Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Concert Review - In Pursuit of Manna Dey, Part 1

EBC, our local NJ radio station announces that Manna Dey is in town for a show in August 2004. I jumped with joy. Finally a concert of singer who sings songs that I actually listen to(and more importantly has not sung any songs that I do not listen to!). I have to go.

But... there was a hitch. August 2004 was a time when my default concert companion Madhura was snowed down with ill-health and was not likely to accompany me. I needed another concert companion. Thus with a heavy heart I went in search of an alternate bakra. A daunting task, given the genre of music that appeals to me. But then yours truly is never say die, so I asked around. I got diverse reactions.

"Manna Dey, Hmmmm Tere Naina Talaash Karen Right??… That's a nice song…..but no.. I don't have much of an enthu for him.", said Savita mulling over the prospect.

She sometimes appreciates vintage music, so what if it is in spurts. I have a good chance. I must give it my best shot.

Tere Naina Talash is not the only nice song from Manna Dey, he has many other "nice" songs like Aaja Sanam Madhur chandani mein and Yeh raat bheegi bheegi, I said, trying my best to sell popular fare.

I have to stop here and say that Savita's music taste underlines the word eclectic. Despite her being my 'bestest' friend for the last 15 years, it would be simpler for me to fathom the direction a New york pedestrian would take than it would be to second guess her reaction to a given song.

"Ughhh! Puhlease there is no way I am sitting through those Raj Kapoor songs Manna Dey or no Manna Dey.", she shrieked(as she often does when she is mildly annoyed or pleased). Ah.. well that one backfired. Well look at the positive side, at least she shares my allergy for Raj Kapoor. Good for the 'friend-friend' bonding part of things. That however put an end at any effort to have her savour Manna Dey in concert.

Another music lover friend Shubhu loved the initial idea. He is a Bong after all and Bongs love their 'Manna Babu'. We had all attended the Asha Bhosle show together. So he went back to his wife Alka with the proposal, soon he was back rubbing a bump caused by the belan on the head. Manna Dey certainly did not boot her hard drive. Even the wonderful time we had hearing Asha Bhosle sing 'Kambakht Ishq', 'Sharara Sharara' and other such legendary songs did not help the matter. Well, that thread closed there.

In this process of trying to procure a bakra, one thing was becoming more and more apparent... for a casual music listener Manna Dey does not seem to have much of an appeal or stature. The true irony for Manna Dey however is this.. that even in the connoisseur circuit he sort of misses the bus. He is regularly accused of being mechanical, dry and predictable. Admirers, he has many, but he has never inspired the fanaticsm that a Kishore, Rafi, Hemant or even Talat Mehmood would inspire. Music lovers like Madhura Purohit who nurse a crush for his dynamic intellectual persona and equally flamboyant voice are few and far between.

And so it had to be Madhura Purohit who would come to my rescue. One evening I casually mentioned my lack of success in finding a bakra to her. In a highly emotional flourish that one reserves for the greatest love of their life, she said she would go.

Given her health condition (it was cancer that she was battling in those days) it seemed highly improbable. The cycles of chemotherapy and the ensuing debilitating pain gave her very little breather of relative physical comfort in which she could step out. And now she had a chemo on the Thursday before the Saturday of the concert. She would be in extreme pain on Saturday. But the clarion call of Manny dear was too great for Madhura to resist. Chemo or no chemo, pain or no pain she was going.

So on a very tentative note I bought the tickets for the show with the strong possibility of Madhura backing out.

Come Saturday and Madhura called me in the morning. I received her call in great trepidation. She had not sounded well at all last night and I knew it only got worse for her as the days progressed after the chemo. I had my doubts she would make it even though she had insisted she would. However, I wanted to wholly encourage her attempts at cheerfully and valiantly trying to fight the monster of the big C so I did not dissuade her from the project. Today, to my joy she came through bright and chirpy all geared for her date with her 'chashmewala hero'. To give a background. Madhura loves all bespectacled Bengali singers from her grand-father's generation. That includes Hemant Kumar, SD Burman, Kishore Kumar and ofcourse Manna Dey (See picture above to know why).. Get the drift?

