"When he left, he took his school along with him."

Written by Krishnan Sivaramakrishnan on 01 October 2020

I still remember the first time I heard a song composed by SD Burman – Gunguna Rahe Hain Bhanware, from the Hindi film, Aradhana, 1969. A song, like many other songs by him I later heard, that lived in my head and kept playing there on loop. 

Every time I would hear from our window, the song being announced in the program Manoranjan on Vividh Bharati, 2.30 to 3.00 pm weekdays, I would dash home from where I was playing, climb up a stool, and stick my ear to the mesh that covered the radio speaker.

I found that I took to songs whose melodies surprised my ears and instantly stirred my heart – melodies I could catch instantly and sing along. Every song of SD Burman always did that to me. I felt that his music was so… Inimitable.

What is it about SD Burman’s music that makes it inimitable? This article is a search for an answer to that question. 

What shaped his music?

SD Burman’s work sprung from all the music that he was trained on, and that he absorbed on his own, as he grew.  

Born on 1 October 1906 in Comilla, Tripura (now in Bangladesh), SD Burman was son of Nabadwip Chandra Dev Burman, a noted Drupad singer and his first guru. Later, in Kolkata, he learned Indian classical music from KC Dey, Ustad Badal Khan, Ustad Allauddin Khan, and Bishmadev Chatterji. That stint built his strong classical base. 

From this foundation grew his unique brand of music that judiciously and tastefully blended all these genres. 

With his mix of Bengali folk and Hindustani classical music, SD Burman first made his mark as a singer and composer in Calcutta Radio Station. His compositions and singing impressed connoisseurs and became popular with the mass audience. Later in Bombay, SD Burman used his foundation in classical music and his deep love of folk music to create songs that enthralled listeners of mainstream Hindi film music. His rustic way of singing and brooding quality of voice treated the ears with a unique sound.

A Master Blender

"I was bent towards folk music, simultaneously with classical music. Madhab was an old hand in our family. He used to sing Ramayana for us on Sunday afternoons after lunch. His simple rhythmic style used to make me ecstatic! There were no stunts and he used to sing effortlessly. Bauls, Bhatiyali singers, Fakhirs, Baishnabs, singers of Lord Shiva and Goddess Kali, and similar folk singers used to come to our house regularly. Their singing enthralled me…” – wrote SD Burman in his autobiography, Sargamer Nikhad.

No wonder then that a blend of various forms of music defined the brand of music he created. “SD Burman brought the very first blend of pure Bengali and Bhatiyali folk music into mainstream Hindi cinema, without a blend of western orchestration. The song “O Re Maajhi” from Bimal Roy’s Bandini (1963) was totally a folk song,” says Dr Prakash Sontakke, an independent Musician, and Advisor, Shankar Mahadevan Academy.

Video: O Re Maajhi 

In the next phase of his film music, a blend of folk classical and western orchestration treated our ears. "It blew the winds of the very first cross-cultural fusion and the beginning of a world music chapter on melodic lines in mainstream Hindi film music,” says Dr Prakash. “Take especially the songs he composed for Pyaasa (1957) or Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959). The song Waqt Ne Kiya from the latter is a great example of piano and voice blend."

Video: Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Haseen Sitam

Even in the kind of musical blends he created, interesting variations came. "Megha Chhaye, from the film Sharmilee (1971), was more a blend of Rabindra Sangeet and modern instrumentation."

Video: Megha Chhaye

"In songs such as Piya Tose Naina Laage Re”, from Guide, he blended western orchestration, and Indian melody and rhythm,” adds Dr Prakash.

Video: Piya Tose Naina Laage Re (Original)

Video: Piya Tose Naina Laage Re (Jonita Gandhi)

The right voice and the right instrument for each song

In film music, songs have a job to do. Great filmmakers use songs to bind audiences to a sharp turn or a light moment or a high point of a story. Songs create moments that are lapped up by the movie-goer’s ears, eyes, head and heart. 

Great music composers don’t let this opportunity go by. It’s not easy. They have to figure out which situation demands what kind of song, which voice would fit that song, and which instruments would aptly capture the mood of that song. It all boils down to their grasp of the situation. 

SD Burman was a master at this. Watch SD Burman’s work illustrate this point in Jewel Thief (1967).

