misleading bump and clatter of the bass strings, triangle, and percussion, only to be quietly swept aside by a strumming guitar. 

It’s in the antara that Pancham adds affecting joie de vivre atop the apologetic wisp running through the number. Here, that joyous touch runs opposite to Majrooh’s lyrics that sigh of the financial and general haplessness-in-love of the protagonist. And it is this opposite yet apposite touch that gives the song its pep, even as it strikes a chord for all ye in yearning. All this, even as Kishore Kumar’s voice tugs and releases with a magical cadence that’s transfixing. 

Had Pancham blared this number up in the sky, those birds wouldn’t have gotten angry at all.

Dhak Dhak Dhadke (1985)

No one quite manages an ensemble of singers as Rahul Dev Burman. His uncanny ability to make their gathering seem like an actual celebration makes you reach out for your outdoor Neelkamal chair or dancing shoes, depending on your preference and physical proclivities. 

Here Pancham rounds up Kavita Krishnamurthy to light the torch of a get-together that then passes in every antara to Suresh Wadkar, Shailendra Singh, and finally, Hariharan. That tune is a lovely mix of mellowed catchiness, every singer getting their sweet time to relish their character’s outlooks via Nida Fazli’s lines before the composer exits them via O meri jaan, a tune that sounds like a beautiful anachronism in the antara scheme of things.

Rahul Dev Burman keeps the tone, orchestration, and mood all Indian—except for one gentle caress of the guitars—opening with lavani dholaks, that change course before you can say Aaaika Ho Aaaika. And it’s in his mukhda tune do you see how he composes such that every dhak gets its own space, almost as distinct as a heartbeat that speaks their own note of lively optimism. And that space is what every singer gets too: the lady carrying out her lines with energetic distinction, Suresh Wadkar and Shailendra Singh superbly effective. 

And it’s for Hariharan’s piece that Pancham swerves into another lane for his rhythm and tune sections, almost as if pausing for the food for thought that his lines provide. None of it takes away the fun-bit, though, even as he almost trips his singer into O Meri Jaan. Unlike most political versions, Pancham’s party is one with a pause and a cause.  

Ye Zindagi Hai Char Pal (1972)

If you’ve ever thought of composing sentences, any music piece, a drawing, you’d have experienced the tumbling of jigsaw pieces that beg to be put together for a clearer view. Amidst the imagination-fired hullaballoo, you’ll hear your own voice talking to its twin on what to do next. And why just a creative piece, you’ll hear those voices—agreeing, recoiling, opposing— filling in the gaps in your landscape of thoughts as you experience sheer joy, crippling grief, or equanimous stillness. 

Rahul Dev Burman, the creator of new worlds, disruptor of steady plains, takes you on a spin in this uplifting, breezy peripatetic of a number. And as he zips through the highway of unexplored territory, he opens up notes that are anything but plain vanilla, adding whiffs of liberated energy in the mukhda.  In this sailing of top-level tailwinds, the buzz gets an additional thrust with that extra voice that’s Bhupinder Singh’s own, laid over, almost his own doppelgänger. But how can your own voice be your double? That’s the affirmation of your emotions, here a call for embracing life’s moments, living in the now for what’s caressing your presence on a limited tourney. 

But Pancham, adding trumpets, guitars and strums to precede the percussion thrum, doesn’t stop there. In the mindboggling antara, he bounces irresistible snappy joy on the trampoline of melody, even as he mixes Bhupinder’s voice for overlaid continuity, overhead support, and finally, as everything falls into place for the cross-over, a hypnotic harmony. The singer is in fine form, semi-yodling here, sliding across with panache there, giving the best of both of him for his composer’s jewel. 

At a time when there was no software to do all of the work and imagining for him, how many voices inside Pancham’s musical hippocampus and right-brain competed to be heard and scaped to achieve this immaculate conception? And then record those pieces separately and then map them to what his mind had simulated? That’s the only time the voices in your head harmonize, as you wonder in wonder: “How did he do it?”