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31 October 2019

The Masters: SD Burman

01.10.1906 - 31.10.1975
This post has been a long time in coming. One year, to be precise. I picked the songs I wanted, badgered my husband into writing down music notes for some of them, and then… a year passed, and I posted but intermittently. A forced sabbatical ensured that the blog was the last thing on my mind. This year, too, I’d finally planned to end this sabbatical with a month-long series of posts on SD Burman. ‘The best laid plans of mice and men…’ But as Antara, an online friend and long-time reader said, ‘Der aaye durust aaye.’ So, here, on his death anniversary, an ode to the great man himself. 

Kumar Shachindra Chanda Debbarman was born to royalty on October 1, 1906. His father was Nabadwip Chandra Dev Burman, a scion of the royal palace of Tripura. Educated at Comilla Victoria College and later at Calcutta University, a young ‘Sachin’ fostered his love for music which had been nurtured in his childhood by the rural musicians and wandering minstrels in Comilla. He began his formal training in music with Krishna Chandra Dey. Later musical influences would come from Bhismadev Chattopadhyay, Badal Khan and Ustad Allauddin Khan.

His early days as an artiste for the All India Radio (then the Indian State Broadcasting Corporation), his success as a composer/singer of light classical and folk songs etc., is too well chronicled to repeat here. The changes in the studio structures of the Bombay film industry and the establishment of Filmistan brought the young composer to Bombay in 1944. However, his first release in Bombay would come nearly two years later: Filmistan’s Shikari (1946). Success would soon come, even if intermittently in the beginning. Aath Din (1946), Chittor Vijay (1947), Dil ki Rani (1947), etc., followed, but it took the stunning success of Mera sundar sapna beet gaya (Do Bhai, 1948), sung by Geeta Dutt to give SD a taste of what was to follow.

But success was still a fickle mistress; Vidya (1948) was not very well received, critically or commercially, but Shabnam (1949) was a box-office success. This seesawing continued until the young composer, fed up of the vagaries of the industry, decided to return to Calcutta. According to Ashok Kumar’s autobiography, it was his intervention that kept the composer from leaving an industry where power balances were shifting. Mashal would seed a professional relationship between Lata Mangeshkar and SD Burman, with the singer singing her first song under his baton.

In the meantime, SD Burman also began work on the first film of a fledgling banner – Afsar (1950), directed by Chetan Anand and produced by the his newly-launched Nav Ketan Films. This would be the beginning of a long and fruitful association with SD Burman becoming Nav Ketan Films’ de facto composer. But it was Baazi (1951) which would cement this association further. 

It was a film that Dev Anand (in his memoirs Romancing with Life) described as a ‘very important film for all concerned’. Afsar’s  box-office failure meant that their next film would be make or break for the banner. The film also marked the commitment Dev had made to Guru Dutt in their struggling days – that if he ever produced a film, Guru Dutt would direct it. It brought together two towering talents – SD Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi, a man of stature in the world of Urdu poetry. A young Geeta Dutt would cement her early success and become one of the leading playback singers of the time.

SD Burman had arrived in style. His distinctive melodies would rule the world of Hindi film music for at least another two decades. So, onwards to a celebration of a composer who could switch seamlessly between rustic folk songs and western ‘club’ songs, plaintive melodies and seductive numbers.

Do keep in mind that to choose but a handful of songs from a career that spanned nearly three decades is next to impossible. So these songs are my some of my all-time favourites, and I’ve tried to filter them to have one song per singer though Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar and Geeta Dutt do appear more than once. Please feel free to add your selections in the comments below. 

Suno gazar kya gaaye
Baazi (1951) 
Singer: Geeta Dutt
Lyricist: Sahir Ludhianvi
Let me start with a song from the film that was an important career milestone. SD showed he could tune ‘western’ tunes and how! Whether it was turning Sahir’s ghazal into a club number, or altering Geeta Dutt’s thus-far plaintive image into one that was at once alluring and seductive, SD came up with a score that was extremely successful, catapulting Geeta Dutt into a force to reckon with (despite the Lata Mangeshkar juggernaut that swept the industry post-Mahal).
The first song of SD Burman’s that made an impression on me was not one that was very Indian in sound. When I heard it on the radio as a little boy it was full of entrancing foreign sounds, and of course, not being very conversant in Hindustani, I did not understand what it was about. For a long time, I believed that “gajar” was a bird that sang. But even on our fidelity challenged AM radio there was something about the music that was enchanting. 

