As we complete a year of managing money in India, we celebrate two towering legends of the Indian music industry. Not only did RD Burman and AR Rahman change the way movie music is made in India, there are striking parallels in their careers. Both men were professional musicians by their mid-teens. Both turned away from conventional styles of music composition. Both were masters of their craft – which was primarily composing music for Indian movies – and yet their range of knowledge extended far beyond their chosen profession. This combination of in-depth specialization in one area alongside a vast body of knowledge is a powerful driver of creativity & original thought.
“Time works in a strange way. However, successful you may be, if your success is only a matter of chance or circumstances, not based on real talent, it will not stand the test of time. But if you are really great, you become greater with time. And time makes a bigger and bigger idol of you. And that is what is happening to R.D.Burman. Because time is kind to great people. And R.D.Burman was great.” – Javed Akhtar in the Foreword to “R.D.Burman: The Man, The Music” by Anirudha Bhattacharjee & Balaji Vittal
““First you have the prelude and then the music comes, then you have an interlude, followed by a cross-line,” Gulzar says about the conventional film tune. “From the start, songs were written this way. Rahman broke the pattern… the horizon… at what stage the song will return to the refrain, one never knows…Like classical and semi-classical musicians, he elaborates the tune. These elaborations build links and keep unfolding.” – Gulzar on AR Rahman (source: https://scroll.in/article/
Brief bios of two legendary music directors
Rahul Dev Burman – or Pancham as the Bollywood star of the 1950s & 60s, Ashok Kumar, named him as a toddler – was born in Kolkata in 1939 to a branch of the Tripura royal family. He did not distinguish himself in school but his father, the legendary music director SD Burman, deserves the gratitude of generations of Indian music lovers for beginning his son’s training in Hindustani classical music by the time Pancham was ten years old. The teenaged Pancham was precocious – amongst other songs, he composed ‘Sar jo tera chakraya’ for Guru Dutt’s icononic move ‘Pyasaa’ (1957).
When Pancham was 16, his father relocated him to Mumbai and Pancham became an assistant to his famous father. Personal success however continued to elude him even though his friend, the comedian Mehmood, hired Pancham as the music director for ‘Chhote Nawab’ (1961). Pancham’s first critically acclaimed hit came with ‘Padosan’ (1968), a movie whose true worth has become more obvious to music lovers with the passage of time. Then, in the years following Padosan, Pancham composed the music for four smash hits whose music towered over everything that was composed in Bollywood in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
‘Teesri Manzil’ (1966) was Pancham’s entry into the premier league with the full on brass band and hundred piece orchestra of ‘O haseena zulfon wali’ transforming the Bollywood song & dance number, for once and for all, into a big budget spectacular. In Dev Anand’s ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ (1971) Pancham memorably brought rock musjc, English lyrics and vocalists trained in Western music to Bollywood with ‘Dum maro dum’ being the most memorable outcome of this fusion between East and West. In ‘Kati Patang’ (1971), Pancham’s music resulted in Filmfare awards for superstar Rajesh Khanna, director Shakti Samanta and singer Kishore Kumar. For the next Rajesh Khanna blockbuster ‘Amar Prem’ (1972) Pancham composed three songs which pay glorious tribute to India’s rich heritage of Hindustani classical music and are regarded by the cognoscenti – playback singers (Kishore Kumar, Hemanta Mukherjee), Classical musicians (Pandit Mallikarjun Mansoor, Pandit Ajoy Chakroborty) and film directors (Shakti Samanta, Hrishikesh Mukherjee) – as the greatest songs composed for the Hindi screen.
More hits followed in the 1970s and the early 1980s until younger composers imitating the legend undercut him and left him financially stranded in the late 1980s. RD Burman died of a heart attack in 1994 soon after finishing work on ‘1942: A Love Story’. He was awarded the Filmfare Award posthumously for his work in his last film which itself went on to become a smash hit and launched singer Kumar Sanu’s career.
