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The Master’s Voice: Exploring the musical world of SD Burman

A book on SD Burman reveals an understanding of his music beyond the superlatives.

Updated: September 8, 2014 3:20:56 pm

By: Akshay Manwani

Book: Sun Mere Bandhu Re; the musical world of SD Burman
Author: Sathya Saran
Publisher: HarperCollins
Price: Rs 499

In his National Award winning book, Bollywood Melodies: A History of The Hindi Film Song, the author Ganesh Anantharaman admitted to Sachin Dev Burman being his favourite composer.  “His tunes have a contemporariness that puts him ahead of the fourth generation… There never was a pattern to his tunes, orchestration or choice of singers. It was always with surprise, often amazement that I discovered that SD had tuned the song that caught my ear. In this ability to spring a surprise on the unsuspecting listener with his sheer variety, he was unparalleled,” Anantharaman wrote.

That assessment is something scores of Hindi film song lovers identify with, given the sheer magnitude of SD’s success. Having established himself in the Hindi film industry in the late-1940s, SD, or Burman senior, provided some of the best soundtracks in Hindi cinema over a period spanning nearly 30 years. His music in films like Devdas (1955), Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Guide (1965), Aradhana (1969) and Abhimaan (1973), have made superstars out of individuals and given audiences much to cherish.

The composer is the subject of veteran journalist-editor Sathya Saran’s latest book. Saran’s task, therefore, had to be difficult. Bringing to life the work and contributions of a past master like SD, requires a certain attention to detail, an understanding of his music beyond the obvious and piecing together the defining moments in his life to present a comprehensive picture. Saran does well on all counts.

To begin with, the book is replete with interesting anecdotes. From detailing poet-lyricist Gulzar’s association with SD for his very first song in Hindi cinema, to telling us about the lyricist who turned down Guide before Shailendra came on board, to Shakti Samanta’s little blunder in the picturisation of Mere sapnon ki rani (in the antaras, when the actor Sujit Kumar plays the mouth organ, we hear the music of the guitar instead) from Aradhana, the book gives the reader plenty to smile about.

In an earlier book on SD’s son, RD Burman: The Man, The Music, writers Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal correctly opined that, “Popular music criticism in India has struggled to extricate itself from the film-composer-lyricist-singer cycle. The deeper understanding of what a note/chord combination/rhythm pattern depicts and why it has been used, etc, will comprise the new paradigm for critical appraisals of light music some day. And between now and the new paradigm, our critics will need to study hard to upgrade themselves.”

On this count, too, Saran succeeds. When she writes about some of SD’s best work, like his songs in Guide, she approaches the subject from a technical standpoint, sharing details about taal and orchestration, and without describing them in casual superlatives.

But the biggest strength of Sun Mere Bandhu Re lies in Saran’s imagination. Since the book itself, as Saran herself admits in its preface, is an outcome of articles published on SD and interviews conducted by one of his most ardent admirers (Moti Lalwani), it is in the telling of SD’s story, that Saran makes this book her own. Her decision to switch to the first person — a fictional device in which the narrative is in the voice of SD Burman — at regular intervals makes it an interesting work of non-fiction. At several places, one can feel SD talking directly to the reader. In the hands of a lesser writer, the attempt could have been disastrous. But with Saran avoiding exaggerated, flowery prose, Sun Mere Bandhu Re, much like SD’s musical scores, becomes a work to be appreciated.

Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet

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