The song begins with frenetic strings accompanied by the tambourines and hand drums. Their music ebbs, giving way to the piano sounding the notes of the E major chord E, B sharp, G. It’s followed by the mandolin, the shehnai and the chorus respectively before Geeta Dutt sings 'Suno gajar kya gaye'. She’s followed by the piano repeating the trio of notes from the E major chord.
As I grew older and understood what the lyrics meant, it seemed to me that the notes of the piano were stressed as if to mimic the ticking of a clock beating out the passing time.  Geeta Dutt’s voice melodically warning of the dangers of lost time, the warning not to sleep. During each interlude, includes the pulsing rhythms of the castanets, followed by the strident warning of the reed instruments, and the strings that follow growing softer and softer – creating an ominous sense of danger.  I have never lost my fascination for this song, and watching the song sequence still drives home how beautifully sight and sound meld together.  

Ye duniya roop ki chor 
Shabnam (1949)
Singer: Shamshad Begum 
Lyrics: Gopal Singh ‘Nepali’ (Qamar Jalalabadi?) 
The score of this film was possibly SD’s first big ‘hit’. Shamshad Begum, who sang many songs for SD, took on the challenge of singing a multi-lingual song, her enunciation so perfect that it is a joy to listen to her. 
SD’s versatility can be seen in the diverse styles of music he employs for each antara. The situation is such that a pretty girl (Kamini Kaushal) is enacting what happens when she’s accosted by men from different regions who woo her in their distinctive regional styles. According to a personal account by Sachin Ganguly, narrated in S.D. Burman – The Prince Musician, SD was nearly beaten up by a group of Tamilians who took umbrage at their music being mocked in this parody song.

Afsar (1950)
Singer: Suraiya
Lyrics: Pt. Narendra Sharma
Based on Gogol’s Inspector General, Afsar starred Suraiya and Dev Anand, and as was her wont, Suraiya sang all her own songs. The film also had the beautiful ‘Nain deewane’ but I chose this for the sheer simplicity which was Suraiya’s forte. The romance she infuses into the lyrics is breath-taking.

Though I am sure somebody will take exception to this, to me, this song is very much in the Baul tradition . After all, a baul song is supposed to reflect oneness with the divine, and the way Suraiya sings this song, it  has all the headiness and ecstasy of over-powering passion. Suraiya’s voice is used here in tandem with the flute; there are places where her voice is an echo of the flute, and vice versa.  The entire song seems to be drenched in rain – the runs of the sitar in the second interlude, the delicate nuances – for example, when she sings ‘ghir ghir aaye’, the rapid percussive runs on the tabla hint at the patter of rain drops as does the almost conversational repetition of 'tum sur ho, main madhur ragini'. 

House No. 44 (1955) 
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi  
A great score wasted on a lacklustre film. Phaili huyi hai sapnon ki baahein is one of my personal favourites, as much for the music as for the way Lata has sung this song. There’s a sweetness to her singing that really brings out the experience of a young girl in the first flush of love.
SD begins with the strumming of the sitar, the notes quickly cascading, giving an initial impression that this is going to be purely an Indian classical song. But then the sitar makes way for chords played by a guitar and the double bass with a ¾ rhythm, and becoming almost ‘western’ in its melody. The sitar tantalisingly returns before Lata’s voice floats over the violins and the flutes.  The rhythms and orchestration seem to be completely western but then you realise it’s set in the scale of Shudh Kalyan – a beautiful melding of two disparate musical ideas.  Lata’s voice lifts up to the sky echoing the strings and the flute, and – in Sahir’s words – swings on a rainbow to touch the stars.  

Devdas (1955)
Singer: Talat Mahmood
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi 
While most would use Jalte hain jiske liye from Sujata (1959) as their choice for the definitive SD-Talat combination, I much prefer this plaintive melody from Devdas. Grief, guilt, hopelessness – all mingle in Talat’s voice, and is reflected on Dilip Kumar’s face as he plays the eponymous protagonist. 
The film was SD's first collaboration with Bimal Roy, and he rose to the occasion. Sahir opted for couplets instead of the conventional mukhda-antara format, and SD kept the instrumentation to the minimum, while allowing Talat’s voice to shine through. 

Solva Saal (1958)
Singer: Hemant Kumar
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri 
I would have chosen Ye raat ye chandni phir kahaan from Jaal (1952), but that has made an appearance on far too many of my lists. Unlike that song, however, Hai apna dil toh awaara is very carefree. Majrooh’s lyrics were a little wistful, a little mischievous; Dev was charming and debonair; together, they captured the feeling of a wandering heart with perfect √©lan. SD’s music complemented the scene and the lyrics – it was youthful, trendy, and very, very catchy, besides giving the listener the feeling that they were on a train themselves.    
While the film did not make much noise at the box-office (only to be revived as one of Dev Anand’s better films in more recent times), Hai apna dil toh awara became a chartbuster. For a change, Hemant Kumar’s voice seemed to suit Dev Anand (I’m on record as preferring Mohammed Rafi as Dev’s voice over even that of Kishore Kumar’s), and in fact, in the movie, Laaj (Waheeda) even remarks that Kashyap (Dev) should have been named ‘Hemant Kumar’. Another piece of trivia: the harmonium played by Sundar’s character was actually played by RD Burman.