Born in 1969 in Chennai, Allahrakka Rahman’s (AR) father, the music composer RK Shekhar, died when AR was nine years old. By then AR had already become an assistant to his father in the studio. Following his father’s death, AR supported his family by renting out his father’s music equipment. By the time he dropped out of school in his mid-teens, he had already mastered the keyboard, piano, synthesizer, harmonium and guitar. However, he was particularly interested in the synthesizer because it was the “ideal combination of music and technology”.
Through his teenage years, AR made his name in Chennai first as a synthesizer player in movie soundtracks and then as a sought after composer of advertising jingles. His big break came when Mani Ratnam approached him to compose the music for ‘Roja’ (1992). The movie was one of the first multi-lingual smash hits across India with the freshness of AR’s music being a big driver of the movie’s success. ‘Time’ magazine included ‘Roja’ in the ten best movie soundtracks of all time (see http://entertainment.time.com/
Even as AR’s popularity rocketed in the Tamil movie market, further success in Bollywood came through his consistently fresh and resonant music for ‘Bombay’ (1995) – another multilingual hit from Mani Ratnam – followed by ‘Rangeela’ (1995) and then ‘Dil Se’ (1998). These critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies brought a completely new genre of music to Indian cinema.
In the new millennium, whilst AR continued making memorable movie music in India – notable successes being ”Guru”(2006), ‘Rang De Basanti’ (2006) and ‘Jodha Akbar’ (2008) – he also expanded his reach and his skillset with ventures that no Indian musician had ever undertaken before.
In 2002, AR composed the music for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Westend and Broadway musical, ‘Bombay Dreams’. AR’s music Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008) won two Academy Awards (a first for an Asian) and sparked wild celebrations in Chennai. In 2012 AR composed a Punjabi song for the opening ceremony of London Olympics. In 2017, Rahman made his debut as a director and writer for the upcoming virtual reality film ‘Le Musk’. AR remains India’s most expensive and most sought after music composer, someone whose name by itself can set the cash register ringing for the film producer.
Striking parallels between the two legends
RD Burman (Pancham) and AR Rahman (AR) completely redefined movie music in their respective eras and although the two men grew up and lived in different cities, the parallels between their careers and working habits is striking. We draw upon two biographies of these music legends – Anirudha Bhattacharjee & Balaji Vittal’s award winning ‘R.D.Burman: The Man, The Music’ (2011) and Trilok Sharada’s ‘Notes of a Dream: The Authorised Biography of A.R.Rahman’ (2018): – to outline their strikingly similar paths to stardom:
- Deep immersion in music by their mid-teens: Alongside formal training in music (Pancham from Ustad Ali Akbar Khan in Kolkata and AR from the Berklee School of Music), both men were working as professional musicians in the film industry by their mid-teens. Whilst RD was an assistant to his famous father SD Burman (a role which became ever more important as the Burman senior aged through the 1960s), he was also regarded as the best harmonica player in Mumbai. Most memorably, he played the harmonica in Hemant Kumar’s ‘Hai apna dil to awara’ in the movie ‘Solva Saal’ (1958). His father’s untimely demise meant that by the time he was ten years old, AR was the family’s main breadwinner. He alternated between his classes at school and his early career as a sessions recording artist for Tamil movies. If you assume that these composers did a 40 hour week between the ages of 15-20, by the time these men entered their twenties, one can safely say they would have clocked Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours required for mastery of their chosen profession.
Interestingly, but not accidentally, both men were highly focused musicians. Pancham repeatedly turned down acting roles in the 1960s and made his intention to become a notable composer in his own right clear to everyone in Mumbai. AR quit school in his mid-teens to focus exclusively on music.
- Blazing desire to challenge convention norms: Pancham consciously and deliberately broke away from the traditional Bollywood form of music. He mixed jazz, rock, bossa nova, calypso, samba and Middle Eastern melodies with Hindustani Classical to create sounds which had never before been heard in Indian cinema. He brought instruments like the electric guitar, the trumpet, the trombone, the conga, the xylophone, the bongo and the vibraphone into mainstream movie music.