So Madhuraji landed up at my place on Saturday afternoon and in our subsequent leisurely cups of Darjeeling tea and gossip time faded into the background. When finally we did glance up at the clock it was 7:15 PM. The show was to start at 8:30 PM and it takes at least an hour to get there. Back-calculating, we had to be out of the house by 7:30 PM. Even Dubya would know that it is impossible for two women to get ready in 15 minutes . We eventually scrambled out of the house at 7:45 PM. Mind you a feat that only Manna Dey could get us to achieve. Or rather a feat that only Manna Dey would get Madhura to get me to achieve!

With our past experience with IST(Indian Stretchable Time), we were sure that there was a dim chance of the show starting at 8:30 PM sharp. Yet, self-doubt is the bane of human existence. And as we crossed the 8:30 PM time mark, it began to plague us. What if this concert had actually started on time?. We would surely miss some songs. What if Manna Dey started with my favourite Poocho na kaise maine rain bitayi? The concert would be a wash out if I missed that song. By the time it was 8:50 PM we were quadruply(her double and my double together) sure that we must have surely missed a part of the concert. Why did we let Lopchu take precedence over Manny dear? The regret was writ large in our hearts. And 'chidiya chug gayi khet' ringing somewhere in the recess of our conscience.

We finally reached the venue at 8:55 PM. I quickly drew into the parking space, clicked on the lock and hurried towards the theatre as Madhura scurried behind. As soon we entered the venue, I gave Madhura an 'I told you' look and exhaled. There was a huge crowd standing in the foyer. The function had not started. One up for Indian Stretchable Time!

Now that we had all the time, we fell back into our stately pace. We cashed our e-tickets and headed inside. A leisurely halt at the samosa kiosk, a fruitful debate over the best chutney for the occasion and two plates of samosa later we were in the hall. It took us sometime to locate our seats and settle down. In about five minutes there was a whole lot of hooting and clapping. What's the matter? It took us a moment to realise that these were those traitor kind of Indians that migrate to the US and forget their all Indian Values. You know the kind of people that flaunt their un-Indianess by actually coming on time? Yet however much their 'joota' might be 'japani', their 'dil' is after all Hindustani. And a true Hindustani cannot resist the lure of the catcall, whether in pleasure or in pain. So while we sympathised with their pain of waiting for over an hour we revelled in our cent-per-cent swadeshiness and happily tucked away at our samosas.

Another five minutes there was an announcement that we would be starting shortly. This was accompanied with a flurry of activity around the stage. Another few minutes later the curtain went up and the musicians were all on the stage tuning their instruments. One has to admit that the catcalls do have their benefits as infallible catalysts. The instant activity on stage was proof enough for that theory.

The orchestra was a minimal one with a Tabla player, dholak player, keyboard player, guitarist and an electronic drum(forgot what you call it). I liked that. Too much orchestra is distracting in my opinion.

Finally, the MC came on stage. He was a typical fellow from the northern parts of India. Dressed in a bright silk kurta worn fashionably over blue jeans, he regaled us for a while with an introduction speech and then announced Manna Dey with a flourish of great showmanship. As everyone clapped lustily, the man of the moment made a casual entry with a contrasting modesty that I have come to characterise as very Eastern(read Bengali). He wore a formal jacket and trousers along with his trademark cap. My first impression was that he looked quite well-preserved for an 84 year old. And yes, he did look what I always call him….the uncle next door. Needless to say Madhura has never agreed with that observation of mine. (Please see picture above again!)

The first thing Mannada did after getting the microphone was to very humbly apologise for the delay. The driver had lost his way and it took them 1.5 hours to reach the venue...ouch!. (psst...I am sure the driver was a man). "I understand the importance of punctuality and I apologise on the behalf of the organisers. They are trying their best but sometimes things happen." he said with effortless humility, practicality and simplicity that can only come from someone of the old school.

That won me over there and then and I suspect it was the same with the rest of the audience. Here is an 84 year old man. He has been subjected to a tiring 1.5 hour drive through the chaos of New Jersey traffic that too just before a concert. He is not responsible in anyway for the delay, yet he thinks he owes his audience an apology. I instantly contrasted that with Asha Bhosle and Amit Kumar the two other film artists I have heard in concert(classical concerts somehow always start on time). Both made grossly late entries, kept the audience waiting for over 1.5 hours and did not think even an acknowledgement of the fact was required. The old school theory, I admit goes a little off skelter in the examples I state, but then when has Asha Bhosle considered herself old school?!

