Book Review: HQ Chowdhury’s ‘Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman’

This is the third biography of SD Burman’s that I’ve read in the past few years.

Note that it’s not as if I go about mindlessly buying every biography of his that I see (in fact, to be honest, I’ve not bought a single one of these biographies I’ve mentioned—not Sathya Saran’s, not Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vitthal’s, and not HQ Chowdhury’s—all three books were sent to me by either their authors or their publishers). But it seems that SD Burman is the flavour of the times, the music director everybody wants to be writing about. There’s nothing surprising about that, as far as I am concerned: after all, not only was Sachin Dev Burman one of the finest music directors Hindi cinema has ever known, he had much more to commend him and make him part of film lore. An illustrious lineage (a prince, no less!). A very successful career both as singer and as music director. A son who was a worthy successor, even if very different in style.

Sachin Dev Burman and son Rahul Dev Burman. Photo courtesy: Wikibio

So, another biography. And one I began reading with not much hope. After all, I thought, what could there be here that I hadn’t already read before in the two previous biographies I’d read?

As it turned out, a good deal.

Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman (Blue Pencil, 2018; ISBN: 9788193955505; 437 pages; Rs 599) is the second edition of a book originally published in 2011. This one begins with a foreword by Pt Shiv Kumar Sharma, who mentions how he played the santoor in many of SD Burman’s films, and how SDB even managed to persuade Sharma to play the tabla (which Sharma had long before given up playing) for Mose chhal kiye jaaye. There are several more prefaces by various other people, including HQ Chowdhury himself, before he launches into the biography itself.

Since I’ve written briefly about the life of SD Burman when I’ve reviewed Sun Mere Bandhu Re and SD Burman: The Prince Musician, I won’t repeat that all over again. After all, in their basics, SDB’s life and career don’t change from one book to another: the early years in Comilla, the shift to Calcutta, the subsequent move to Bombay, and the rise to fame and success—all of those are chronicled here too, and in great detail. HQ Chowdhury uses a range of sources, from SD Burman’s own reminiscences (part of his autobiography) to interviews with him as well as various associates through the years—musicians, music directors, film makers, lyricists, actors, singers, and more.

Sachin Dev Burman (1906-75).

SD Burman’s life and career are discussed chronologically, and this is where I noticed an important difference between Chowdhury’s account of the life of ‘Sachin Karta’ and those written by others: Chowdhury devotes  a very substantial chunk of the biography to SD Burman’s career in Calcutta. I knew that SDB had sung and composed music for Bengali cinema before he arrived in Bombay, but I hadn’t realized the true extent and nature of his career in Calcutta: the fact, for instance, that for Bengal and Bengalis, Sachin Dev Burman was first and foremost a singer, not a composer. Though he composed for both theatre (I didn’t know this) and cinema, it was as a singer that he was known and loved in this region.

The other important insight HQ Chowdhury provides regarding this phase of SDB’s career is on the subject of his inspirations. Of course, other writers have—and very ably too—discussed the Baul and Bhatiali influences, the folk music that SDB grew to love so much because of childhood associations with everyday people like Anwar and Madhav, but Chowdhury also discusses at length the music scene in Bengal at the time: the greats, like Rabindranath Tagore, DL Roy, Kazi Nazrul Islam, KC Dey and others, who dominated music in that part of India.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).

He introduces them, provides a basic description of their contributions and accomplishments and helps build up a picture of what Calcutta was like at the time SD Burman arrived in the city, ostensibly to pursue higher studies—from which (thank heavens and SDB’s own inclination), he was soon to be diverted.

SD Burman’s career trajectory in Bombay is amply covered, including his initial days, his near-departure back to Calcutta, and the sudden and resounding success that made him stay on. While tracing the chronology of SDB’s career from the 40s through to 1975 (when SDB passed away), Chowdhury doesn’t merely discuss SDB’s songs, but also mentions some of the landmark songs being composed by other music directors of the period.

There are anecdotes aplenty, some delightful, and some poignant (as in the episode regarding SDB’s reaction when Manna Dey admitted that he, Dey, had not received the Filmfare Award for Poochho na kaise maine rain bitaayi). SDB’s nurturing of talents like Geeta Dutt and Kishore, his training of Rafi to mould the singer’s voice for Pyaasa, and SDB’s much-talked about falling out with Lata Mangeshkar and Sahir Ludhianvi—all of these are discussed. Chowdhury also makes it a point to put forward differing viewpoints of the same incident, not stressing on one version or perspective as the only truth. This was another of the aspects of this book that I appreciated. Chowdhury’s admiration of SDB’s talent is obvious, but it does not render him ridiculously blind.

Lastly, one thing that made an impression on me in this book: the character of SD Burman himself. Every time I’ve talked about SD Burman on this blog (notably when I’ve reviewed biographies of him), I’ve had people speak up and say that he was miserly and temperamental, that he’d ditch singers without a qualm, and so on.