Hothon Mein Aisi Baat Main Daba Ke Chali Aayi

Precise and uncluttered – and just-enough use of instruments in songs

SD Burman had a clear view on the sound of the music he wanted to create. He took extreme care to see that the sounds of instruments would not crowd the song. In the world of his music, instruments were there to adorn the melody, and to create an atmosphere of the song. So, he kept his orchestra lean. Clearly, SD Burman’s view on the use of instruments was Less is More. 

Raat Akeli Hai, Bhuj Gaye Diye

The Inimitable SD

It was in the late 1990s or maybe year 2000. It was an evening at the St Andrews Auditorium, Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai. Majrooh Sultanpuri, lyricist, was concluding his recollections of the times he spent creating magic with SD Burman. The program was a Tribute to SD Burman, arranged by the Bimal Roy Memorial Foundation. (I remember another thing about this program — A young Shankar Mahadevan came directly from the airport (after landing from a long flight) to this stage to present a fabulous array of Kishore Kumar–SD Burman songs!)

Majrooh Sultanpuri ended his talk with these words: “...aur mujhse jayada aap log unke bare mein jaante honge, ki kitne bade musician the, aur, jaise ki maine kaha, woh ek School aisa create kiya unhonein, ki log copy karna to chahte hain, magar kar nahin paate, woh School apne saath leke gaye.” Translated, this means, “What an accomplished musician he was… and as I said, he created such a School (of music) that, even though people would want to imitate his style, they could not… when he left (this world) he took his School along with him.” His music was so... Inimitable.

At a glance

Name: Sachin Dev Burman 

Born: October 1, 1906

Passed: October 31, 1975

First Hindi film: Shikari, 1946

Last Hindi film: Mili, 1975

Number of films: 89

Number of film songs: 689

Number of Bengali songs (film and non-film): 132.


1) The Incomparable Music of SD Burman Transcends Generations, Antara Nanda Mondal, October 29, 2016, Silhoutte Magazine

2) Conversation with Dr Prakash Sontakke

3) Conversation with Moti Lalwani, Researcher into SD Burman’s life and works, SD Burman (Sachin Dev Burman Fan Club).

Legacy of Burmans: A Self-Study Pack from Shankar Mahadevan Academy

Want to learn songs composed by SD Burman and RD Burman? Sign up for a Self-Study Pack “Legacy of Burmans” from Shankar Mahadevan Academy. We have released this pack to coincide with the 114th birth anniversary of SD Burman.

Switch on these packs. Get under the skin of these songs, and grasp the finer details of singing these timeless classics by the Burmans. Sing them with classy finish to your close ones. 


About Shankar Mahadevan Academy

Shankar Mahadevan Academy was founded on—and stands on—three simple ideas. First, enable people to learn quality Indian music through a structured, modular, step-by-step curriculum. Second, make music-learning accessible to just anybody who wants to learn music. Last, make music enter the lives of even people who are not necessarily musical or have no background in learning music.

Age is no bar, to join the Academy. The “junior most” learner is two years old; the senior-most, 93. Nor is location a bar. Thanks to courses available online, learners have logged in from 74 countries so far. Nor are social and economic backgrounds a bar. It’s true, music knows no boundaries.

Fact file

Name: Shankar Mahadevan Academy

Year formed: 2011

Founders: Shankar Mahadevan (composer and singer), Sridhar Ranganathan (technology entrepreneur, and founder of Cloodon Learning)

Advisors: Dr Prakash Sontakke, Mrs Tara Kini (an independent consultant in music and an educator), Padma Shankar (Violinist, Musician, Educator)

Website: www.shankarmahadevanacademy.com

Office locations: Bengaluru, India; Palo Alto, USA

Learners (in total, so far): More than 28,000

Courses: Offers courses in Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, Voice Gym, Grow With Music (Music for Children), Instruments (Guitar, Piano, Keyboard). 

Channels: Offers courses online, and also in-campus at schools, companies, and affiliate centres. In-campus courses are available in the Bay Area, California; and Bengaluru, Mumbai and Pune, India. (Since, March 2020, we have suspended all in-campus courses because of the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic.)

To join a music course: 

Phone: (91-80) 66085000. 

Email: admissions@shankarmahadevanacademy.com