S.D. Burman: Remembering an ever-youthful genius

Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore enact the chartbuster Roop tera mastana in Aradhana. Photo: Shakti Films / Shakti Samanta

A full 47 years have passed since he left the world on October 31, 1975—the last of the three composers (Madan Mohan and Vasant Desai being the others) who bade adieu that year. But decidedly in a quantum that was far higher to that of those revered names, Sachin Dev Burman’s music lives on, more because it was always ahead of its time.

Let us look at what the (literally) blue-blooded composer-singer was.

On October 1, 1906, a prince was born in the royal clan of Tripura. It is indeed incredible to think now that songs as youthful as Roop tera mastana (Aradhana / 1969) and Dil ka bhanwar kare pukar (Tere Ghar Ke Saamne / 1963) are as evergreen and young today as when created. It is magical to know that they were composed by a man who would have been 116 years old today! His melodies always were—without being revolutionary in content or packaging like his son’s— always ahead of their times. Yet they were also timeless. They defied convention often, and yet never sounded esoteric. They had immense mass-appeal, and yet they had rare elegance and class.

The S.D. Burman song never sounded dated because it was too simple to be affected by changes in trends or passing fads. And simple art that resonates with everyone is always what a classic is about, for it is actually the most difficult to create!

As he is said to have advised his chief assistant, composer Jaidev, “Your composition should be so simple that even your dhobi (washerman) should be able to sing it!” The difference in Jaidev’s and Dada’s career-track can be best summarized with this priceless piece of advice that Jaidev, sadly, rarely followed.

As a person and a composer, Dada Burman had several standout qualities. He never compromised on work, and so never ever broke certain rules he had set for himself. Much has been made about Dada’s fixation with anyone coming to sign him for a film: it is said that he would refuse a producer whose face he did not like, and tell him so.

But this was neither arrogance nor an excuse to back off. A combination of his life’s circumstances and earthy intelligence had probably taught him to judge character and temperament well, and Dada could instinctively set apart the proposal-makers from those who genuinely needed a quality composer like him! For did he not work with the best and finest names from Dev, Vijay and Chetan Anand to Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, S. Mukerji and Shakti Samanta, among many others?

Born in Comilla near Dhaka in undivided India, Dada was the youngest child of Nabadip Chandra Dev Burman’s nine. Nabadip was the direct heir to the kingdom of Tripura, but manipulative relatives forced him to relinquish the right. An adept at dhrupad and a master of the sitar, he gave Dada the first musical impetus. The old family servant, Madhav, who would sing passages from the Ramayan, and Anwar, the young Dada’s angling partner who would sing Bhatiali (a form of Bangla folk) and played the Do-Tara, a 2-string folk instrument, also led to Dada’s enhanced interest in matters musical. Dada’s mastery later encompassed the flute and the tabla.

Legend has it that his father sent Dada away because there were plans to poison his son, and that is when Dada roamed the forests of Bengal and Assam, interacting with sadhus and folk singers and getting his rich base of folk music and mountain raags as well as first-hand experiences of a life as removed from royalty as his guru K.C. Dey’s music was from today’s fusion.

Dada completed his Bachelors in Arts from Comilla Victoria College and left for Kolkata to pursue his M.A. in English. But music beckoned and he groomed in it instead from K.C. Dey (Manna Dey’s uncle), Ustad Badal Khan, Ustad Allauddin Khan and Ustad Bishwadev Chatterjee.

Dada made his debut for All-India Radio around 1927 and cut his first disc, as both singer and composer, in 1932 with the now-defunct Hindoostan Records— a semi-classical and a folk number made up this ’double’ 78 rpm LP. With its success and many others (he even sang playback in the Kolkata-made Hindi film Seeta in 1936), he soon became Bengal’s highest-paid singer, besides composing for several Bengali plays and films.

