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1 October 2020

The Master of Simplicity

Antara Mondal had been kind enough to send a copy over to my sister's before I visited in September, but she inexplicably misplaced it. So I ordered another copy for myself, but had to wait until my husband visited in December before I could get my hands on it. At the very outset, let me confess that inexplicably, I still haven't read the book! But my husband did, and when he kindly offered to review it, I was happy to let him. Without further ado...  

My first memory of an SD Burman song is Dil aaj shaayar hai gham aaj naghma hai from the film Gambler (1971). Not having any musical equipment at home barring a National Ekco radio, one was at the mercy of the AM broadcasts of Vividh Bharati, so fidelity to sound fell by the wayside. But my ears thrilled to the runs on the guitar, the small mandolin pieces, the muted orchestral passages and the steady triple metre rhythm. Something about the minimalist approach in the song haunted me. Of course, at that age I knew nothing about the instruments, but I was rather intrigued by the interludes. They were different. As I grew older, and I started listening to his earlier compositions, I was astonished at SD Burmans range and at how long he had been composing in the Hindi film industry.  

So, when I heard of Mr HQ Chowdhury’s book on SD Burman, published in Bangladesh in 2011, I tried to get a copy of it.  Unfortunately, the book was out of print. The original publisher had, I think, stopped issuing copies; by the time I located it through a colleague who is from Bangladesh, I heard there was a new and updated version of the book available through an Indian publisher. 

Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman (Blue Pencil, 2018; ISBN: 9788193955505; 437 pages; Rs 599) is the second edition of the book. The initial part of the book deals with SD Burman’s early years in Comilla and his formative days in Calcutta. It has some details of his family’s noble lineage, being descended from the Kings of Tripura, interesting tidbits of palace intrigue, and the story of how he came to be born in Comilla rather than Agartala.

SD’s initiation into music at Comilla; discussions of classical Dhrupad with his father; his introduction to shlokas from the Ramayana and the Bhatiali music of the boatmen from friends and servants; his affection for the Tiperra flute that he was adept at playing, preferring to play it rather than sing are all described in some detail.

Mr Chowdhury also briefly touches upon SDs education in Comilla and the move to Calcutta to gain an MA in Literature and Law. He discusses the young man’s move away from university into music, the formative years of which were from 1925-35.

While laying down the details of SD’s initiation into formal music study amongst the Hindustani and folk stalwarts who made Calcutta their home, the book provides a brief history of the music scene in the city, and touches upon some of the great musicians and their influence on the fledgling musician that SD was at the time. 

There are brief paragraphs devoted to Rabindranath Tagore, KC Dey, and Kazi Nazrul Islam.  The book also dwells upon the relationship between SD and KC Dey whose student he was for several years, until finally, due to his father’s death, the young SD had to teach music so he could support himself.

Mr Choudhury details SD’s first recording contract with Hindustan Musical products, which paid him a very low royalty because of an earlier rejection from HMV. SD’s subsequent move to becoming an established singer and composer are also touched upon, with details of several recordings. There’s even a mention of the original Bengali version of Dheere se jaana, where the record credited not only ‘SD Burman’ but also his accompanying musicians.

Of course, the largest portion of the book deals with his days in Bombay – his struggles to break into the burgeoning Hindi film industry, his straddling of both the Bombay and Calcutta film industries before he finally settled in Bombay to establish himself as one of India’s finest popular composers. His early days in Bombay and his foray into the music business is described in detail and peppered with anecdotes of working with a young Geeta Roy, the development of his rapport with the Anand brothers, Dev and Chetan, and how he became the composer for all of Navketan’s films. 

Interestingly, there is also a facsimile of a copy of a letter written by SD in 1947 to his cousin in Comilla – it’s written in excellent English, and in his own hand with corrections. However, it is also in this section that the book seems to lose its sense of direction. It moves away from SD’s music as a mooring post, and becomes more of a litany of films, songs, anecdotes about contemporaries, etc.

While it provides great trivia, and lists songs composed both by SD and his contemporaries, there is no concentrated examination of the music or an analysis of his compositions. There are also small anecdotes that drift away from the main narrative.

There are also a few factual errors: for example, it is mentioned that the music for all Bimal Roy’s films before Devdas was composed by Salil Chowdhury. This is incorrect. The music for Parineeta was composed by Arun Mukherjee and Manna Dey. There is also a ham-handed attempt to indicate that SD Burman was the preferred choice for composing the music of Devdas. While this may be true, it wasn’t necessary to spend a few pages harping on it.

Then there is a statement that Salil Chowdhury was given the opportunity to compose for Madhumati at SD’s insistence. That a composer who had already composed for Bimal Roy’s films,;who had written the original short story on which Do Bigha Zameen was based, who had given stellar and well-received scores in films like Do Bigha Zameen, Parivar, Aparadhi Kaun, Jagte Raho, etc., composed some of the background music for Devdas, and was considered to be one of the foremost composers of ‘aadhunik’ Bengali music with songs like Runner, Gyaner Bodhu, etc., - needed to be recommended to the same film maker is farcical.

The notion that Bimal Roy then asked SD to approve of Salil Chowdhury’s compositions for Madhumati is equally hard to believe.

There are occasional sorties back discussing the actual music vis-à-vis its relation to a film. Unfortunately, these seem to be included only to stress upon the superiority of SD as a composer over his peers.

Claims that Mohammed Rafi had to train under SD to sing for Pyaasa because he was used to singing in a higher register is ridiculous. Sajjad Hussain (Saiyyan), Naushad (Jugnu), Husnlal Bhagatram (Shama Parawana, Pyar ki Jeet), et al had had Rafi sing in lower keys years before he recorded Pyaasa’s songs.

Then there’s the oblique claim that only SD could have made Lata Mangeshkar sing in such a fashion in Abhimaan, that she would appear better than Rafi or Kishore without having them compromise on their rendition.  This statement is odd; few singers have become great exclusively on the back of their technical virtuosity. Public taste is fickle, and a competent singer in the right place and right time could have delivered more hits than a virtuoso.

The references to plagiarism should ideally have been edited out rather than allowed to remain in the book – there is a comparison of the length of the original material and his inspired composition where it is stressed that SD’s composition ran longer. The length of a composition is not evidence of it not being plagiarised.

The author also posits that SD used to compose the mukhda and leave the composition of the antaras to his assistants after providing them with a skeleton. (This, to prove that SD didn't plagiarise!) If that were so, how would it be SD’s composition alone? Shouldn’t his assistants be given credit for those compositions too? And how does this defend SD against charges of plagiarism?

The book ends with a selection of songs by various singers who sang for SD Burman, a few pages on the lyricists who worked with him, an interview with SD, and interviews with film makers and writers who worked with SD Burman. Also included are the singers’ views on SD, both as a person and a composer.

The initial parts of the book are really quite interesting as the author traces SD Burman’s youth, his seminal years in Calcutta and his earlier years in Bombay. But the second part of the book loses its narrative perspective, descending into a hodge-podge of anecdotes and observations without coherency or facts to back them up. There seems to be a need to impose on the reader the uniqueness and primacy of SD Burman. 

 Sadly, this was unnecessary. SD Burman’s music will always stand the test of time.

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