Partly due to the musical education his father had imparted to him, AR brought to Indian movie music a mastery of electronic and synthesizer sounds that simply did not exist in the country in the 1990s. With the aid of these instruments, he proceeded to fuse Hindustani classical, reggae, Western pop & rock
- Restless, curious musicians constantly looking for new sounds: Before he moved to Mumbai at the age of 16, Pancham already built a body of knowledge of Hindustani Classical, jazz and bossa nova, a form of music which finds its inspiration in the Brazilian samba. He then fused these different types of music to Indianise the bossa nova by stripping it of the complicated chords whilst incorporating the rhythm. As his fame grew, Pancham become even more innovative: “One morning, a household help was rubbing a piece of newspaper against the floor with her foot to remove stains. The act of rubbing at a particular pace resulted in a different kind of sound, which aroused Pancham’s interest. He summoned the household help to continue generating the sound, which he recreated in the studio by running a piece of aluminum foil on a khol….”
AR’s authorized biography contains even more remarkable stories regarding the composer’s hunger to discover new sounds. When the legendary qawalli singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, came to Mumbai, “AR went to Nusrat’s room at some unearthly hour, knocked on the foor and politely introduced himself…AR said to him ”I want to learn qawalli from you.” And Nusrat just wakes up his musicians and calls them up to his room and they just played all night. Nusrat told Rahman a few things and AR took notes while they were playing.” In fact, in AR’s case his curiosity extends beyond music. “He finds the technicians, the visual effects guys and cinematographers and just keeps talking to them.”
Both of these composers were masters of their craft – which was primarily composing music for Indian movies. And yet their range of knowledge extended far beyond their chosen profession . As discussed in our 19th August note, this combination of in-depth specialization in one area alongside a vast body of knowledge is a powerful driver of creativity and original thought: see https://marcellus.in/blogs/
- Perfectionists and deep workers: Both men are known to have worked 12 hours a day to produce their best work. AR’s success means that the studio at his homes in Chennai and Mumbai have world class recording equipment and this allows him to work from 5pm to 5am in the privacy of his residence. No phone calls and no interruptions from visitors are entertained in these 12 hours as the legend takes his mind to places to which the rest of us can only dream of. Sometimes AR takes an entire 12 hour session just to get one note right. Apparently, this was how the sublime opening notes of ‘Jagay hai hum’ for the film ‘Guru’ (2007) were composed.
Whilst living a more bohemian life than AR, Pancham worked a slightly more conventional 12 hour day from 9am to 9pm in recording studios and in the pre-synthesizer era, he would be surrounded during these twelve hours by an army of musicians, most of whom worked with him for several decades. However, his musical ear was so finely honed that as soon a rehearsal began, even with a 100 piece orchestra, he could spot that, say, the sixth violin in the third row was out of tune.
- Collaborators supreme: In a competitive high stakes commercially charged environment, the ability to win the trust of a diverse group of stakeholders is as important as one’s innate talent. Both music composers befriended and collaborated with a wide variety of people, an essential skill if one is to succeed in the cut throat movie markets of Mumbai and Chennai. Pancham’s deep friendship with singers (Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar Asha Bhonsle), with lyricists (Gulzar, Gulshan Bawra, Javed Akhtar), with film stars (Shammi Kapoor, Mehmood, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan) and with directors (Shakti Samanta, Nasir Hussain, Ramesh Sippy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee) placed him firmly at the centre of the Bollywood movie market of the 1970s. Similarly, AR’s longstanding friendships with a diverse group of cutting edge directors like Mani Ratnam, Imtiaz Ali, Danny Boyle, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Shekhar Kapur and Ashutosh Gowariker has meant that he gets the latitude to give full vent to his limitless creativity.
If we do what everybody else does, if we read the same books that everybody else does, move around in the same social circles as everybody else and receive the same ‘elite education’ as everybody else, you can guess what will happen to us.
If, on the other hand, through a combination of luck, circumstance and hard work, we can take our minds down pathways that others haven’t explored, if we can take the road less travelled, then not only will life be more interesting, we might even achieve results that nobody had ever believed was possible.
On the first anniversary of Marcellus Investment Managers managing money, we thank our 1100 clients, our friends across the world and our families for their support. Over the past year, we have had the time of our lives in building this firm which now consists of nearly 30 people spread between Mumbai & Delhi. You can see here how we have done in our first 12 months of managing money in India: https://marcellus.in/
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