“Music is geography.” (Claude Debussy, 1862-1918).
“Music is all about the place one comes from.” (Antonio Vivaldi, 1678-1741)
“My music carries the echoes of my home-terrains.” (Johannes Brahms, 1833-1897).
Such statements intrigue dilettantes and uninitiated students of (western classical) music. I was also intrigued while studying western classical music at Vienna University, until I understood them in their musio-geographical (Joseph Haydn’s phrase) contexts.
And when I came back to India and re-listened to Sachin Dev Burman‘s music, I understood the importance of geographical influences on a composer or musician’s music. Sachin da infused the musical petrichor of Tripura, Agartala and the then undivided Bengal into his film-music. A quaintly refined rusticity was his metier. His music grew from the soil and soul.
“Dariya ki rawani, mashriq ka andaaz/Aapki mausiqi mein Bengal ka saaz” (The flow of a river, the style of the East/Your music is the instrument of Bengal), poet-lyricist Shailendra complimented Burman da with this couplet. S D Burman once told Pramathesh Barua that the euphonic ‘rudrin’ (a rare Sanskrit-Bangla word for the musical sound of flowing water; softer than the onomatopoetic ‘kalkal’) is in the heart of every song that he composed. And he composed for over 100 movies. Inclined towards music right from his childhood, young Sachin would go to meadows and hinterlands of Tripura to listen to Bhatiyali, folk songs and meadows-strains of the cattle-grazers and fishermen.
Like William Wordsworth, Sachin Dev felt that nature has its own unadulterated and virgin music and one ought to have an ear for it. During his stay in Calcutta (sorry, no Kolkata for me), when he formally learnt G F Han and Sebastian Bach’s meadows music, he understood that the language of music was universal and folk music could be an endless source of musicality and creativity. During that period, the AIR, Calcutta had an English station director. He advised Burman to learn how to play a piano so that he (Burman) could learn all the facets of western and Indian classical music.
Burman da started learning notes of the piano and how to play it. His teacher was an Anglo-Indian gentleman (Elvin Sen) on Park Street. A very tall young man would also come to learn. The sight of a cigarette dangling from the lips of that highly impressive young man playing piano, fascinated our Burman da. That young man was later to become one of the greatest directors of all time. He was Satyajit Ray. Burman da loved young Ray’s textured baritone and later offered a couple of songs in Bangla to sing. “Sorry, Mr Burman. It ain’t my cup of tea. Thanks, anyway.”
With these words, Ray would very politely decline SD’s offers to sing. Sachin da had the honesty and integrity of character to acknowledge the sources of his music and the genuine inspiration that he received and how he internalised it into his song/s. For example, once at the age of nineteen, he stumbled upon a rare tune sung by a group of village-women in Chittagong (now in Bangladesh). He liked the tune immensely and it stayed with him to bloom into Sahir Ludhianavi’s ‘Thandi hawaein lahra ke aayeen‘ (Naujawan, 1951). Some discerning connoisseurs of western classical and popular music feel that this was inspired by C’est la vie from the movie Algiers (1938).
Burman da acknowledged both sources. SD had a habit of refurbishing a tune till he was fully satisfied with its burnished form. In other words, he incubated his tunes and compositions to vindicate Beethoven’s words: ” I compose, decompose and recompose.” In Bengal, he got an opportunity to meet Rabindranath Tagore. SD told him (Tagore) that he had a tune on his mind. Tagore listened to the tune attentively and advised SD to save it for an equally beautiful number.
SD’s tune got the perfect foil when Sahir Ludhianavi penned that immortal gem of a song: Tum na jaane kis jahaan mein kho gaye…‘ (Film-Sazaa, 1951). Sahir again wrote for him: Dil se mila ke dil pyaar keejiye…‘ (Taxi Driver, 1954). Two Titans worked in tandem till Pyaasa (1957) only to part ways forever when Sahir publicly said that a lyricist had a greater role in popularising the music of a film. But that doesn’t mean that other poet-lyricists didn’t write everlasting songs for SD. Who can forget Majrooh Sultanpuri’s Chaand phir nikla magar tum na aaye (Paying Guest, 1957)? Lata immortalised it with her matchless rendition. When Geeta Dutt soulfully sang, ‘Waqt ne kiya, kya haseen sitam…‘ (Film: Kaaghaz ke Phool, 1957 ), you simultaneously think of Kaifi Azmi, who wrote it, SD Burman and Waheeda Rahman.
