Book Review: Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s ‘S D Burman: The Prince Musician’

When I began this blog, it was with the intention of reviewing films, and doing the occasional song list. I had never read a book on cinema, and had no real interest in doing so, either: my perception of the genre, so to say, was a world of sleaze: biographies laying bare lives about which I did not want to know the sordid details.

I am happy to say that, over the years, I’ve been proven wrong. I’ve read several biographies, of film personalities all the way from Balraj Sahni to Fearless Nadia, Mohammad Rafi to Kidar Sharma, Asha Bhonsle to Rajesh Khanna to Nasir Husain—and most have proven entertaining, informative, and definitely non-sleazy. A hat tip is due to biographers like Akshay Manwani, Sidharth Bhatia, Gautam Chintamani, and Jai Arjun Singh.

… and to Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, whose biography of RD Burman was the main reason I wanted to read this, their biography of Pancham’s illustrious (and, in my opinion, even greater than his son) father, S D Burman. S D Burman: The Prince Musician (Tranquebar, Westland Publications Private Limited, 2018; 344 pages; ₹799; ISBN 9789387578180) is an exhaustive detailing of the career of S D Burman, beginning from his days as a singer in Calcutta, till his death—while still far from having hung up his boots—in 1975.

Bhattacharjee and Vittal begin by tracing Burman’s antecedents. How his family (the royal family of Tripura) traced its lineage centuries back in Burma, how their domain changed, and how the family itself was split by schisms. From Comilla (in present day Bangladesh), they trace Burman’s passage to Calcutta, where he was sent to study, and where his long-standing love for music, birthed and nurtured by the many rural singers and minstrels he grew up amidst, finally became his career of choice.

The authors divide the book into four distinct sections, each named for the name by which Shachindra Kumar was known at different phases of his life (and appropriately enough; each phase is a different one).

Karta, the name by which he was addressed in Tripura and later in Bengal, is the title of the first section, which is mainly about the start of his career in Bengali cinema, and up to his wedding with Meera, his student and fellow singer. Varman (how Bombay spelt Barman) is the second section, which covers the years 1944-49. The comes Sachin Dev Burman, when, thanks to Navketan and Bombay Talkies (who christened him that, starting 1950), Burman composed what are to me some of his most iconic tunes, for films like Pyaasa, Bandini, Paying Guest, Munimji, and Guide. The last section, SD, is ample evidence, in its very title, of the stature this man had attained by the late 1960s: such a stalwart that only his initials were enough for people to recognize his name.

Bhattacharjee and Vittal follow a strictly chronological sequence throughout, examining SD Burman’s music from his first films to his last, interspersing their comments on the songs of each film with notes about the film itself, trivia, and contemporary reviews (Baburao Patel’s acerbic comments about some of SDB’s early music make for surprising—or should that be unsurprising, given Patel’s caustic pen?—reading). There are interesting tidbits about films that fell by the wayside and never got completed, about grand ventures that never got off the ground, and about long-forgotten films that are known among connoisseurs today only for Burman’s music.

Throughout, the focus is on the man’s profession, his deep passion for music and how he expressed that passion. This does not mean that there is nothing about his personal life: there are glimpses of it, but discreet and brief glimpses. The most interesting glimpses for me are of SD Burman the paan-chewing football fan, the avid fisherman, the man who insisted that, when Lata (who already owned a car) gave him a lift late one night after recordings, he should be dropped off well away from his home—and that nobody should breathe a word to Meera Dev Burman about Lata giving him a lift!

There are little incidents that tell of Burman’s devotion to his art (an anecdote regarding Jaanu jaanu ri kaahe khanke hai tora kangna is especially illustrative of SDB’s dedication). There are amazing little bits of trivia (for example, I had no idea that Anoop Kumar, the brother of the more famous Ashok Kumar and Kishore Kumar was so good at whistling that his whistling skills were used in both O nigaah-e-mastaana and Hum hain pyaar ke hum se kuchh na boliye. Or that the only song that Shammi Kapoor ever sang for a film was for SD Burman. Or that, if Dev Anand hadn’t picked Rangeela re for Prem Pujari, Megha chhaaye aadhi raat would have probably not been part of Sharmeelee.