Coming back to Manna Dey, after apologising for the delay, he proceeded to introduce a singer whom he described as a budding talent based in New York. He praised her greatly and asked the audience to lend her an ear. I gave a sigh of impatience. In all these concerts these side-entries are very trying on the nerves. In the Asha concert there was Megha Naidu, Sudesh Bhosle and Adnan Sami one had to endure before one got to her. In the Amit Kumar concert there was his wife and a couple of other bores. So in this case too we waited for this new artist who went by the name of Zafreen Ani to come take stage and get over with it.

The lady walked onto the stage and very diffidently asked the audience to forgive her mistakes. I suddenly felt scared for her. She looked as if she would be chomped by the audience. I hoped from inside that they would be kind to her. Then she started singing. She first sang Ek pyar ka nagma hai from the Manoj Kumar film Shor. The whole effect sounded horrible. The orchestra was screaming and drowning her out. No for once LP are not to be blamed for that (** see note below). The effect was entirely the creation of the orchestra on stage.

Then suddenly Madhura pointed to a hand on the sidelines motioning the orchestra to tone down. Guess who that hand belonged to…. Yes, Manna Dey! With the orchestra (or shall be say Manna Dey) in control, Zafreen sang Oh mere sona re next. I was pleasantly surprised. Again, RDB does not get credit for that either (*** See note again!). Zafreen just had a lovely voice. A voice that reminded me of Geeta Dutt and Meena Kapoor. A husky voice that is full throated yet sweet and mellifluous. She is surely a very good singer. I hope she gets some good breaks. I enjoyed whatever she sang.

So now, all the extras, side-entries and MCs were out of the way. The stage was finally set for Manna Dey to make an appearance.

But wait... I am all done for today. All that comes in the next installment.
(Click to read Part 2)

See you!

Notes :
** - LP - Popular Hindi film music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal known for their love for a grand(read screeching orchestra) and creators of the song in question. This song Ek Pyar Ka Nagma Hai however is uncharacteristically minimalist and could count as one of their best efforts.

*** - RDB - Iconic music director RD Burman. Arch rival of LP (at least in the minds of their fans), known for his 'Stylish' , 'Classy' and 'Avant-Garde' (not my words) use of the orchestra. Creator of Oh Mere Sona re, the second song Zafreen sang.

Complete Article


More about Manna dey
Listen to Manna Dey's songs
Watch Manna Dey Live in Concert

P.S - Tongue Firmly in Cheek!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Simply Timeless - 100 Years of Sachin Dev Burman

This is the first article from the archives. It is on my 'favouritest' musician.. SD Burman. Burmanda has a connection with my soul. His music moves me like none others'. I have written many articles on him. Here is the first in the series.

This article was written on the occasion of SD Burman's centenary celebrations and is hosted at sdBurman.Net a website that I run along with two other wonderful people. Maajid Saab from Pakistan and Chowdhury Saab from Bangladesh

It was in the distant, hazy past of the early twentieth century. Deep in the remote hills of Tripura a little boy busy with his childhood games was lured by the wafting strains of the ektara. Soon a powerful, plaintive voice filled the air. It chanted a mesmerizing lament 'Rongila rongila rongila re, amare chadiye re bandhu koi gela re' (Oh my colourful mate, where have you left to after abandoning me here?'). The voice belonged to a wandering mendicant who sang this passionate plea in his eternal quest for the almighty. There was a deep pathos and strange magnetism in the voice and the little boy listened to it in wide-eyed wonder.

The minstrel and his song soon disappeared over the horizon and softly faded into the mists of time along with others of his ilk. But the boy stood rooted to that spot in time forever. Something had stirred deep within him. This innocuous little moment was the beginning of a new musical pilgrimage. A journey that would leave its own eternal melodies lingering in the same mists of time.

The small boy was none other the youngest son of Tripura's king-in-exile Nabadwip Chandra Dev Burman. The young prince, who would grow up to establish his own formidable musical fiefdom, went by the name of Kumar Sachindra. He later immortalized himself as the great music director SD Burman.

