Is Dada a singer-composer or composer-singer?

This is an offbeat question and the answer cannot be straight forward as it all depends where Dada is being discussed. In the Bengali community, he is Sachin Karta or Sachindev, the Mahagayak or the great singer. Here his prowess as a music composer is over-shadowed by his vocal craftsmanship though he has tuned 88 percent of his songs. Bombay, or for that matter the rest of India, acknowledges him first as a composer and then an occasional singer.

Starting his career simultaneously with light Bangla semiclassicals (based on North Indian classical music) that he learnt from his gurus like KC Dey, Badal Khan, Vishmadev Chatterjee and Allauddin Khan and with folk songs of East Bengal which Dada picked up through his innumerable travels to the innermost villages of Comilla, Dhaka, Mymensingh and north-east India, he presented his songs meshing the classical and folk. In other words, while singing the semiclassical, he infused folk elements in it, and in the presentation of folk songs, he incorporated traces of classical music while keeping the base tune as original as possible. Classic examples of these are respectively, Jhan jhan manjiro baje in raaga Natbehag and Megh de paani de in Hindi in Guide which is, Allah megh de paani de originally sung by the folk singer Abbasuddin Ahmed in the traditional style.

His was a unique voice. The music world was then tuned to the voices of KC Dey, Pankaj Kumar Mullick, and Bing Crosby – loud, clear, crisp and sharp. Dada’s voice was thin, that too with a nasal twang. To many he would be termed as a “disadvantaged” singer but he proved them wrong. To quote Narayan Chowdhury, “There was a parallel broken voice to the main voice something like the ‘joaree’ in a sitar or a tanpura. This specialty created a magic ambience all around. The two voices never clashed but were complementary, imparting an amazing effect in the expression of songs.”

Dada was a smart singer. His music aesthetic was of a very high quality. For instance, although he learnt some techniques of Bhawaiya from the Bengal folk legend, Abbasuddin Ahmed, he never sang Bhawaiya because he knew that in this genre of folk music, Abbasuddin Ahmed was the master. He employed some techniques of Bhawaiya only in his modern songs. Likewise, he learnt from Vishmadev Chatterjee some nuances of classical music and applied those in his raaga-based Bengali songs but making sure not to have any influence of Vishmadev Chatterjee.

A redeeming feature of his music is his sense of proportion in the use of motifs of classical and folk music. He used those with subtlety, thus giving his songs a high degree of sophistication. In cricket language, Dada scored through sheer timing and placement and not through fireworks. His marvelous merging of the folk and classical left no sign of conflict. He held a unique place in Bengali music with a firm grip on the two forms of Indian music, folk and classical. His focus was on songs of lyrical poetry or Kabya Sangeet although the genre of his songs could be termed as light classical, folk or modern. His nasal twang (present day Bob Dylan) and a wailing tone (good old Abdul Karim Khan Sahib) put him on a different pedestal. As recording technology improved, it gave his voice greater clarity. Rai Chand Boral placed him and Begum Akhtar in the same category.

Dada’s unique use of words and its delivery in his presentation of songs made him different from other singers. Dada was not a poet but his “sense” of poetry for his songs made his poets unique too.

Dada was extremely sensitive to lyrics. Throughout his career as a singer, he played with words. He believed that the poet, apart from possessing a “music sense” must express his message in the form of singing. When the celebrated Bengali lyricist, Pulak Bandopadhyay expressed his lifetime desire to write for him, Dada asked him to sing. “No Sachinda, I am not looking for a singing opportunity! I am here to write for you.” “I know, I know. But you have to first sing me a song,” said he. Finally, Pulak with a lot of effort delivered one. Dada closed his eyes for a while and then said, “OK, stop. Good, you can do it. In Bombay, every poet knows how to sing.”

SD Burman during a concert. Courtesy HQ Chowdhury.
SD Burman during a concert. Courtesy HQ Chowdhury.

Another noteworthy feature of his songs is the use of a flute. In every song, invariably the word “banshi” (Bengali for flute) is either incorporated or the instrument is significantly used in the prelude, interlude or postlude of his song. The wonderful flute pieces were mostly the craftsmanship of his friend Chanu and beautifully recorded with outdated instruments under the masterly direction of Nirad Bandopadhyay. Interestingly, unlike Tagore and Nazrul, Dada never composed basic (non-film) songs for others. Are we then to believe that these could never be performed by another singer? Or that he did not want to compose for others? Or that the recording company never liked the idea of Dada composing for others in non-film songs? Any of these could be a possibility.

For six composers, Dada sang only 17 Bengali songs in total. Through his vocals, these songs went through a metamorphosis to become typically Dada’s own.

Excerpted with permission from Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, HQ Chowdhury. Blue Pencil.