Of course, with a career as long and in the limelight as SD Burman’s, there were controversies and disagreements: the rift with Sahir Ludhianvi, with whom SD Burman had done some of his very best work; the rift with Lata Mangeshkar, which resulted in her not singing for him for many years; and the supposed rigging of the Filmfare Awards that gave the Best Music Director Award to Shankar-Jaikishan for Suraj, bypassing SD Burman’s outstanding score for Guide.

These controversies, in themselves, are dealt with in a dignified and non-gossipy style that SDB himself (from what he appears to have been like) might have approved of.

On the whole, an interesting and very useful book. It’s an excellent tracing not just of SD Burman’s career, but of Hindi cinema from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s. The research done by the authors is obviously both wide and deep: they quote from interviews, from magazine articles, from books, from cinema itself, from people met on trips to Bangladesh. This is a book that has been written with much care and diligence, and it shows. (The bunch of photos halfway through the book are also good).

In addition to that, I liked the fact that the authors have been pretty unbiased in their assessment of SD Burman and his work. They do describe some of his music as ‘lacklustre’, they acknowledge that many of his tunes were inspired from bhatiyali or Rabindra Sangeet or other sources. They acknowledge that Burman perhaps neglected to recognize his own wife’s talent sufficiently. In that sense, they offer a balanced view of SD Burman: a great musician, a dignified gentleman, yet one who—like any other human being—had his own shortcomings.

As in Bhattacharjee and Vittal’s other books, here too the technical terms used put me off a bit, but I acknowledge that for that I am to be blamed. Other than that—and the occasional typo that a good editor and proof reader should have weeded out—this was an enjoyable and informative book. Definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Hindi film music.

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s ‘S D Burman: The Prince Musician’

  1. Babu Patel was a blackmailer with a pretty wife. Apart from advertisements in his magazines celebrities of those times had to massage his king size ego.
    Dada’s work suffered when he took on too much work.

    • Yup. I’ve read (and reviewed, on this blog) Sidharth Bhatia’s excellent book about the Patels. I never liked Baburao Patel before I read that book, and the book did nothing to make me like him, but it was very informative and very well-written. Plus, of course, a great piece of documentation of an era that most Indians today know very little about.

  2. Hi,
    Looks to be a must book for me.
    I’m a huge fan of S D and of course planning a post next month.
    His birthday is just two days away. And death anniversary a month away.
    Born on 1st October, death 31st October
    I was actually planning a S D Burman month, a tribute divided in four posts through out the month of October.
    But alas, I didn’t get time this month for that though I may plan a couple of posts.
    The book looks informative and insightful. So I will go for it. My father’s also a big Burman da fan, and would love to have a copy at home.
    Burman da was so phenomenal, so energetic in his tunes. Some of his work is not up to the mark, but he never lost his passion for melody. His songs always remained youthful.
    Just imagine him composinging for Guide at the age of 60, other composers were not active at that age. He continued working in 70s, with equal vigour and quality.
    Thank you for the review at the right time.
    And may God bless me with some spare time so that I can write at least a post on this legendary composer.
    :-)

    • You were among the people I thought of when I was reading this book and wondering whom I should recommend it to. It’s certainly worth a read for anyone who appreciates the genius that was SDB.

  3. Thanks Madhu for a good overview of the book and the parts that you liked.

    SD Burman was a fantastic composer. He was a wizard in creating tunes that captured the mood and visuals on the screen beautifully. Anandji (Kalyanji-Anandji) once said that if you listen to a SD Burman song, you can visualise the scene in your head.

    Will definitely read this book.

    • “Anandji (Kalyanji-Anandji) once said that if you listen to a SD Burman song, you can visualise the scene in your head.

      I agree with that! Rather like if you hear Rafi sing, you can pretty much figure out whom he’s singing for.