The perfectionist that he was, SD made Geeta Dutt sing it a number of times and out of 11 recordings and renditions, he picked up one he thought to be the best. Burman da didn’t know Hindi, let alone Urdu. But he made it a point to understand the import of every song he was to compose for. So, he’d urge the lyricists to explain the whole song to him before he could think of composing it. In 1964, a film hit the marquee. The name of the film was Benazeer (Matchless/Peerless in English). Great poet-lyricist Shakeel Badayuni wrote a beautiful ghazal for it: Dil mein ek jaan-e-tamanna ne jagah paayee hai, aaj gulshan mein nahin ghar mein bahaar aayee hai. It had some difficult words. SD asked Shakeel to explain it to him in either English or very simple Hindi. Shakeel was a somewhat impatient man. He explained the song twice. Burman da didn’t understand even a word of it. Shakeel was exasperated and said, ‘Aap ise Rafi se samajh leejiyega‘ (please, understand it from Rafi). Rafi was to sing the song that was filmed on Shashi Kapoor and Tanuja. Rafi patiently explained and it became a cult number.
Incidentally, Shakeel and SD seldom teamed up. Burman da once said, “Shokil bohut gussa karta hai” (Shakeel gets angry quite often). SD was never into badmouthing. Here, it must be mentioned that though SD had no understanding of Hindi-Urdu, he was familiar with specific compositions meant for Urdu-ghazals, knows as Qivayat or Fiqa’at. That’s the reason, Hindi film’s two quintessential and very fine ghazals from Teen Deviyaan (1965, Majrooh Sultanpuri) had an unmistakable imprint of a semi-classical ghazal. The ghazals were: Kahin bekhyaal hokar yoon hi chhoo liya kisi ne and aise toh na dekho ke humko nasha ho jaaye. In both the ghazals, S D employed subtle background sarod for a lilting effect. Shailendra was SD’s favourite lyricist. Burman da cried when Shailendra wrote: Tere bin soone nayan humare (Meri soorat teri aankhein, 1963). Rafi and Lata sang the song pouring their hearts out. Burman Da considered Guide (1965) as his best musical creation.
His ‘truant son’ (Kishore), Rafi and Lata made it a grand musical saga, a milestone of a sort. Readers will be surprised to know that out of so many songs that Kishore sang for SD, Sachin da loved the most, Dil aaj shayar hai (Film: Gambler, 1971, Lyricist: Gopaldas Saxena ‘Neeraj’). SD had a different type of voice. He described his voice: A sibilant, shrill voice. Because of his slightly peculiar voice, he preferred to sing background songs like Mere saajan hain uss paar, Bandini, Shailendra, 1963). Very fond of paan, Burman da believed that a Kalkatta Patta (a type of paan) was better than Magahi type. Kalkatta Patta would immediately trigger a new tune, he believed! When Burman da spontaneously liked a song, his composition would also be instantaneous.
He believed in the perfect coordination of the words and tunes. ‘Natural poetry would naturally create a worth-humming tune,’ he would often say. When lyricist Yogesh Gaur wrote the song: Piya maine kya kiya mujhe chhod ke jaiyo na (Film: Uss Paar, Manna Dey, 1974), he wanted SD to sing the song but Burman da believed that he had aged and his voice had started cracking. He suggested the name of Manna De, who sang it so beautifully.
Though such a great composer, Burman da was not very sure if posterity would remember him. He was self-effacing to a fault. A well-read man, he would often quote English poet John Keats: ‘My name will be writ on water.’ He chose a few lyrical poems of Shelly, Keats and Byron (all coevals) and created tunes for them, but couldn’t finish the ambitious project. SD could quote Byron at the drop of a hat. He told a Bengali journalist a couple of months prior to his demise: People will always remember Mozart and Beethoven. They won’t remember a composer like me. We remember you, Burman da and will continue to remember you. You’re perennially ensconced in the hearts of your admirers.
Sumit Paul is an advanced research scholar of Semitic languages, civilisations and religions.