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05 October 2018

An Intangible Legacy

I'd really liked RD Burman, The Man The Musician. While I'd mixed feelings about Gaata Rahe Mera Dil, Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal's selection of 50 songs, their immaculate research still made it an invaluable addition to my books on Hindi cinema. So, buying SD Burman: The Prince Musician (Tranquebar, Westland Publications Private Limited, ₹799) was a foregone conclusion. 

With an introduction by Pandit Nayan Ghosh, the celebrated tabla and sitar player, and a foreword by Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, the renowned flautist, Bhattacharjee and Vittal plunge into SD Burman’s antecedents in Tripura (erstwhile Tipperah) – his family, which could trace its royal lineage going back centuries; the political climate of the time, the family rifts that lasted – and chronicle his journey from Kumar Shachindra Chandra Debbarman to Sachin Dev Burman (SD). As the authors say in their introductory note, “The story couldn’t have merely been a chronology of his musical journey; history had to play a significant role in his life’s trajectory.”      
The authors divide the book into sections, each dealing with a particular phase of SD Burman’s life. The first section, titled ‘Karta’, begins with his childhood spent in Comilla (in present-day Bangladesh); it details his earliest influences: Robir ma, his wet nurse, and Anwar, a family servant who taught him to fish (a lifelong hobby), and who introduced him to bhatiyali songs.

We 'meet' his gurus Krishna Chandra Dey (Manna Dey’s uncle), a classical musician in his own right; Bhismadev Chattopadhyay and Badal Khan; we learn about SD’s first recording for the Indian State Broadcasting Company (presently All India Radio); about his rejection by HMV and his subsequent success as a composer/singer of light classical and folk songs; how he was once an ‘actor’… The section ends with his marriage to Meera, his erstwhile student, and how the marriage with a 'commoner' led to a lifelong estrangement from his family. 

Varman’ deals with his initial years in Bombay, circa 1944-1949. Tumultuous times had caused ruptures in the established studio structure in the Bombay film industry. A new studio ‘Filmistan’, established by S Mukherjee, Rai Bahadur Chunilal (Madan Mohan’s father), Ashok Kumar and Gyan Mukherjee, brought the young composer to Bombay along with his wife, and young son, Rahul.

 Sachin Dev Burman’ is the longest section charting his professional and personal journey through the fifties and sixties. This, possibly, is also the section that will interest people the most – SD composed some of his greatest melodies during this period.

SD’ records his last years as a composer. By now, ‘SD’ was a legend in his own right. This section also addresses queries that relate to RD Burman’s contributions to his father’s work. With inputs from people who knew both father and son, Bhattacharjee and Vittal try to lay to rest at least some of them.

All through these sections, however, the focus remains on SD Burman’s music. A chronological narrative of his career, the songs are, as was the case with their book on RD Burman, analysed in context of the films for which they were composed. The authors include contemporaneous reviews of his music some caustic, some admiring and analyse those scores with the objectivity of distance. They mention nuggets about films he scored for, but which never released; films that sunk unsung, but whose scores are being rediscovered. 
Photo courtesy: rediff.in
Trivia – about the films, the singers, recording incidents – dot these pages. For instance, did you know that Kishore Kumar’s first recorded song in Hindi films, as an adult, was under SD’s baton? That Shammi Kapoor sang the only song of his career at SD’s urging? That, not knowing much Hindi and even less Urdu, SD may have pioneered the trend of writing lyrics to tunes? That Aath Din was said to have been ghost-directed by Ashok Kumar? That Chal ri sajni had been rejected by Kishore Kumar as ‘too Indian’? Or that Meena Kumari was Bimal Roy’s first choice for Paro (Devdas)?

There’s also personal trivia – how SD used to get his tunes vetted by his ‘room boy’; how his landlord had chucked him out saying his voice sounded like that of a crow’s; of how Kazi Nazrul was mortified because, try as he might, he could not correct Burman’s heavily-accented pronunciation of 'chokh'; how, when Lata Mangeshkar had given them a ride home after a recording, Sachin Ganguly was admonished not to breathe a word to Burman’s wife, Meera.
Photo courtesy: Outlook India
Alongside, we get a deeper picture of the man himself the fishing aficionado; the football fanatic who would always book two seats for an East Bengal game, one to sit on, and one to keep his feet on; the maestro who religiously guarded his paan, handing it out as reward when a musician or singer particularly pleased him; the miser who refused to offer tea to his guests or pay up his share of a cab fare, yet was both generous and giving when it came to charitable causes and even a glimpse of his piquant sense of humour.

