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Burman dada off key

Sathya Saran's book on one of Bollywood's legendary music directors doesn't quite hit the right note

Abhilasha Ojha 

Sachin Dev Burman

The Musical World of S D Burman
Author: Sathya Saran

Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 258
Price: Rs 499

In the preface, Sathya Saran tells us that when asked why she writes only about dead people, she answers, "…because I could then try, through my writing, to make them come alive again." Given such a grand mission, it is a pity this book doesn't measure up. On the contrary it is like a tune that is, sadly, forgettable.

The reading experience is made more taxing by the absence of an identifiable voice. Who is the real narrator? Is it Saran's as 'Burman dada', as she imagines him? Is the author's simple narrative, faithfully reproducing interviews and journals, the true voice of the book? Do the scenes of cooks and other domestic staff members in the Burman household exchanging notes about the man, his wife, his 'baba' (son) sound convincing? Why is the chronology missing (it is so vital for a book that tells the story of one of the Indian film industry's best-known music directors)? Why does a book with so much potential end up as a mish-mash instead of the best 'go-to' book on S D Burman's life, career and music?

Several other questions gnaw at you simply because so much goes unanswered, page after page. If Burman dada's emphasis while composing a song was on finding the correct voice for a song (a reason singers like Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey, among others, got their first major breaks), this book's lack of that 'correct' voice is what spoils it.

These shortcomings are even more glaring because it is clear that Saran has invested a great deal of time and effort on this book. You know she's made ample use of the existing material, including Sargamer Nikhad, the late maestro's autobiography, to get the 'first real insight into the person'.

Saran does hit the right note occasionally. The part where the author imagines what the music maestro must have been thinking while on his death bed, is brilliant. And there are some delightful anecdotes of behind-the-scene moments - the one about flautist Hari Prasad Chaurasia gobbling a plateful of rasgullas during a rehearsal, for instance, is hilarious.

You also understand why she's revisited many of Burman dada's songs to study not only the man's growing stature in the film industry but also to capture his state of mind while he was listening to the lyrics of the songs and composing music with so much depth and feeling. Take Badi sooni sooni, an intensely moving composition from Hrishikesh Mukherjee's film Mili. The author talks about the same sense of loneliness that crept into the heart of the musician when he first heard the lyrics of the song.

This was a time when the son (young R D Burman) had moved out, when Burman dada's wife, Meera, a talented but underutilised musician in her own right, had "become more pungent than mustard oil" and was prone to "shouting for no reason" - the comforting silence of domesticity gradually breaking down and, decade after decade, reaching a crescendo of 'shrieks'. Perhaps all his personal sorrows allowed Burman dada to create such a heart-wrenching melody.

Saran's storytelling technique is laboured, so the book doesn't quite hold together. She forgets the most important rule that the 'hero' of her book followed in his career. In a song, the notes can wander, even get drawn out and flirt with the beat, but eventually the lyrics, rhythm, notes, beat, all must be tied so seamlessly that they offer a sense of not just accomplishment, but also completion to the music maker and the listener.

The author may have felt overwhelmed by the vast material on Burman dada that is available in the public domain, but she could have easily told the story in her own voice and given due credit or provided references and a bibliography at the end of the book. But in trying to look at a 'new' way to present Burman dada's story, Saran has ended up producing a disjointed account.

For example, what good is having a 2012 press release on Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announcing her decision to convert Burman dada's ancestral house into a 'cultural institute-cum-museum' in the middle of a page just when the reader is trying to engage with the music director's story?

Then again, in one of the letters, Burman dada's father is concerned about his son losing his voice while learning music in Kolkata. What happened and why is not explained, leaving the reader extremely frustrated. How old was Burman dada when he went to Kolkata? How old was he when he came to Mumbai? What really went wrong between lyricist Shailendra and Burman dada that "nothing could appease dada's anger"?

If readers are left grappling with these questions it is because the author probably underrates the power of collating and providing existing information in an organised, cohesive and creative way. Poor proofing and editing add to the irritants. If a sentence like "though, as the records so…" (she probably meant show) are bad, constructions like "he had taken great pains to explain the scene in detail. So that the songs could be crafted" are seriously upsetting. Oh, there's also "thought" that sits like a "monkey in the corner of… mind, waiting to snatch at… peace".

A thought snatching at peace? If that's not an example of discordant grammar, what is?

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First Published: Sat, August 23 2014. 00:28 IST