The last ‘bhadralok’ musician
A new book explores how the master composer found his sound and why he missed the Ganga
Sachin Dev Burman owed his music to the river. Not one river, although he found inspiration in Kolkata’s Ganga in an assuredly non-religious sort of way. He was interested in the river as a perennially flowing natural entity. After he came to Mumbai and settled into the business of playback music, he imagined and yearned for the drift and rhythms of rivers he had grown up around in Tripura. He lost the tokens of his Tripura royalty to Partition but relived the water, the soil and the breeze of his childhood through some of his music.
In their new biography of Burman, S.D. Burman: The Prince-Musician, Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal say that “the rationing of water in Bombay" was among the things he disliked about the city.
Bhattacharjee and Vittal travelled to Tripura as well as Bangladesh to follow Burman’s geographical roots. But they found no rivers, only a derelict legacy. That’s why their book, following two previous ones—R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music (2011) and Gaata Rahe Mera Dil: 50 Classic Hindi Film Songs (2015)—is important. It is as much a history of Hindi film music’s gratifyingly mongrel roots as it is the story of the great musician who moved like the rivers of his childhood and became a master of the sublime mishmash.
The book begins with Hill Tipperah and Plains Tipperah (now Tripura), and the Murungs of Arakan in Burma (now Myanmar), who were supposedly the ancestors of Tipperah’s residents. Burman was born to a big family, perennially feuding about land and fiefdoms. His love of music took him to Kolkata, where he sang and composed all kinds of songs—for the aesthete as well as the philistine.
The authors accumulate numerous minute details of Burman’s musical trajectory, while deviating for broad brushes of the social and political canvas against which he progressed to a serious, unpredictable, un-pinnable and gifted musician. Through Burman’s experiments, we come to know also about Dev Anand, the blossoming Manna Dey and his “truant son", the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta), the beginning and end of creative ferment at 41, Pali Hill (Dev Anand’s residence), and why Rabindranath Tagore was less of a diva than those who worked for him. As his music became richer, Burman underwent inner transformations owing to the Bengal famine of 1943, independence and Partition, as did contemporaries and collaborators like Bimal Roy, Sahir Ludhianvi and O.P. Nayyar.
This book also tells us a little more about the famous tugs of war between sisters Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. Burman once said, “Give me Lata and a harmonium, and I will make music." There’s no better way to describe how both created musical transcendence with these songs: Thandi Hawayein (Naujawan, 1951), Tum Na Jane Kis Jahan Mein Kho Gaye (Sazaa, 1951), Chand Phir Nikla (Paying Guest, 1957), Aaj Phir Jeene Ki (Guide, 1965), Rulake Gaya Sapna Mera(Jewel Thief, 1967). This book uses accounts previously narrated in books to tell us how Burman’s relationship with Mangeshkar had soured, the well-known Dada-Lata feud, and how he embraced Bhosle’s deep and malleable timbre at a time when he himself wanted to open up to Western music traditions—the norm then, and, to some extent, even now. Bhosle sang Kali Ghata Chhaye Mora Jiya Tarsaye (Sujata, 1959) and other memorable hits for Burman.
Firmly in the tradition of a pyramidal chronicle built meticulously with the specifics of songs, films, years, dates and anecdotes, and ending with the subject’s death, the authors of the book are conscious of their role as historians. With a few exceptions, this factual and anecdotal approach is the hallmark of film biographies and film books in India. As I do in most film books, I missed reportage on what remains of Burman—his descendants, his fans, his home and his musical influences. They tell us how Burman fused elements of Bhatiali, Baul and other Bengali folk traditions—in which the experience of nature and the river underpins melodies and lyrics—with Indian classical music, and, later, Western classical music. They tell us orchestration was not Burman’s strength, and he began the tradition of writing a song to a tune. But what is it really like to listen to the best Burman songs? Documenting an art form or writing artistic histories such as this as experiential narratives—in which the actual experience of listening to his songs and finding him in the people and places he left behind, like a home or a kin—is an art form in itself. And it is scarce.
The last chapter of this book reveals what the authors come away with, after reams of research, and it is an apt way to end the book, considering how packed it is with rigorous research and details: “What would be more appropriate is to treat his legacy like heritage, a treasure trove which allows everybody to rummage, but seldom steal. Moreover, his legacy was more ‘static’ than dynamic; it existed, it exists even today, but is more like the breeze that his beloved Bauls from Bengal sing about—omnipresent, yet intangible."
In Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951), Geeta Dutt sings to the gorgeously liberating lyrics of Sahir Ludhianvi, Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui Taqdeer Bana Le. The music by Burman is a new high in 1950s’ film music; it is new despite its derivativeness. The “hey hey hey hey hey hey" in it is the Burman flourish, the breeze over the river of his childhood.
S.D. Burman’s best club songs
Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui, Baazi, Geeta Dutt, 1951
A film industry tradition, this song from Guru Dutt’s Baazi was the mahurat shot—the beginning of a short but memorable noir run for Dev Anand. Sahir Ludhianvi wrote it as a ghazal but Burman turned it into a “club song". It became so popular that audiences came to watch just this song. Burman’s career took a turn with this number: He started using Western chromatic notes in his songs.
Jeene Do Aur Jiyo, Taxi Driver, Asha Bhosle, 1954
In Chetan Anand’s Taxi Driver, Burman most memorably composed Jayen Toh Jayen Kahan, sung by Talat Mahmood and Lata Mangeshkar. For the club number, Jeene Do Aur Jiyo, he used Asha Bhosle, fortifying his reputation as a composer who was as comfortable using Western notes as Indian folk. The song was picturized on Sheila Ramani.
‘Dum Hai Baqi Toh Gham Nahi’, House No 44, Asha Bhosle, 1955
Navketan’s House No 44 was dark crime fiction, portraying Mumbai’s seamy underbelly. Dev Anand was the hero, and Burman created memorable songs like Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni for it. He wanted to repeat the success of Tadbeer Se Bigdi Hui from Baazi with Dum Hai Baqi Toh Gham Nahi, picturized on Sheila Vaz, but it didn’t prove too successful.