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In tune with the world

Born into the royal family of Tripura and trained in classical music, Sachin Dev Burman drew the most satisfaction when his songs entered the popular psyche. The author reviews this insider's account of the life of one of Bollywood's iconic musicians

Susmita Dasgupta 

Sachin Dev Burman

This biography is almost an insider's version of the maestro's life in music. The author, who also belongs to the same royal family of Tripura, attributes the musician's musicality partly to his individual talents but very largely to the cultural background of the royal family, which practised various forms of Indian classical music and played a variety of instruments. What is even more interesting is that the royal family of Tripura appears to be the forerunner of the Bengal Renaissance, since Bengali culture developed in all its glory in this sovereign kingdom.

Sachin Dev Burman's mother, Nirupama Devi, was a Manipuri princess, the core of the refined high-brow Vaishnav culture. However, Sachin's father, Nabadwip Chandra, was subject to some betrayals and deprived of his status as king so Sachin lost his position as the heir apparent. The family was exiled to the fringes of their kingdom, in Comilla, a rather modern, urbanised and professional town now in Bangladesh. For Sachin Dev, this long exile probably fostered a mentality that would often underlie his music.

The author says exile made Sachin Dev at once nostalgic and yet ascetic, he was both attached to his soil as well as to the vast world outside, he cherished his roots but was eager to spread himself far and wide. He was already well versed with the various strands of Indian classical music and now he added the flavours of the rich repertoire of Bengali folk. The baul, jhumur, jari, bhatiyali and kirtan found space in his music. He found his inspiration in the motif of Radha-Krishna, true to his Vaishnav tradition, and in the flow of the river and the sound of humming bees. The author reports that Sachin Dev was also an accomplished tennis player like his idol K L Saigal, and stories about how he was considerate to his wife show that he was a modern man, far ahead of his times. He followed an ascetic life, was extremely careful about his diet and practised meticulously. His routine was so strict that the members of his extended family would be stiff with alert attentiveness whenever Sachin Dev visited Agartala, the capital of the kingdom of Tripura, the biographer remembers.

Meera Dhar, who was to be his wife, came from an accomplished modern family and trained in dance and music at Tagore's university in Santiniketan. She was Sachin Dev's student but his family looked down on his marriage. Even Sachin Dev's teacher, the legendary Bhishmadev, did not quite approve of the match. Nonetheless, Meera was a talented composer and a lyricist and together with Sachin Dev they made some famous music such as Phool Gendwa Na Maaro or Gay Je Papaya.

Sachin Dev reached the zenith of his popularity as a radio artist and a stage singer in music conferences in Allahabad and Lucknow, at some of which Rabindranath Tagore would also be present. But the HMV record company, which was just launched in 1930, rejected him saying his voice was unsuitable for records. However, another recording company, Hindustan Musical Company, readily signed him on and neither Sachin Dev nor the company ever had to look back.

Instead of awards from reputed institutions, Sachin Dev considered his greatest recognition came from the boatman who rowed him across the river and hummed one of his tunes, and from the boy who sang one of his songs as he jumped into the pond while Sachin Dev sat despondent at not having caught any fish. Once Sachin Dev, tired and sad, sat at a railway station where he saw a group of workers pass him by humming some of his tunes. That made him realise that he was not a popular musician, the author says from his research into the various journals and memoirs of the maestro.

Sachin Dev had moved to Calcutta from Comilla to pursue higher studies, but he actually came to be among some of the finest musicians of his time - Bhishmadeb Chattopadhya, Shailen Dasgupta, Girijashankar Chakravarty and Zamiruddin Khan. His base in Calcutta gave him access to the world of Lucknow where he met the music maestro Dhurjati Prasad Mukherjee, who is also a famous academic. Sachin Dev was never happy in Calcutta despite his close association with the New Theatres and its doyens B N Sircar, Nitin Bose, Debaki Bose, Pramathesh Barua and Saigal. He was always looking to do much more while Calcutta was keen to have him around as a singer. His ambitions to be a music director took him to Bombay where he struck up an immediate friendship with Dev Anand, Guru Dutt and Navketan Films. Famous names like Geeta Dutt, Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar and Hemant Mukherjee are his imports into Bombay cinema.

As a music director of films, Sachin Dev could use every nuance of his art and enlightenment; his music went beyond his own voice and songs, he learnt to use lyrics, he learnt to use far more advanced rhythm beyond the melodious taal and laya which had defined his personal style. Films made him into a universal person, says the author. Thus, Sachin Dev Burman's transformation as Sachin Karta from being a Hauli Karta, the latter meaning the master of the palace, was complete, just as his severance from his dynasty in Tripura was also conclusive. However the final redemption for Sachin Dev came when the street corner boys in Bombay started calling him Rahul Dev's father and when, while composing music for Dev Anand's film Funtoosh, he actually stole his son's tunes! In his own words, Sachin Dev admitted that Rahul's music had the element of the breeze in it.

The book is a detailed account of Sachin Dev's life and a life in music. However, the author could have done better if he had contextualised the maestro's music in his life. Was Sachin Dev thinking of his own misfortunes when he sang Safal hogi teri aradhana, or did he sing to the Santhal in the hills of the red-soiled Bengal when he composed Rangila, rangila? Could he have thought of his days in the forests full of beehives when he sang Bhawra Dheere Se Jaane Bagiyan Se? Or did Sachin Dev mix music because he was eager to meld with wider society beyond the precincts of his palace? These questions can only be answered by a cultural insider, such as the author.

Author: Khagesh Dev Burman
Publisher: Rupa Paperback.

Pages: 287
Price: Rs 295

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First Published: Fri, August 16 2013. 21:48 IST