Give Me Lata and a Harmonium, I’ll Make Music: SD Burman
One of Hindi cinema’s most celebrated music composers SD Burman, was born a royal prince, but his music was always close to the soil. On the maestro’s death anniversary, we celebrate his deeply emotional voice, with a few interesting quissas from his personal and professional life, that will rekindle the sweetness of his music, with memories of cinema’s most glorious musical era.
SD grew up in Bangladesh and was the youngest son of the family. While his father hailed from the royal family of Tripura, his mother, who he lost at the age of two, was a Manipuri princess. He started out as a radio singer on Calcutta Radio Station in the late 20s. He built a house in Ballygunge, Kolkata and married Meera Das Gupta in 1938. Story goes that having married a non-royal created a furore within his family, following which he severed all ties with them and forfeited his inheritance. The couple’s only child, Rahul Dev Burman was born in 1939 and as he grew up, both wife and son assisted SD on most of his musical compositions.
Sathya Saran, the author of SD Burman’s biography Sun Mere Bandhu Re, reveals an aspect of his marriage in a previous interview, something that she decided to keep out, even of her own book. SD was always on the lookout for new voices, but there was a beautiful voice sitting in his own house, his wife Meera. But she never sang for him. While she was busy taking care of his accounts, she was also a bit jealous of the beautiful actresses and singers that her husband was constantly surrounded by. The talented poetess, carried a bit of resentment in her heart. Later, she became SD’s technical assistant and arranger, one he was heavily dependent on.
Moving to Bombay Wasn’t Easy
In 1944, SD moved to Bombay, at the request of Sasadhar Mukherjee of Filmistan, who asked him to compose music for two Ashok Kumar starrers, Shikari (1946) and Aath Din (1946). But within just a few years, he became disillusioned with the materialism of the film industry and the city.
SD left the Ashok Kumar starrer Mashaal (1950) mid-way and decided to board the first train back to Kolkata. Fortunately, he was dissuaded from doing so. For him, coming to Bombay was like being taken out of a meandering river, and thrown into a tumultuous sea. He felt that maybe ambition was not for him. For the simple man that he was, he didn’t quite get this world of egos and complexity.
SD won the National Award for the ‘Best Male Playback Singer’ for this haunting melody from Aradhana in 1970. Come to think of it, what makes his music truly special is the fact that he creates a mood in your head with a tune. He always paid close attention to the scene, the heroine, the hero, what they were doing and why they were singing a song at that moment in the film. He could never churn out songs. He soaked himself in the detailing of every tune he created and didn’t take up more than four films a year, as a rule.
That is probably why a Guide song sounded completely different from a Tere Mere Sapne song, which again was totally different from a Sharmeelee song. Except for their quality, there is nothing that links them together.
Always Looking for the ‘Right’ Voice
SD never rested till he found the right voice for a song. That’s why Manna Dey had to wait for years before SD could finally visualise Dey’s vocals matching the heroes of that time. He had a very strong sense of self-pride and was extremely professional. Renowned lyricist Gulzar fondly recalls him as the ‘prince of melody’ for the regal manner in which he would dress up crisply, place a gajra on his wrist, then stir up a drink and only then would he sit down with his harmonium to get cracking with work.
Very few people know that SD Burman was the one who gave actor Danny Denzongpa and playback singer Anuradha Paudwal their first breaks as vocalists. Can you believe that Danny is actually a trained classical singer? SD used his vocals in a film titled Yeh Gulistan Hamara. As for Anuradha Paudwal, SD tried her out with the Shiva shloka that Jaya Bhadhuri is singing the first time Amitabh Bachchan visits his mausi in her village, in the film Abhimaan (1973).
As for his own vocals, SD refused to allow his voice to be lip-synced by actors. His thin yet powerful voice was only used as a commentary, that had haunting results in songs like Mere Sajan Hai Us Paar from Bandini (1963), Wahaan Kaun Hai Tera from Guide (1965) and Safal Hogi Teri Aradhana from Aradhana (1969).
Lata Mangeshkar was his ultimate choice. He often said, “Give me a harmonium, give me Lata and I will make music”. Despite their brief tiff, that had stirred up a huge controversy at the time, both legends got back to working together again without much of a fuss.
SD Burman was a sportsman. He played tennis before he gave it all up for music. His other great love was football and the Mohun Bagan team. In fact, the last chapter of Saran’s biography mentions that when SD went into a coma in his last days, the only thing he reacted to was when somebody told him that Mohun Bagan had won!
There’s also a story about how Guru Dutt almost dissuaded SD and his wife from going on a tour of the US during World War II. There was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in the air and Dutt jokingly told him “You don’t go, you look like a Jap, they’ll finish you.” They almost cancelled their tickets.
Did you know that India’s most loved cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was named after the illustrious composer? Yes. Tendulkar’s father and grandfather were ardent fans and had decided that their ‘little master’ will be named after Sachin Dev Burman.
He was very fond of eating paan (betel leaf) and never shared his stock with anybody. It’s ironic that SD went into a coma soon after rehearsing for the song Badi Sooni Sooni Hai with Kishore Kumar, for the film Mili (1975). He was gone soon after that on October 31st,1975.
SD Burman has left music worth a lifetime for us to savour, without which Hindi cinema would only be a kora kagaz. He remains simply unbeatable and unforgettable.
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 31 October 2015. It is now being republished to mark SD Burman’s death anniversary.)