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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Book Review: RD Burman: The Prince of Music by Khagesh Dev Burman
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Book Review: RD Burman: The Prince of Music by Khagesh Dev Burman

Despite the family link,the author gives little insight into the music composer's life or work

The book assesses Burman’s relationship with his father. Photo: Hindustan TimesPremium
The book assesses Burman’s relationship with his father. Photo: Hindustan Times

Writing the biography of a public figure in these times is fraught with risk. With so much information available online—even if a fair bit is of doubtful provenance—the average reader would know much more than the basics. The job of the biographer, therefore, becomes to provide not just new facts, but also insights and perspective—to provide a bigger picture. This task becomes even tougher if there is already a well-regarded book on the subject.

These perils have not discouraged Khagesh Dev Burman from writing a nearly 550-page book on the late Rahul Dev Burman, the pathbreaking music director whose music is now experiencing a revival of sorts. In his own era, R.D. Burman, or Pancham as he was known, went through many career peaks and troughs, being dismissed first as the son of a great father, then an upstart with a tendency to lift tunes, followed by a bout of phenomenal popularity, then a slump and finally a revival, which came too late.

Today we recognize Pancham for being a genius with an unending curiosity about global music and an ability to imbue his songs with something new, even if it meant taking a risk. The younger generation—and European DJs—find him cool.

So one looked forward to this book with great expectations, whipped up by the excellent book written in 2012 by fanboys Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal (R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music; published by HarperCollins), who conducted meticulous research and deconstructed the stories behind all his songs. Khagesh tells us early on that he is related to the music director, even if they met quite late in life and the author was disappointed to know that Pancham was completely ignorant of his Tripura heritage.

That is a pity, since the writer does know a fair bit about music and does occasionally trace the parentage of the Hindi song, but he is loath to acknowledge that Pancham may have actually copied a foreign song.

The author is fairly well informed on Pancham’s Bengali and North-Eastern music and is quick to connect the dots; but the music director often was more than just inspired by a Western song—he simply lifted the whole tune. Khagesh is reluctant to admit as much, acknowledging the inspiration but in the end concluding that Pancham took bits and added his own touches.

Plagiarism is a complex issue. Salil Chowdhury, no mean genius himself, neatly took Mozart’s 40th Symphony and turned it into Itna na mujhse tu pyar bada and R.D. Burman too utilized the opening bars of If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium for his masterpiece, Chura liya hai tumne. But let’s face it, Mehbooba O Mehbooba from Sholay was a direct lift from Demis Roussos’ song Say You Love Me and one needs to call it that. “I realized that RD owed much to the likes of ABBA, Chubby Checker, Elvis, The Carpenters, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and Frank Sinatra," writes Khagesh.

Pancham’s great strength was not just lifting tunes, but also absorbing these influences and appropriately deploying them in the context of Hindi films. They did not always work on screen, but to the modern listener, much more aware of global music, it is fascinating to note how he used bossa nova (Maar dalega dard-e-jigar, in Pati Patni) or Trinidadian tin drum music (Bhali bhali si ik surat in Buddha Mil Gaya).

An interesting take in the book is Khagesh’s assessment that Pancham’s rise did upset his father, Sachin Dev Burman, who alternated between feelings of pride and unhappiness that he had been overtaken by the youngster. Pancham, too, was conflicted about it. The relationship was a complex one—as a child who performed poorly in academia, he received a lot of support from his father, but the older Burman was much too busy and involved in his work to spend time with his son.

For the hard-core R.D. Burman fan, who has read up on all the songs, this book might offer nothing remarkably new, unless one wants a detailed run-down of Pancham’s songs, good, average and patently mediocre. Nor are there any original interviews that offer intimate anecdotes about the music director. At the end of this hefty tome, one does get an idea of the man and his life, but it could have been easily done in half the number of pages.

Sidharth Bhatia is a journalist and writer based in Mumbai and a founding editor of Thewire.in. His last book was India Psychedelic: The Story Of A Rocking Generation.

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Published: 31 Jul 2015, 11:02 AM IST
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