1st October 2006 marks the 100th birth anniversary of this musical titan from Tripura. In the year of his centenary we take a pilgrimage to SDBurmanland to pay obeisance to its evergreen inhabitants. For any Hindi film music lover the main attractions of this land are known faces, The 'Guides', 'Bandinis' and 'Pyaasas' adorn the racks of most music buffs and realms have been written on them. But there is much more to Burman Dada than this handful of celebrated works.
On this birth anniversary let's step off the main highway and explore the scenic nooks and by lanes to discover the real secret behind the Burman potion of immortality. What is it about the Burman school of music that it thrives and throbs with pulsating vitality in each new era even as it's contemporaries shrivel away?

It is not just the oft cited ability to change with time that set SD Burman apart from his contemporaries. There have been others before him and others after him who re-invented themselves with changing times. Almost every composer from the forties re-invented themselves with the advent of the Lata phenomenon. Again Dada Burman had the company of Khaiyyam who moved to the seventies with a block-buster like Kabhi Kabhi. (Infact Khaiyyam gave some great music in the eighties too). No, there is something more to it. Something that is intrinsic to the very fiber of SD Burman's music that gives it a freshness that refuses to wither away.

To fully grasp what made Sachinda's music what it was, we need to rewind back to his early life and examine the influences in his childhood and youth.

Kumar Sachin Dev Burman was born in a newly divided Bengal in the year 1906 as a scion of the royal family of Tripura. In those times the Tripura kings ruled over most of modern day Tripura and vast tracts East Bengal and Sachinda was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. His early years were idyllic times, spent in the lap of nature and steeped in the music of the countryside. The members of the royal family were not only great patrons of art but were very talented artists as well. And thus Sachinda's father, a dhrupad singer, was his first guru and gave him his rock solid base in classical music.

But it was folk music that chimed the sweetest in the young Sachin's heart. He would trudge for miles, deep into the interiors of rural Bengal, only to listen to a wandering folk singer at his temporary halt. Whenever there was an opportunity he would forego the comforts of royalty and be with the poor boatmen of the riverine areas of Bengal only so that he could wholly imbibe the spirit of their soulful ballad.. the Bhatiyali. He spent time with vaishnavs and fakirs in their abodes, smoking hookah with them and learning their songs. No one ever second guessed that they had a prince amidst them. He even befriended the helping hands in the palace to teach him their native songs. Folk music till the end remained Sachin Dev Burman's compulsive weakness.
With so many princely(and non-princely!) activities in his childhood, one would think Dada wouldn't have had time for anything else like a formal education. However, Dada not only completed his schooling but also when on to graduate with honors. A fact that he proudly displayed on his first record - a folk song 'Daake Kokil , that was credited to 'Kumar Sachindra Dev Burman, B.A'!

So while with his early life came a strong rooting to mother earth, his higher education gave him a world-view, an open mind and an ability to imbibe changes as they came his way. It was with this well-rounded base that the young prince from Tripura stepped into the rich musical world of Calcutta.

The Calcutta of the twenties and thirties was a musical haven teeming with choicest artists from all over India. Folk singers, legendary poets, classical ustaads, dance divas, pioneering film makers and path-breaking light singers all rubbed shoulders with each other. The young and impressionable Sachinda absorbed these intoxicating influences like a sponge. And for all his years after that he would visit this musical landscape time and again for inspiration.
It was in this period that Dada came to be recognized as a promising folk and light classical singer. To date he remains probably the only main-stream bollywood composer who gained fame and success in the arena of light classical and folk singing as well. While his classical songs earned him critical acclaim it was his impassioned renditions of folk songs that brought him widespread recognition. And it is these folk songs that formed the base-potion for his secret formula of immortality.

Folk music for centuries has been the voice of the man of the soil. It expresses the simple joys and sorrows that are inherent to human existence and its charm therein lies in this complete lack of pretence, and spontaneity of expression.

It was this spontaneity of the age old tradition that pervaded all of Burmanda's music. Whether it was his non-film work of the thirties like 'Hai kije kori' or film music from his autumn years like 'Piya Sang Khelo Holi', the emotions in Dada's music flowed effortlessly. His happy songs bubble with the energy and innocence of a toddler who has just chanced upon the world. This spirit that is not bound to time or space it remains universal in all ages.

