“I was very closer to Pancham (R D Burman) than his father (Sachin Dev Burman). When he married my sister (Asha Bhosle), he told me to write him a letter as a wedding gift which he stored away in his bank locker. I know Pancham was very unhappy in his final years because of the way his career had gone. I had the privilege of singing in his last film as a composer 1942: A Love Story. He sent me a message to sing. But then he passed away. I sang his song ‘Kuch Na Kaho‘ posthumously.
I knew him from the time he would run around in his shorts. He was very naughty. When he came to me with his first song ‘Ghar Aaja Ghir Aaye Badra‘ in Mehmood’s Chote Nawab I couldn’t believe he had grown up. Main Pancham ko bachpan se janti thi. I first saw him when he thrust his autograph book at me when I was recording for his father. Do you know what I wrote in the autograph book? ‘Pancham badmashi chhod do‘. He laughed and ran away. After that I didn’t see him for a long time. He didn’t stay much with Burman Dada. He loved his Naani (grandmother) and stayed more with her. Then he showed up again to ask me to sing his first song in Chote Nawab. Pancham and Mehmood were close friends.”
While inviting Lataji to sing his first composition, RD also managed to patch up his father with Lataji.
Laughs Lataji, “Yes, Burman Dada and I were not on talking terms. Out of the blue, Burman Dada called and said, ‘Kya hua tumko? Kyon naraaz ho?’ I later came to know Pancham told his father not to fight with me because no one else could sing in the style that he wanted. Burman Dada implored me to sing for his son and to treat him like my own. That broke the ice between me and Burman Dada.”
Comparing the son to the illustrious father Burman, Lataji observes, “Pancham never copied his father’s style. He had worked as an apprentice with his father. If he wanted Pancham could’ve easily followed his father’s style. But he followed a unique path. Though he knew how to play the Tabla and the Sarod, he chose to go the Western way. He observed the music and rhythms of Black musicians. Pancham loved ghetto music.”
Would it be right to say RD gave all the strong Indian melodies to Lata and the westernized songs to Asha? Lataji ponders over that one. “Main to yeh kahungi ki , Pancham always gave the right song to both of us. Asha benefited a lot from Pancham’s compositions. He’d tell me, ‘Whatever I compose for you, I can never let Asha sing, and vice versa. Therefore a ‘Raina Beeti Jaye‘ or a ‘Beeti Na Beetayi Raina‘ came to me… and so many other tunes. And why just the classical numbers? RD gave me ‘Bahon Mein Chale Aao‘ which I consider his career’s best. Woh gaana unke saarey ganon mein no.1 hai. That song is very special. And Jaya Bachchan emoted so beautifully to it. Pancham believed that I could carry off that song. It’s very important for a composer to trust in the singer’s ability. Another unusual song that Pancham gave me was ‘Bhai Battoor‘ in Padosan. I think the words were given by Mehmood and then Pancham took over.”
Recalling her special bonding with RD, Lataji says,” He called me Didi. But I treated him like my son. When he had his first heart attack while recording a song, I was told about it by his associate Sapan Chakravarty. When I heard about it, I broke down. When Pancham heard about my reaction he told me not to worry. When he went through a heart surgery in London I happened to be there. He sent me a message saying he wanted to meet me before surgery. I went to meet him in the hospital. He told me, ‘I don’t know what will happen to me. I wanted to meet you before surgery.”
Lataji says her rapport with RD remained unaltered even when he married Asha Bhosle. Says Lataji, “Pancham and I shared an unconditional equation. We didn’t expect anything from one another. He used to pour his heart out to me, tell me things that he didn’t share with anyone else. His last years were unhappy. He wasn’t doing well career and health-wise. I heard he was mentally upset. The last I heard from him was when he called to ask me to sing Kuch na kaho in 1942: A Love Story. I was leaving for live concerts in the US. When I returned he soon passed away. I was in Delhi when it happened.”
Falling silent, Lata says, “I can still hear the laughter in the recording room when Pancham, Kishore Kumar and I used to get together. He used to tell me he shared a great comfort level with Kishoreda. Pancham was a very warm and witty person. Kamaal ke composer…There were some composers I didn’t enjoy singing with. But some composers namely R D Burman, Salil Chowdhary, Madan Mohan and Shankar-Jaikishan were very special.”