SD Burman directing Geeta Dutt.
Photo courtesy: https://learningandcreativity.com/

Chowdhury makes no attempt to either skirt these issues or gloss over them: instead, he provides numerous examples that actually prove these allegations. There is, for example, an anecdote about SDB sharing a taxi and proposing to split the bill 50/50—and doing it: 50 paise paid by SDB, 50 rupees paid by the fellow passenger! And there’s Kersi Lord recalling how he and his father (Cawas Lord) were the butt of envious jokes because they were privileged enough to have SDB offer them tea at his home.

What does emerge, though, from these anecdotes and from others (for example, SDB’s realizing a producer’s straitened finances and therefore offering to compose for him for just Rs 75,000, when the producer was willing to offer a lakh), is a picture of a somewhat eccentric genius. Yes, a ‘forthright’ man (as one of the people interviewed refers to him) and one inclined to call a spade a spade, but with a transparency about him that seems almost childlike. The way he patched up with Lata; his dancing—in the privacy of his room—to a tune in order to get it absolutely right; his fury when his beloved East Bengal football team lost (and his joy when they won, and he invited a group of friends and associates for a meal); his insistence on ‘telephone tests’; his summarily warning a singer (Mukesh) that if he didn’t sing properly, he would be dumped: there is something very human about this. These anecdotes—and there are many of them—build up a picture of a man, a three-dimensional person with his own quirks and flaws, but also with a perseverance, talent, and capability that made him what he was. Incomparable.

The last nearly 100 pages of Chowdhury’s book consist of what looks like a fairly exhaustive discography of everything, both Bengali and Hindi, that he sang and composed.

This book isn’t perfect; the editor in me could see typos and proofing errors, as well as some repetitions that should have been weeded out by a competent editor. But, barring those (and they really weren’t bad enough or frequent enough to affect my enjoyment of the book), I found this a pretty interesting biography. Well-rounded, well-grounded, entertaining, and overall satisfying.

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30 thoughts on “Book Review: HQ Chowdhury’s ‘Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman’

  1. Madhu,
    Interesting that my review of the book should come out on my blog on the same day. It is a rare coincidence because normally I do not write book reviews, but in this case I had a special reason to do it which I have explained in my post. I am sure you would be visiting it. You are right, SD Burman is a perennial favourite of music lovers. Not only as a talented artiste, but as a lovable, multi-faceted personality.
    AK

  2. Great review. Dada Burman is not just author’s favorite, seems he is reviewers’ favorite too. My review of the same book, some 4 years back

    • Yes, this is the only book I’ve come across so far which actually delves deep into his stint in Calcutta before he entered the Hindi film industry. Certainly worth a read.

  3. I confess I shy away from Hindi cinema or music related books because in my experience, the authors tend to be more interested in talking about themselves than providing insights into their chosen subject or topic. However, your thorough and thoughtful written review makes me think Mr. Chowdhury’s book might be worth a read. Thank you for the pointer.

    • I tend to steer clear of Hindi cinema-related books more because I have a horror of being treated to salacious gossip – I have zero interest in learning about the personal lives (especially love lives!) of other people. That bit about the authors being more interested in talking about themselves is also something I’ve come across (Raju Bharatan in his biography of Asha Bhonsle), and it’s very off-putting. But there are several books in the past few years which I’ve liked a lot, especially Akshay Manwani’s bios of Sahir and Nasir Husain, and Gautam Chintamani’s bio of Rajesh Khanna. Plus, of course, this one.

  4. Well, biographies are not really my cup of tea. But if I get any of those you have reviewed here (in the library) I will give it a try. But there must be a lot of snaps.
    And about the last post- I really did not know what to write. But I do like Barbara Stanwick- she has such a personality.

    • That depends on whom you like more – Rajesh Khanna, Nasir Husain, or Sahir. Either of these three, the bios I’ve mentioned are very good. Do not go anywhere near Raju Bharatan’s bio of Asha. Terrible.

        • Oh, that. :-) Sorry, misunderstanding. I would suggest this one, because it’s the most comprehensive. Balaji Vitthal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee were co-authors of one bio, so that counts as one book. It’s well-written, more polished, perhaps, than the HQ Chowdhury one, but overall, especially when it comes to bringing out SDB’s character, and explaining the early part of his career, Chowdhury’s book is tops.

  5. I just saw your review today. I am about half-way into reading this book and will reserve my judgement until I finish it. I do agree with some of your comments, especially the part about his life in Calcutta. I did come across an incorrect fact. I wonder why it wasn’t corrected in the second edition. The author mentions the Tagore song Krishna kali ami tare boli as being a part of his dance drama Shapmochon. This is not correct. The song is not part of any dance drama but is an independent composition.

    • Thank you Mr. Soumya Bannerjee for your observation on “Krishna Koli”.
      You are absolutely right ! It was an inadvertent error on my part. It was in the first edition too.

      To the best of my knowledge, Tagore penned “Krishna Koli” in 1900 but tuned it in 1931 on his birthday and during the staging of “Shapmochon”. He tuned three songs at that time, of which “Krishna Koli” was one. I wanted to put this information in the second edition but as it is with me … the right thing does come at the right moment! It was a slip.

      Appreciate very much your feed back.

      Regards,

      HQ

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