How Mumbai’s Pancham Paagals Are Keeping RD Burman Alive

The Pancham Paagals are a recently minted fan club of RD Burman. They meet a few times a year, and perform his songs to a hired music band and an audience of family and friends.
How Mumbai’s Pancham Paagals Are Keeping RD Burman Alive

It was a Saturday evening. I was at a hall in Ghatkopar, tucked somewhere in Cama Lane, amidst crumbling chawls and towering new-age constructions. 

A band was performing a song from Teesri Manzil (1966).

Aaja Aaja Mein Hoon Pyaar Tera
Allah Allah, Inkaar Tera Ho

The musicians accompanying the two singers included a guitarist who day-lighted as a chartered accountant, two keyboard players, an octapad player, and someone playing both the handsonic and the dholak. 

An elderly man with a fedora got up and began dancing in front of the stage, hips and chest thumping as much as passion could reconcile with age. The audience clapping along was mostly middle-aged, either the family or colleagues of those performing. They had lived through the 70s and 80s, with RD Burman's music highlighting all the ecstasies and gloom of love. My aunt whispered, "As children we would count how many ohoho aajas were there in this song."

I counted. It's 64.

The origins of Pancham passion

This show was organized by an RD Burman Fan Club: Pancham Paagals. They are deep, devout fans of yesteryear music composer RD Burman, fondly known as Panchamda. Formally congregated as a fan club in 2014, they have, since 2015 started putting up these shows for them to perform their fanhood. This is their seventh show. They usually hire a band, and have ,so far, performed around 210 songs, with not more than five of them being repeated. Funding comes from individual contributions and corporate sponsorships. It helps that the CEO of Shemaroo, who owns the rights to many of Burman's songs, is also part of the gang.

Pankaj Thakker, one of the group's founding members' tells me about his first tryst with Burman. It was 1972 and he was around 10; a shopkeeper across his house was blasting 'Jawani Deewani' and 'Yaadon Ki Baarat'. Over the years, his job as a chartered accountant introduced him to much of the Pancham Paagals crew, who he either audited or consulted for. Small talk in boardrooms bloomed into a discovery of their mutual love for the composer.

Today, the group has about 30 members with an average age of 50 years. Much of their conversations happen over WhatsApp. "No 'Good Morning' messages, 'Happy Birthday' messages, and memes – only RD Burman related content," he says, sternly. "Not even SD Burman."

In the weeks leading up to the show, they met at his house on Sundays to rehearse. His wife, Falguni, also a Burman fan, would cook them lunch. She was one of the hosts of the Saturday event, reading out bits of trivia – either discovered online or through repeated listenings – while introducing the songs.

Pankaj kept asking if I knew some of the more obscure songs. I fumbled. My initiation, and I am in my greener twenties, into the musical archives of RD Burman was through family gatherings, which would inevitably collapse into games of Antakshari. I would make mental notes of songs that sounded nice, searching for them on YouTube the next day. Slowly, the soundtrack of 1942: A Love Story became part of rum-soaked nights.

Marching to their own beat

It was pouring, sometime in June last year when the group held one of their shows. Pankaj was convinced not many would show up. He was wrong. The auditorium was packed, brimming such that people were sitting on the stairs. My aunt said it reminded her of her college-fest days. At one point, the stage began flooding because of a bathroom leak. Pancham Paagal members, armed with mops and leather shoes, diverted the flow of water and moved the instruments to the drier part of the stage. The singer didn't skip a single beat, and the audience stayed put for the entire four hour show.

See, it isn't about craft – by no means are the singers exceptionally talented. It isn't even about preservation. This is a space for reverence and community.

Though the duration might be long, it doesn't feel so. There was a fifteen minute break that extended to half-an-hour during Saturday's show; batata vada, idli, and chai were served outside. There was fraternizing with the singers and their families, mutual pleasantries and compliments exchanged.

See, it isn't about craft – by no means are the singers exceptionally talented. It isn't even about preservation. (The youngest member of the Pancham Paagal is in his late 30s. They did have two kids perform on stage, but the sweet reluctance of the young kid was palpable) This is a space for reverence and community. Pankaj tells me that one year, the musicians didn't show up and so members just grabbed whatever instruments they knew to play and ended up on stage. 

It is also important to note that the group isn't just about knowing the songs. It's also about knowing the life and method behind them. Pankaj and his wife once realized, at 1 AM, that the violin bit from 'Phir Kab Milogi' was the main tune of 'Kya Hua Tera Vada'? "If RD Burman felt a tune did not get its due, he would re-present the same tune in some manner in another song," Pankaj tells me excitedly.

That's fandom for you. It's about gathering every piece of information available about the art you love. It's the cassette shop owner notifying you personally each time an RD Burman album is released. It's not knowing a word of Bengali but being able to sing all his Bengali songs fluently. It's about making a bi-annual pilgrimage to Pune to see the big shows put up by The wheelchair-bound Shammi Kapoor attended once, a few months before he passed away, moving his hands emphatically to 'O Haseena Zulfon Wali'. It's said that he had initially asked Shankar Jaikishan to replace RD Burman as the composer for Teesri Manzil, but changed his mind after hearing 'Aaja Aaja Mein Hoon Pyaar Tera'. (One of the trivia nuggets thrown at us during the show)

The show itself is a sweet, familiar gathering. Everyone calls each other "bhai" or "ji". Birthdays are announced on stage. Someone announced that the Facebook live was not working. Another person's car was about to be towed. A box invited donations for a charity in Pune working with paraplegic veterans. Midway through the performances, there was an announcement about organ donation. At the end, all the Pancham Paagals sang their anthem, hand in hand, donkey ears and mics being passed around.

Zindagi milke bitayenge; Haal-e-dil gaake sunayenge.

'Kya Hua Tera Vaada' was humming softly in my head as we left the auditorium. I felt a little stunted. A part of me wanted to call and reconcile with an old lover. Another wanted to have nothing to do with the emotional cravings these songs elicited. I plugged into 'Ghunghroo Toot Gaye', melting into the warm November evening, being very careful to not, even accidentally, play 'Kuch Na Kaho' from 1942: A Love Story on my playlist, sitting right below this Vishal-Shekhar earworm.

Har Fikr Ko Dhueun Mein Udaata Chala Gaya

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