Packing a Pancham

When the authors, evidently keen students of Hindi film music, set out to put this book together, they might have known of the enormity of the job at hand. It is a daunting task to chronicle the life of a legend. But it is an even more daunting task to chronicle his work, especially when the man happens to be R.D. Burman, or Pancham, and the work happens to be his music.

RD Burman–The Man, The Music: By Anirudha Bhattacharjee & Balaji Vittal, 342 pages, 399.

After an upfront declaration that the book is not a biography, Bhattacharjee and Vittal stick to Pancham’s music for the most part, and look at the man behind the composer, primarily through the filter of his music. Some of these moments are poignantly captured, such as his period of insecurity in the late 1980s (which included Subhash Ghai unceremoniously dropping Pancham from Ram Lakhan without informing him), leading up to his death a few months before the release of the music of 1942: A Love Story in 1994.

The writers are handicapped by the lack of research available on the Indian film industry, a fact that they lament a few times during the book. Here their work begins to find limiting boundaries. The source material for much of this book revolves around five relevant interviews published in the last 20 years, and some one-on-ones the authors managed in the process of writing. Important people in Pancham’s life, no less than Asha Bhonsle and Gulzar, are not a part of these interviews. Ironically, Javed Akhtar is quoted liberally, while the relationship between Pancham and Gulzar, one of the most fascinating ones in the history of our cinema, is interpreted primarily through the authors’ viewfinder.

Flashback: (from left) Burman and Bhonsle at a recording (Courtesy Hindustan Times); and Saigal and Jamuna in Devdas, 1936 (Courtesy Penguin India).

The book is essentially about the process of creation, and gets fairly technical at times—for the right reasons. The parts about notes, chords and ragas may come across as complex to layman listeners. In fact, the book comments on the inability of music critics to understand what goes into a composition, and calls upon them to “upgrade themselves".

The authors sometimes go overboard in trying to lay the blame for Pancham’s failures at the door of his films, and their lead stars. For example, speaking about the failure of Mehbooba (1976), they say: “Even a reincarnation failed to cure Kaka of his wooden expressions and Hema Malini of her grunts." In the same breath, Sunny Deol is targeted for the failure of Zabardast (1985): “True, lead actor Sunny Deol had the looks, but then, so do most TV newscasters."

Notwithstanding a few uncharitable comments of this nature, R.D. Burman—The Man, The Music delivers for the most part, an engaging look at a legend’s chequered career. Soaked in trivia that ranges from being interesting to simply fascinating, it serves as a fitting tribute to arguably the most important man in the history of Hindi film music.

Sailesh Kapoor

The Saigal effect

KL Saigal—The Definitive Biography: By Pran Nevile, Penguin India,248 pages, Rs299.

We read of Saigal’s visit to the kothas (brothels) of Allahabad, of his being the first non-Bengali singer to be blessed by Gurudev (Rabindranath Tagore) and allowed to sing Rabindra Sangeet. But there is no explanation here for that voice. Yes, we know about the sore throat. We have heard of the fondness for alcohol.

But nothing I have read about Saigal’s voice explains what it was: something above and beyond the human.

The alien-ness of the voice no longer seems apparent now. Instead, its almost mythical ability to conjure up a choral ensemble becomes apparent. Surely, one thinks, this is many voices singing in perfect unison? Then, one grows accustomed to the fact that this is a single voice but one is still not comfortable. Surely this is the sound of some large and awkward instrument, something like a tuba, a bassoon, no, something with the gravitas of wind but the tonalities of string?

And then there is the emotional quality, the shading of the voice. It is the voice of heartbreak, it is the voice of masculine heartbreak. And this is what makes it odd because the other men sang as men; Saigal sang as a woman would but he is undoubtedly all man, all male.

When the male saints wanted to yearn, they took on the female voice. When they wanted to express birha (separation), they reached for the feminine forms of the verbs of love and longing. Only a woman knows how to weep, to scream pain to the skies. Actually, only Geeta Dutt knows how to sing the blues of the 20th century; Geeta Dutt and Begum Akhtar. And only Saigal sounds like a man who knows where love ends and pain begins. In fact, I don’t think Devdas would have been made over and over again had Saigal not played him the first time and given voice to “Saawan aaya tum na aaye/Tum bin rasiya, kuchh na bhaaye".

And yet it is odd that we know so little about the first genuine bona-fide male superstar.

Jerry Pinto

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