Sun mere bandhu re 
Sujata (1959)
Singer: SD Burman
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Picturised as a ‘boat song’, Sun mere bandhu re wafts across the river to where the protagonists, Adhir (Sunil Dutt) and Sujata (Nutan) have met, one to confess his affection for her, and the other to shyly admit her reciprocal feelings towards him. 
Based on a bhatiyali song, SD Burman finetuned a woman’s plaint (albeit in a man’s voice – his) and complemented it with minimal instrumentation. According to Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, the song used a wooden block to mimic the sound of the oars, and a flute as the base accompaniment. This was SD’s ‘comeback’ song – he hadn’t sung a song on film for nearly 12 years.

Chal ri sajni 
Bambai ka Babu (1960)
Singer: Mukesh  
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Considered one of the greatest ‘bidaai’ songs in Hindi cinema, Chal ri sajni was filled with the pathos in both lyrics and rendition. Mukesh, whom SD used but sparingly, imbued the song with such finesse that it eclipsed a stellar score in popularity. (Honest confession, I much prefer Rafi’s Saathi na koi manzil.)
SD infused the song with all the anguish that a man feels in letting his beloved go, the shehnai almost weeping at the beginning.

Ab ke baras bhejo 
Bandini (1963) 
Singer: Asha Bhosle
Lyricist: Shailendra
Asha Bhosle infuses the song with the longing and pathos of a woman separated from her loved ones. Picturised on women prisoners who have no hope of freedom, the song evokes that sense of lost innocence. Asha has often recounted how she broke down while recording the song – during the early days of her marriage, her then-husband wouldn’t allow her to visit her family. According to Anirudha Bhattacharya and Balaji Vittal (S.D. Burman – the Prince Musician), Ab ke baras bhejo was based on a folk song from Uttar Pradesh – Nimbua tale dola rakh de musafir. 
Loosely based on Raga Piloo, the rhythmic pattern is based on Deepchandi (a slow 14-beat taal) at the beginning. The beats are emphasised by an ektara in consort with what seems to be a plucked double bass. Asha Bhosle draws each note out as the rhythmic pattern slowly meanders in its characteristic 2-3-2-4 rhythm. The interludes are short the first an esraj, perhaps in concert with a violin; a flute in the second interlude, the instruments always playing second fiddle to Asha’s voice and Shailendra’s lyrics. 

Poocho na kaise ye rain bitaayi 
Film: Meri Soorat Teri Aankhen (1963)
Singer: Manna Dey
Lyrics: Shailendra 
Shailendra’s lyrics beautifully expressed the grief of a man rejected by society. Through the recurring motifs of an endless night or the sheer inability of a lamp to dispel the darkness of the heart, he painted a picture of total hopelessness that envelops the protagonist. Manna Dey brings out the pathos in this semi-classical number without becoming maudlin. 
Based on Ahir Bhairav, a morning raga sung at sunrise, it is the movement in the antara that brings about the essence of the raga. In the first antara, when Manna Dey sings ‘Ut jale deepak jale man mera’, the line starts on the madhyam in the middle of the scale and an important note in this raga, and then moves upwards till it touches the higher ‘Sa’ at ‘man mera’.  As the sun rises so does the song. Then, in the next line, ‘phir bhi na jaaye mere’ hovers round the ‘Re’; at the word ‘ka’ Manna Dey touches the highest point of the song, the higher madhyam, an octave above where the verse began, and then comes back to the high ‘Sa’ at ‘andhera’. The vocal calisthenics continue with ‘tarpat tarsat umar ganvayi’ travelling from the higher ‘Sa’ all the way down to the lower ‘Sa’ from where the song itself started.  Manna Dey traverses an octave in that one line. 

Tu kahaan yeh bata 
Film: Tere Ghar ke Samne (1963)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Lyrics: Hasrat Jaipuri
Filled with the joy of living, the ecstasy of love, the quest for his beloved, and the complete surrender when he finds her, this song, to me, is the quintessential ‘romantic’ song. Dev Anand’s charm and Nutan’s glowing smile light up a dark, misty night as Mohammed Rafi’s voice ebbs and soars in quiet exuberance along the serpentine roads. 
The quintessential crooner’s song, Tu kahaan ye bata starts with Rafi’s voice plaintively caressing the long notes over arpeggios played on the guitar and piano, reflecting Dev Anand’s stationary pose. Then, the rhythm on the tabla and dholak joins in, and our languid hero begins to move, albeit slowly. Each verse begins with long notes, moves effortlessly across the scale higher and higher and ends in a plea. It then returns to the mukhda. The rhythm quickens until the heroine appears, and then, the orchestra swells and becomes richer. 

