Songs of a boatman

July 01, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 03:34 am IST

Deciphering the many layers of S.D. Burman’s music

What is the best way to evaluate a Hindustani film song? As Ashraf Aziz writes in his book, the most educative method would be through the lens of the film’s overall narrative. This is one aspect the author duo of this book has relied on right from their first work on R.D. Burman.

S.D. Burman’s lifelong study of the art form can be understood through different episodes — his Tripura years as the member of a royal family when he got trained in dhrupad at home; his Calcutta years when he struggled to achieve success; and his Bombay years when, after achieving major success with Baazi (1951), he spent nearly 25 years composing film music.

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 partnership with Sahir Ludhianvi; and Burman’s mentoring of his son Rahul Dev. His role in using the rawness in the voice of singers like Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey, Geeta Dutt and Kishore Kumar is also worth noting. The authors, 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 from East Bengal as he did from Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam and the ustad s of various gharana s, Burman wanted his tunes to be accessible to the common man. This is a point he emphasised in his autobiography Sargamer Nikhad . And this is most apparent in the songs Burman sung. A thread that runs through them is his love for bhatiyali songs, which he called the “tunes of the earth” and which are usually sung by boatmen.

‘Sun mere bandhu re’ from Sujata , considered the first instance of use of bhatiyali in Hindi film music, is one example. It was lip-synced by an unknown, unnamed boatman, referring to himself as a woman. The person calls herself a lata (vine) and a nadiya (river), willing to 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.

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