Tales about his professional dedication abound: Basu Chatterjee, for instance, lovingly calls the composer ‘a pain in the neckwhile Chatterjee was running around trying to arrange finances for his film, SD was exhorting him to listen to yet another 'new tune'. The anecdote about how he composed Janu jaanu ri (Insaan Jaag Utha) is well-known, but did you know that SD made a special request to HMV to credit his musicians on the records? Or that, when he requested 11 musicians and his son hired 12, SD would not budge until one man was paid and released because his professional demands were non-negotiable?
Photo courtesy: sdburman.net (with kind permission)
His professional partnerships are also touched upon – with the Anands; with lyricists Sahir Ludhianvi, Neeraj and Majrooh Sultanpuri; with Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Guru Dutt. So are the controversies – his rift with Lata Mangeshkar; his falling out with Sahir, and later with Subodh Mukherjee, Shailendra and Hemant Kumar; the acknowledgement that he denied his talented wife a career of her own. Yet there is no attempt to either sensationalise these disagreements nor to negate them. Like their previous books, this one, too, is meticulously researched, and incidents are cross-checked with corroborating evidence wherever possible. (For instance, the controversy over who sang Tum jiyo hazaron saal’ is finally laid to rest in this book.)
SD Burman: The Prince Musician is definitely not a hagiography. The authors factually describe some of SD's tunes as less than stellar, and point out that orchestration was not the composer’s strong point. They describe SD’s many ‘inspirations’, but buttress it with an in-depth analysis of the man, his life, and his music. They discuss the legacy he left behind, and the longevity of his melodies.

What I had an issue with: the large number of misplaced commas, typos Tapi 'Chanakya', not ‘Chakanya’; 'film premiere', not 'film premier' (Anirudha reached out to me with a list of corrections that he had sent to the publisher – this was one of them); and grammatical errors that should all have been caught in the final proof-reading stage.

While each section was named a different name that SD Burman was known by during that phase, I wish the authors had stuck to a single name to refer to their subject. It was distracting to read Karta/Shachin/Varman/Burman/Sachinda/SD at various times.

Then, the errors: on page 159, writing about Tu mi piaci, cara  (I like you, my dear’ in Italian) from Bewaqoof,  the authors refer to it as 'Tumhi piya chikara'. 

Talking about Janu janu ri, there’s one mention about the wheels being 10ft apart; less than a paragraph later, the distance changes to 15-18ft. 
In Bandini (page 164), Bimal Roy is narrating a scene to SD; then 'Bimal Roy' (instead of 'Burman') interrupts to argue [with himself?] that the scene wouldn’t work. (Here, too, there’s the switching back and forth between ‘Burman’ and ‘Sachinda’.) 

There’s also a discrepancy in their description of poet Neeraj’s debut – while one para says Dev Anand ‘introduced’ him as a lyricist in Prem Pujari (which meshes with Neeraj’s interview I’ve read elsewhere), the chapter ends with ‘Neeraj, who had earlier worked with Roshan, Iqbal Qureshi and Shankar-Jaikishan, had the highest regard for SD…’.  

I may seem to be nitpicking – these errors are certainly not earthshaking but the book could have been near-perfect with a more thorough proofing.

Because, despite all this, I came to ‘know’ Sachin Dev Burman. He’s no saint, and Bhattacharjee and Vittal do not try to make him one. He is human, with all the frailties and flaws that that entails; an exceptionally dignified, complex man, whose pride was perhaps both admirable as well as faulty. And that’s the person the authors present before us: a vastly talented gentleman musician perhaps the last of the Bengali ‘bhadralok’ as Bhattacharjee and Vittal describe him –  and his life's journey through his music. 

SD Burman: The Prince Musician is a great addition to well-written books on Hindi Film Music.

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