  4. Read your lovely review and it certainly looks like a must-have for SDB fans!

    Added this to my list when Aniruddha sent me an email notifying me that his book is out. I would prefer to read it on kindle but it’s only available on hard copy on Amazon as of now. I loved Aniruddha and Balaji’s previous work as well and as I told Aniruddha that I might give in to my temptation and buy the hard copy anyway but would be good to know if there’s an ebook version on the way. If anyone knows a electronic version (Gata rahe mera dil was available online) on another site to buy, please let me know.

    I wonder whether it’s up to the authors to release an electronic version or is it solely between the publishers and sellers such as Amazon to make that call. You might be able to answer that because your books are available on both medias (sometimes)

    • I wish I knew why some books are available on Kindle and some are not! I have been put in an embarrassing position because of this very fact – an American reader wanted one of the Muzaffar Jang books on Kindle, but couldn’t get it on Amazon US, which only stocked a paperback of that book (oddly enough they did have the ebook versions of the other books in the series). And this reader, because of a vision problem, does need an ebook rather than a printed one. She approached me, I approached the publisher (and reminded them again and again) and to no avail. :-( Very distressing.

      In the case of the SDB bio, though, it may be that the ebook will appear after a while – sometimes that is the case. The paperback/hard cover gets released first, the ebook follows.

      • Thanks for letting me know that I am not the only one who struggles to understand this mystery. I feel bad for you as authors to not know what media your book is available in. So, it looks like, it’s up to the publisher. :(

        I would imagine every single book written, edited, proof-read, published electronically these days for many years may be. If anything, electronic version should be the first one to be published because it requires least amount of effort in sending it out (logistically speaking)..

        • Yes, not only are ebooks logistically easier to send out, I’d think that since they do not require all the work of printing, binding and so on, they’d really be ready sooner. After all, once the typesetting and proofreading is done and the book is ready to go to the press, it’s actually pretty much ready to be read in its digital form. True, there would be some work to be done, like the checks that have to be put in place to prevent piracy and all, but I don’t think that really would make such a difference… sigh. So irritating, both for a reader and for a writer. :-(

  5. Your review does sum up the salient features of the book. I am almost done reading the book and frankly, I feel that the book does not really add a lot of information that I did not know already. Being an SDB admirer I have quite a few of his biographies, including his autobiography. I hesitated before buying this book. But having read the biography of RDB by the same authors I decided to take the plunge. The authors fill in some of the gaps in SDB’s life when he was struggling to make an impact. But once he becomes established as a composer/singer the book does not break any new grounds. The authors have a pleasing style that keeps the narrative flowing. I would recommend the book for someone who has heard of SDB but does not know too much about him.

    • I agree with you. People who have read earlier biographies of SDB and are familiar with his life may not learn much that’s new here, but the early years of trying to get a breakthrough are well-done. Plus, generally, a pleasing style of writing, and well-balanced.

    • Thanks for your critique. I am intrigued by your remark though, where you mention that “But once he becomes established as a composer/singer the book does not break any new grounds”. Not sure what you mean by that. I am sure that quite of few things which we mentioned (there are actually many, so not making a list here) are in the book for the first time. Not published anywhere. Not in print media. Not in electronic media either. Or if published, like the Filmfare awards story, not in this matter where relevant portions have been sourced – with some difficulty – from publications hard to find.

      Btw, are you on facebook or do you run a blog?

  6. There is very little said about the 1949 film “Shabnam” which along with “Taxi Driver” I believe are his best works . Just below are Baazi, Guide, Paying Guest, Jaal, Pyaasa. Some may want to include other films but the first two are among the greatest soundtracks of Hindi films.

    • Hmm. I hadn’t noticed a special emphasis on Shabnam, though of course since they’ve mentioned each of SDB’s movies, including the movies which sank or never got completed, it is there in the book. I don’t recall its songs offhand, so will have to go refresh my memory before I comment on how good (or not) its songs were.

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