Rajgee (1937) was Dada’s first film. On stage, Dada performed with the likes of Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Faiyyaz Khan and Girija Shankar Chakrabarty in major musical conferences in Allahabad and Kolkata. He married Meera, a singer and dancer, in 1938, and came to Mumbai in 1944 on the invitation of studio baron S. Mukerji of Filmistan and made his debut with two films, Eight Days and Shikari, both released in1946.

But the Hindi film industry did not exactly welcome him despite some popular songs in these films as well as in Do Bhai (Mera sundar sapna beet gaya), Vidya (Bahe na kabhi nain se neer), and Shabnam (Yeh duniya). Dada decided to move back to Kolkata, but Ashok Kumar, an admirer and a partner in Filmistan, insisted that he complete their production, Mashal.

Composer-singer S.D. Burman hailed from the royal family of Tripura. Photo: Publicity Photo

With this 1950 hit film that had Manna Dey’s career-breakthrough song, Oopar gagan vishal, Dada’s destiny turned. Afsar, Baazi, Sazaa, Buzdil, Bahar and Naujawan consolidated his status as one of Hindi cinema’s leading composers.

Dada’s passion for music and his pride in his own work proved that he knew his job, had the right approach and attitude, and cared a hoot for conforming to trends that did not suit him.

For example, he rarely took on more than 5 films at a time. But this was not out of some holier-than-thou self-proclamations of art first and not money! It was just that Dada wanted to ensure that no song of his should give any listener a déjà vu feeling of any of his past songs!

This is the reason why Dada would admonish his son not to take on so many films. “Forget a song, consciously and completely, once it is recorded,” he advised him once. “That way, its influences will not come into any later songs.”

Dada always thought positive, and this is where, in his absence, his son could not psychologically cope when producers began to sideline him from the late `70s. Unlike his contemporaries, Dada never badmouthed his juniors or denigrated trends and changes. He never got frustrated, wallowed in self-pity or gave interviews on how people’s tastes had fallen and how music had changed for the worse.  Prem Pujari, Talash, Gambler, Ishq Par Zor Nahin, Tere Mere Sapne, Sharmeelee, Yeh Gulistan Hamara, Anuraag, Jugnu, Abhimaan, Premnagar, Chupke Chupke and Mili formed his hit parade even in the 1970s.

The ‘50s and ‘60s were, of course, beset with wonderful musical jewels like Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, Munimji, Nau Do Gyarah, Funtoosh, Kala Pani, Manzil, Solva Saal, Sujata and Devdas and the 1960s by Kala Bazar, Ziddi, Meri Surat Teri Ankhen, Naughty Boy, Bandini, Guide, Jewel Thief, Teen Deviyan and Baat Ek Raat Ki.

Dev Anand recalled to me how Dada refused to record Honthon pe aisi baat (Jewel Thief) till an authentic Nepali drum reached Mumbai—the song was readied on trust after the unit reached Nepal for shooting. Similarly, the recording of Naache man mora (Meri Surat Teri Ankhen) was postponed until the arrival of tabla ace Pandit Samta Prasad from Banaras.

Dada barely had inclination to discover new talent, but he did shape existing playback singers in a significant way. Asha Bhosle owed a lot of her distinctive singing to Dada. Mohammed Rafi, known then for earthy songs and plaintive litanies, was given the soft, sophisticated crooner image by Dada in so many of his films from Pyaasa in 1957 to Gambler in 1971.

And as a singer, perhaps no one in cinema had such a distinctive voice, as demonstrated in just two songs, Suno mere bandhu re (Sujata) and Wahaan kaun hai tera (Guide) among many others.

As Dev Anand put it, “Dada was humble, confident, accessible, generous, temperamental and whimsical, sometimes stubborn for a while. I revere, I admire, I loved Dada Burman! He was a pillar of my banner Navketan.” S.D. Burman, in turn, had a natural affinity for progressive people and opted for those who looked ahead, like Dev and Vijay Anand, lyricists Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra and later Anand Bakshi.





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