The innocently naughty glint is palpable in many of Burman's songs like 'Chori Chori Meri Gali Aana Hai Bura' or 'Achcha ji mein haari' or 'Haule Haule Jiya Dole' the rare Lata beauty from 'Kaise Kahun'. This brightness and total lack of guile which is the most winsome quality of Dada's music was a legacy of his folk roots.

This innocence probably also stemmed from Dada's own childlike enthusiasm for life which remained undiminished even in his advanced years. The little boy who had stood mesmerized with the strains of 'Rongila' never died within this great composer right till his last breath. Artists who worked with him bear testimony to this fact. Kishore Kumar, his pet singer often recalled this trait fondly. If Dada ever had a tune in mind and he happened to spot Kishore anywhere within sniffing distance it was sure to be rehearsal time. At times this even meant stopping their cars right in the middle of a busy road to cause a traffic jam!

The unpredictability in Dada's nature translated to a surprise element in his music as well. There are always charmingly whimsical turns in his presentations. More so in the songs he rendered himself. This is a trait that ensures that there is never a dull moment in a SD Burman composition. But Dada's little eccentricities and childlike whims did not take away from his strong conviction in the core values of his music. This musical conviction was something that anyone who came in contact with Dada would testify by. And it was this conviction that gave him the place that he has in the annals of musical history.

What then were SD Burman's core musical values?.

The first and foremost was his strong commitment to minimalism. Dada's music at times had almost a Gandhian frugality. He used the orchestra with great economy. Each instrument had a well thought out role to play in his songs. He would not agree to even a one extra violinist or flutist in his orchestra. He would send them packing.. He was very clear on the role of the orchestra in his songs. It was a mere building block and not the whole song.

This seems to be a pretty instinctive approach. But practically many a great composer lost sight of this very simple virtue, very often. Composers probably either left more than desired to their arrangers or could not curb their own love for or talent as instrumentalists. But Dada fastidiously and often stubbornly stuck to his small orchestra theory. A lot of critics over the years have identified this as the major chink in Burmanda's otherwise impenetrable armour. His orchestra was not as richly complex as the western classic inspired Salil Chowdhury's, or as grand as Shankar Jaikishen's (though there are exceptions like 'Piya Tose Naina Laage Re' that belie this rule) or even as innovative and experimentative as son Pancham's. It usually did not stand on it's own like that of the composers mentioned above. It always remained a prop-up for the melody and nothing else.

However, let us hold no illusion that the quality of the SD Burman song suffered because of this approach. His orchestra is simple but not staid. With his meager building blocks Dada could paint myriad images. Chirping birds, gurgling streams, humming bees and the rustling breeze all find place in here. Remember the clever use of chinese blocks to create the image of women grinding grain in 'O Panchchi Pyaare', Asha's bitter-sweet upper from 'Bandini'.? Or the brilliant use of the flute in so many songs to depict so many varied moods? Particularly memorable is the delicate subdued sob of the flute in 'Piya Bina....bansiya baje na.....' from Abhimaan, Dada's award winning album. This beautiful flute piece had prompted an eminent musicologist to once comment 'SD Burman must have had a hotline to Lord Krishna himself!'

Exuberance aside, the basic point here is that despite it's minimalism Dada's orchestra was very evolved and rich in expression.

This all pervasive minimalism was not limited to his orchestration alone, it extended beyond arrangements to Dada's basic approach to melody and vocals as well. While he believed in keeping his tune simple, easy to hum and lilting, the melody and it's vocal execution also remained the centre-point of an SD Burman composition. And this was his secret potion # 2.
Burmanda's early training and successes as a singer had shaped his music philosophy very deeply. The musical landscape of the thirties Bengal was ingrained in his sub-conscious. This was the era when the accompaniment was in it's infancy and vocals were the vehicle that carried a song on their shoulders. It can be safely said that till the end SD Burman's songs were built on the bedrock of a strong melody and strong vocals. He is to have famously said once 'Give me a harmonium, a tabla and Lota(as he quaintly called the diva) and I will give you memorable songs'.

