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

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