by David Courtney working tools

R.D. Burman

Rahul Dev Burman, better known as R.D. Burman, was a famous Bollywood music director during the 60's through the early 90's.  He was known for introducing an upbeat, Western copied music that defined much of the music of the 1970's.  This style has influenced generations of music directors even to today.

R.D. Burman was born in Calcutta on June 27th, 1939, in Calcutta.  His father was the legendary music director S.D. Burman and his mother was named Meera.  As a child he was nicknamed "Pancham".  There seems to be some disagreement as to how he acquired this nickname.  One story has it that as an infant, his crying reminded his parents of the fifth note of the Indian scale; this is known as Pancham.  Another story has it that once when Ashok Kumar was visiting, the he kept saying "Pa Pa, Pa, Pa" and whereupon Ashok Kumar named him "Pancham".

His music education began very early on.  Naturally there was the influence of growing up in his father's home, with constant music surrounding him.  Furthermore after the family moved from Calcutta to Bombay, he started to learn sarod from the famous Ali Akbar Khan.  He also learned to play the harmonica.  With such a musical environment, it is not surprising that he started to compose music very quickly.  He was only nine years old when he composed his first song; this was Aye Meri Topi Palat Ke Aa and his father used it in the film "Funtoosh" 1956).

His professional career began in 1958.  He began assisting his father on films such as "Solva Saal" (1958), "Chalti Ka Naaam Gaadi" (1958), and "Kaagaz ka Phool" (1957).  His first film as music director was Guru Dutt's film "Raaz" (1959); unfortunately, this film was shelved in the middle of the project.  His first released film as a music director was Mehmood's "Chote Nawaab" (1961).  From there his career was firmly launched.

RD. Burman and Mehmood in scene from Bhoot Bangla

RD. Burman and Mehmood in scene from "Bhoot Bangla"

The 1960's saw RD. Burman working in various capacities.  Sometimes he worked as an assistant music director to his father; he assisted his father on such films as "Bandini" (1963), "Teen Deviyaan" (1965), "Guide" (1965), "Jewel Thief" (1967) and "Talash" (1969).  He also tried his hand at acting; he acted in such films as "Bhoot Bangla" (1965) and "Pyaar Ka Mausam" (1967).  But more significantly he started working as a music director in his own right.  For instance, there was "Bhoot Bangla" (1965), and his first hit film "Teesri Manzil" (1966).

Poster for Teesri Manzil

Poster for "Teesri Manzil"

"Tesri Manzil" marked a major milestone in his career.  From this point on, he was well establish, and was able to be the music director for a number of major films.  This brought him a number of successful films such as "Padosan" (1968) and "Waris" (1969).  The dawn of the 70s saw, RD Burman become Bollywood's most sought after music director.  This was represented by such immortal hits as "Amar Prem" (1971), "Hare Rama Hare Krishna" (1971), "Seetha Aur Geeta" (1972), and "Sholay" (1975).

This period of his life was marked by both personal success and hardships.  He married Rita Patel in 1966, but the marriage did not last; they were divorced in 1971.  In 1975 his father passed away.

The death of his father may be seen as a punctuation in his career.  It did not stop him, but marked the start of another decade of successful films in Bollywood.  It is pointless to try and name them all, but a few which particularly stand out are "Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin" (1977), "Golmal" (1979), "Kudrat" (1980), and "Burning Train" (1980)

His personal life was also good in this period.  In 1980 he married Asha Bhosle in 1980.  They remained happily married until his death.

RD Burman and wife Asha Bhosly

R.D. Burman and wife Asha Bhosle

At the height of his career, there were repeated questions concerning his "borrowing" of themes from other songs.  We must remember India is generally known for its rather pragmatic and liberal approach to intellectual property laws; and all of the Indian genres of music, be they classical, folk, or popular, find themes freely passing from one artist to another.  However, the extent to which RD Burman "borrowed" material is generally considered to have exceeded even what was normal for Bollywood.  For example Aao Twist Karein ("Bhoot Bhangla" - 1965) is a ripoff of Let's Twist Again by Chubby Checker; Tera Mujhse Hai Pehle Ka Naata Koi ("Aaa Gale Lag Ja" - 1973) is lifted from The Yellow Rose of Texas (Traditional Texas folksong), or Tumse Milke ("Parinda" - 1989) was lifted from When I Need You (Hammond & Sager).  This list of R.D. Burman songs that contained material that was "borrowed" from pre-existing sources, is so long that many say that the majority of his career was actually based upon plagiarism.  I think that it is an interesting reflection upon both Indian business as well as Indian society, that such activities failed to arouse any significant reproach.

The mid 1980's were a very hard time for R.D. Burman, both personally as well as professionally.  The general perception was that he had lost his touch.  The songs that he did, generally failed to make a major impact on the public.  Where R.D. Burman had made a career from Western "inspired" songs, he found that he was repeatedly being outdone by Bappi Lahiri's Western "inspired" disco.  In 1988 at the age of 49, he suffered a heart attack.  He underwent surgery and continued to make music.  But his career limped into the 1990's with very lacklustre commercial success.  There were a few exceptions to the publics rejection of his music, most notably "1942: A Love Story".  But by and large he was considered finished in the Bollywood film industry.  At the age of 54 he suffered another heart attack.  With his wife Asha at his side, he die on January 4, 1994.

His death may have brought an end to his musical output, but he is fondly remembered today.  Where the public, and business rejected him the last years of his life, today the public tends to focus on the high spots in his career.  He has been remembered and honoured by numerous, remixes, documentaries, and the naming of the "Filmfare RD Burman Award for New Music Talent" after him.

Selected Video








© 1998 - 2018 David and Chandrakantha Courtney

For comments, corrections, and suggestions, kindly contact David Courtney at