“The book is nothing but an expression of the man. The book is nothing but the man trying to talk to you, trying to impart to you, some of his feelings,” said Arnold Bennett, in his classic work, Literary Taste, while urging the reader, especially the beginners, to “acquire some biographical information about the writer.”
Benett’s advice should apply to all forms of creative art, not just literature. An understanding of the creator’s life — its evolution, phases, milestones, and most importantly, all things that have had an influences on the man — can makes us appreciate his work far better.
It becomes almost imperative in something like Hindi film music, which attracted — it still does — musical talent from across the country, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu; from East Bengal to Goa. These creative people had diverse upbringings, diverse cultures and exposures to diverse forms of folk, popular and even classical music. While Hindi film music (or Hindustani Cine Sangeet as some prefer to call it) is now considered a genre in itself, it is important to understand how each of its early founding fathers contributed by adding their bits while absorbing from other musical genres/sources.
S D Burman: The World of His Music, a book by Khagesh Dev Burman written originally in Bengali and translated to English by S K Ray Chaudhury, serves this purpose beautifully. For not only does it provide a very deep and mature insight into the formative years of Sachin Karta — as he was known in Tripura and East Bengal, from where he hailed — but also how he acquired his musical soul.
It would not be exaggerating to conclude, based on information from the book, that Dada Burman was not just a creative genius, but was one of the first serious ethnomusicologists who actually recognized the potential of folk music and roamed around the length and breadth of East Bengal to systematically collect folk tunes and songs, even as he kept improvising and playing those on flute. This musical repertoire from East Bengal, the author claims, would in later years serve as a significant source of his musical inspiration, not just for his Bengali songs but also for the vast treasury of popular songs he created for Hindi films.
This claim — that folk music formed a major inspiration for Dada Burman’s work —looks credible because even in Bengali, despite being so close to Rabindranath Tagore who was a good friend of his father and despite his close friendship with Kazi Nazrul Islam, the most prominent poet-musician from East Bengal, he never really got too much into Rabindrasangeet and Nazrul Geeti. In Calcutta, he also trained in Hindustani classical music. Yet, folk music was always his first inspiration.
The fact that he had an erudite father from whom he not just got his musical taste but encouragement to pursue music, and the fact that he had freedom to roam around collecting and listening to common people’s music even though he was from the royal family of Tripura and the fact that he had his formal grounding in classical music in Kolkata — all contributed to the making of the musical personality that was Sachin Dev Burman. The book does an excellent job of giving us how this musical genius was made in his formative years.
However, the book’s real insights actually stop there. Though in terms of length, most number of pages are devoted to his Bombay years — providing a lot of information, that too strictly chronologically, which makes the book a lot more usable for those seriously interested in historical musicology of Hindi film music — it does not do full justice to his contribution to Hindi film music, for which he is best known globally. That part of his life is treated as more of a linear history, with no major insights per se, except probably, the relationship of S D Burman with his son R D Burman and how exactly was the junior Burman influenced by his father and where he broke away from the tradition. This insight about the making of R D Burman is not even found in the book on R D Burman, penned a couple of years back by Anirudh Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, which own the National Award for Best Book on Cinema in 2011.
The absence of major insights on his music making in Bombay and his relationship with singers, musicians, and film makers beyond Dev Anand, are probably because of the an excessive tendency on part of the author to relate all his creation, sometimes at the individual tunes and lyrics level, to Bengali sources, a lot of which are Dada Burman’s own work in Bengali. So much so that at places, it is almost unreadable if you do not know enough about Bengali music.
But then, the author cannot really be faulted for that. He had written it for a Bengali audience, and had probably presumed some basic knowledge about Bengali music. That is the problem in a translation. It is not just changing the text from one language to another. The original work was written for a different set of audience.
The only complaint, then, is that the words “world of his music” as the subtitle of the book, sounds a little too grand and exaggerated. It should have been something like S D Burman: The Making of the Musical Genius.
But if you ignore this one aspect — just a little too much of reference to Bengali music — this is one of the best books on Hindi film music on my list of books. While most other books fall into one of the three categories — adulatory passages with sprinkling of some flowery language; journalistic works based on lots of information and anecdotes; and more scholarly, research based works with great new ideas and findings but difficult to read — this book is a very good balance. It is adulatory but stops to analyze and even mildly criticize; it is full with facts and anecdotes; and it has some great new insights, especially regarding the making of S D Burman, and to a lesser extent the making of his son, R D Burman.