And a peek into Sachinda's repertoire over the years reveals dazzling line of classics with his favourite 'Lota' that provide ample support to this confidence. Starting from the early gems like 'Thandi Hawaayen', 'Tum na jaane' to 'Ghayal Hiraniya mein ban ban dolun', 'Jaani tum to dole' right upto the sublime 'Sandhya jo aaye' prove that Dada always used Lata's voice as his cherished centre-piece.

And this is a pattern that one sees repeating time and again with almost all the singers he worked with. Sachinda's focus was always to extract freshness in the voice quality and depth in the emotions from singer. For this he would go out of his way to pamper the singers who sang for him. If he ever found a singer struggling with a note he would change it without thought. He instinctively understood that if a singer struggled with the technical aspect of the song the expression and voice quality was bound to suffer. He was a master at pitching a singer's performance at just the right level in view of their strengths. This is why probably almost all singers have their choicest songs sung under the Burman baton. Even singers like Talat and Mukesh who sung only a handful of songs for him wind up with their most celebrated renditions being SD Burman compositions.

This quality to pamper and nourish the vocal element in his songs is the key behind the everlasting freshness in Dada's music. Human voice is after all the most primitive musical instrument and unlike any other instrument in world it is entirely the handiwork of Mother Nature. Its magnetism then can never wane. Once the freshness is trapped in a song, like Gangajal in a bottle it endures time over time. And that's what Dada precisely did. He tapped that fresh nectar from the vocal chords of his singers and enshrined it in his songs forever. This is probably why 'Kali Ghata Chhaaye' still brings the clouds rolling in and 'Gori Gori Gaon ki Gori re' sounds as dew fresh today as it did thirty years back.

The final topping in Dada's immortality potion as a composer was his strong resistance to temptation, the temptation to fall to the fads of the time. Dada always composed with an eye on posterity. His music endures over the ages because he designed it to! While his music always remained relevant to it's times it never let the prevalent styles overpower it. In the forties and fifties when classical complexity ruled roost he kept his tunes simple and lilting, in the sixties when hundred piece orchestras became the order of the day he stuck to his small ten-piece orchestra theory and in the seventies when son pancham heralded the westernized dum-maro-dum era, Dada continued to strike gold with his folk and classical inspired tunes.
Probably that is why even today a 'Saiyyan Dil Mein Aana Re' does not sound dated. It is because Dada never stamped his music with a date. It was meant to be for all times. It is timeless.

So now, to wind down, how could we then encapsulate the essence of the Burman brand of music?
It would be safe to say that hall marks of an SD Burman composition are simplicity, vivacity and elegance. A lilting melody accompanied by minimal orchestration, catchy motifs that highlight the otherwise austere fabric the song and frills that are kept to minimum so that the purity of thought and emotion rule the music.

While his music received a lot of acclaim Burman Dada himself missed out on most of the mainstream awards of his time(though he won the national award twice, once for his superlative rendition of 'Kahe ko Roye' in Aradhana). His most acclaimed score 'Guide' failed to get him a filmfare award a fact that hurt him somewhere.

But at the end of the day SD Burman's did not need awards to inspire him to give his best. He is once said to have commented 'Hearing my tune from the lips of a stranger is my greatest reward'. And today hundred years after he was born and over thirty years after he died there are millions of strangers who have his tunes on their lips. Burmanda continues to live through his music, and through the school of music that he gave birth to, the school that was propagated by his son and musical heir RD Burman and lives on in spirit in the music of many current day composers like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Jatin Lalit and MM Kreem. This school can never die out for it celebrates the timeless of human spirit in all its glory. And in today's catch-line happy times the hundred year old spirit of Burman Dada provides us with perhaps the most enduring catch-line ......... Simple is Beautiful

See Also

First Post - Entry into the blogging world

Hi Folks,

This is my first post!.

While on one hand I am excited at the prospect of starting a new journey of sharing the innermost recesses of my mind with you, I am also weighed down at the prospect of being reasonably prolific to keep this blog relevant. Knowing the patterns in my life, the chances are that I shall vacillate between extreme prolificacy and periods of complete negligence. I hope I can compensate one with the other :).

I am starting off by posting some of my earlier writings. Mostly music related articles written for internet newsgroups like SKS (Sangeet Ke Sitare) and RMIM.

My first exclusive post for this blog shall follow soon enough.

So, welcome aboard, fasten your seatbelts and lets go!!