S.D. Burman: The Prince-Musician review: Songs of a boatman

What is the best way to evaluate a Hindustani film song? To those unfamiliar with the classical forms of music, the poetry in the lyrics may act as a succor. To the purists, the use of a particular raga may provide guidance. However, as Ashraf Aziz writes in his book on the topic, the most educative method to would be through the lens of the film’s overall narrative. This is one aspect the author duo of this book have relied on right from their first work on R.D. Burman.

And how does one decipher S.D. Burman’s music? His lifelong study and meditation of the art form can be understood through the various episodes of his life — his Tripura years as the member of a royal family when he got trained in dhrupad at home, while getting smitten by the sounds of nature; his Calcutta years when he struggled to achieve success as a musician; and his Bombay years when, after achieving success in his 40s with his first major hit album Baazi (1951), he spent nearly 25 years composing music for about 75 albums. His career can also be seen through his collaborations with various artistes — like his long association with Dev Anand for whose production house Navketan he was the default composer; his short but rich partnership with Sahir Ludhianvi whose fall was preceded by their most memorable album Pyaasa (1957); and Burman’s mentoring of his son Rahul Dev (Pancham). His role in using the rawness in the voice of singers originally from Bengal, like Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey, Geeta Dutt and Kishore Kumar when the more established composers were sticking to the polished voices of Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi, is also worth noting. The authors of this book, relying on their interviews with those associated with the Burman family like Kersi Lord, Manohari Singh and Sachin Bhowmick, present a rich account of all these.

However, if there is one defining factor that characterised Burman’s pursuit of music, it was his desire to be the common man’s musician. Borrowing as liberally from the wandering minstrels and boatmen from East Bengal as he did from Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam and the ustads of various gharanas, Burman wanted his tunes to be accessible to the common man. This is a point he emphasised repeatedly in his writings, including his autobiography Sargamer Nikhad.

This is most apparent in the songs sung by him, both in Bengali and Hindi — there are about 170 of them. One of the threads that runs through these is Burman’s love for bhatiyali songs, which are usually sung by boatmen philosophising about their daily lives. Burman called bhatiyali “tune of the earth” whose pathos reminded him of the “rivers of Bengal”. His mentor here was a family servant Anwar who used to sing his boatman’s songs with a dotara.

Sun mere bandhu re from Sujata, considered the first instance of use of bhatiyali in Hindi film music, is the best illustration of this. It was lip-synced not by the lead characters in the film, but by an unknown, unnamed boat-man, referring to himself as a woman. At different points in the song, the person calls herself a lata (vine) and a nadiya (river), willing to completely surrender herself to her bandhu (friend, beloved), in a spiritual sense.

Burman’s life was marked by a similar surrender to his music, one that saw him leave the comforts of the royal household, the cloisters of classical singing, desist from the inclination to charge high for his compositions, and yet remain uncompromising while making music for the little man on the street, or on the boat.

S.D. Burman: The Prince-Musician; Anirudha Bhattacharjee & Balaji Vittal, Tranquebar, ₹799.

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Printable version | Jul 26, 2021 5:14:30 PM |

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