Piya bina 
Abhimaan (1973)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
With an exemplary score befitting the tale of two singers, SD breathed life into this very human story of music bringing disharmony into the couple’s lives. Having been encouraged by her husband to sing, Uma (Jaya Bhaduri) is now left bereft when her star eclipses his. Her husband, Subir (Amitabh Bachchan), his ego bruised by his fall from grace, cannot summon the grace to recognise that she’s far more talented than him.
Lata Mangeshkar mentions how Jaya Bhaduri was a silent onlooker in the recording studio, making her feel very self-conscious. It was only when she saw the movie that she realised that Jaya had been closely observing her all along, and had incorporated Lata’s mannerisms into her character, including the way Lata pulled her sari pallu over her shoulder while she sang. 

This is the sort of song that I am used to associating with the latter half of SD Burman’s musical output.  There is a bhatiyali feel to it that he carried in many of his songs; much has been written about his affection for the music of the rivers.  The song starts softly with chords on the guitar and a soft flute introduction, and then, just like a bhatiyali tune, the song starts at the higher notes before slowly coming downstream. SD skilfully uses violins, cellos, taar shehnai and the flute as the song moves into the antaras, with the tabla strokes reminiscent of a boat drifting downstream on the river. The give and take between the guitar and flute in the second interludes are reflective of SD’s affection for his native land and its rivers.  This song has some very expressive flute playing.  

Badi sooni sooni hai 
Mili (1975)
Singer: Kishore Kumar 
Lyrics: Yogesh
One of my favourite Kishore Kumar numbers, Badi sooni sooni hai, picturised on Amitabh Bachchan plays as a background number. It seems right then that the first sight of Amitabh is just a silhouette against the window pane, as Mili (Jaya Bhaduri) looks on from her balcony, intrigued by the raw pain in the voice.  
Mili saw a rapprochement between SD Burman and Yogesh. Unceremoniously dropped from writing the lyrics for Chupke Chupke, Yogesh had not worked with SD until Mili came along. Unfortunately, SD fell seriously ill amidst the recording and RD Burman stepped in to complete the album with minimal instrumentation as SD had wanted. Kishore, himself, counted this among his career-best songs. 

Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo 
Pyaasa (1957)
Singer: Geeta Dutt
Lyrics : Sahir Ludhianvi
A song of conflicting emotions, Aaj sanam mohe ang laga le is on the face of it, a ‘bhakti geet’, sung by itinerant musicians, of a ‘jogan’s deep yearning to be united with God. On the other, it is earthy and sensuous and reflects Gulabo’s (Waheeda Rehman’s) unrequited love and desire for an embittered poet, whose poetry she adores. Sahir’s lyrics were both pure and sublime (as befitting the devotional songs of the Bhakti movement, where God is seen as the devotees’ beloved) as well as full of sensual yearning.
This is a very ‘Bengali’ kirtan. Geeta Dutt draws out the longing in each note; the music begins with a slow beat on the khol, and hidden behind the voice, the flute plays a brief counter melody before taking centre stage in the first interlude. The khol quickens, and each note on the flute is matched by the strings seeming to pull Waheeda up the steps against her will. The beat of the khols ebb and flow with the voice, while in the interludes SD used only the khol and the hand cymbals to beat out a rhythm that seems to reflect the turmoil in Gulabo’s heart. 
Pyaasa (1957)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Based on Sahir’s published poem, Chakley, Jinhe naaz hai hind par woh kahaan hai is a scathing indictment of a society which, on the one hand, reveres women and idolises them, but on the other, exploit them, disempower them and discard them as worthless. Some of Chakley’s verses were revised to reduce the intensity of criticism, while other verses were added to make the song. 

The song begins with Rafi’s voice taking centre stage, the music barely audible; then, slowly, the disillusioned Vijay (Guru Dutt) walks through the crowded streets, the instrumentation complements his voice, stunning in its minimalism. Rafi is all the more effective because of the quiet intensity of his voice; one doesn’t realise how his voice soars because of the quietness with which he sings the verses.

Apart from the songs, Pyaasa had five ‘shers’ (poems) that weren’t written to tune, but merely recited (by Rafi). And perhaps that is why the ego clash between Sahir Ludhianvi and SD Burman resulted in the inglorious end one of the finest creative partnerships in Hindi cinema.

[Music notes: Sadanand Warrier]

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