The pros and cons of Raju Bharatan

I recently finished reading Naushadnama, Raju Bharatan’s loftily titled unofficial biography of the late, great music director Naushad Ali.  As always, Bharatan’s writing left me with very mixed feelings.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore Bharatan if you love the ‘golden era’ of Hindi film music, especially the 1950s and 60s.  For those more interested in the work of R D Burman, there are other excellent sources like Anirudha Bhatacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s R D Burman – The Man, The Music.  But there is nobody else who could have actually cared to publish his account of Naushad’s career in 2013.  And there is nobody else who could have done a better job content wise.  As Anil Biswas himself once dryly remarked to Bharatan, “Nobody can beat your knowledge of the history of film music.”

Hindi film music, to be precise.  Not that Bharatan seems to care.  There are stray mentions of, say, Sivaji Ganesan but otherwise there is no evaluation, even in passing, of the greats of Tamil music like M S Vishwanathan or Illayaraja.  This would ordinarily be irrelevant, except that Bharatan loftily declares Naushad the composer of the (20th) century.

A few other such dubious pronouncements aside (like Bharatan waxing eloquent about Priti Uttam Singh’s vocals on Naushad’s last film score – Taj Mahal), Bharatan overwhelms you with his truly impressive ability to collate and present a zillion factoids, sometimes compressed into a single page.  This, combined with his peculiar writing style, doesn’t make for the most enjoyable reading experience.  I don’t have the book by my side just now and when I do, I will edit this article with a delicious (!) sample of Bharatan’s inimitable style.   For now, I will just say that it is, well, fascinating that someone so fond of Naushad’s music with its sheer symmetry, elegance and aesthetic purity would choose to write in a manner so devoid of these very qualities!

Thankfully, the factoids make up for it and not just from the perspective of a trivia freak.  Bharatan digs deep and brings up aspects of these performers that may sometimes belie their public perception.  At the very least, you will find unexpected insights into their personality, their working style, views, so on and so forth.

Whatever else may have been his drawbacks, Bharatan was certainly not insufferably politically correct and sycophantic in the way most of our film journalists are.  He challenged these personalities and put them on the spot, getting them to articulate the considerations behind their choices.  For example, why Naushad swiftly moved away from Talat to Rafi.  It is explained, in Naushad’s own words (at least as quoted by Bharatan), that this had nothing to do with Talat’s fondness for alcohol or cigarettes.  A wonderful explanation summing up Talat’s strengths and limitations as a singer follows after which one would find it hard to deny that he didn’t quite fit into Naushad’s sweeping, epic, semi-classical vision of film music.  At least the vision he adopted from Baiju Bawra onwards.

Bharatan also engages with the question of whether it was a wise choice on Naushad’s part to so restrict himself to high minded classical based stuff and cede so much market to his rivals.  And yes, it was a rivalry (contrary to the friendly image presented in public) with the others like C Ramachandra, Biswas and Shankar Jaikishan resenting Naushad’s handsome pay packet.   But we were on the subject of his classical based  approach and, whether or not you agree with Bharatan’s own conclusions, I find it impressive that he chose to grapple with these questions.  Questions which are increasingly thought of as irrelevant in film music where the primacy of a composer’s own style and signature has long been lost.

These and many other insights, including a detailed analysis of Mughal-e-azam straight from the horse’s mouth, are compiled lovingly by a person who clearly seems to be a devoted fan of Naushad.  And yet not so devoted as to cross over into fanaticism and become blind and deaf to his flaws.  Thus, Bharatan is able to humanise not only Naushad but the many other luminaries who make lead or guest appearances in the book (Talat’s superiority complex vis a vis Rafi is another such example).  Bharatan shows that it is possibly to deeply adore and admire an artist’s work while also embracing his/her flaws.  Possible indeed for Bharatan devoted his career to it and carved out a Naushad-esque niche for himself in writing about film music.

There are other such tomes that Bharatan has published over the years and, in spite of my initial misgivings when I bit the bullet w.r.t Naushadnama, I plan to eventually get to them as well.  The cons of Bharatan’s page-turners (he will exasperate you into turning the page!)  and at best quixotic and often ludicrous turn of phrase have to be weighed against the pros of what he brought to the table through his frank and intimate interactions with the legends of Hindi film music. In this case, the pros win the day with ease as nobody else even thought it necessary to chronicle the exploits of a composer of whom it was once said, “chaalis crore mein ek Naushad”.  Guess our population went up too much!


4 Responses to “The pros and cons of Raju Bharatan”

  1. TambiDude Says:

    IIRC , RB was one of the sub editors of Illustrated weekly of India, reporting to Khushwant Singh. I am talking about its glory days of 1970s. He use to write the two passions of India: Bollywood songs and cricket. He was an unabashed fan of Lata M, the Burmans and had the habit of glorifying them while pretending total ignorance of others who unfortunately did not impress him. In cricket, it was G R Vishwanath who who was his favorite.

    His prose invited two types of comments. Some who loved it and some hated it.

    He was quite knowledgable about the classical based songs of HFM, which may explain his opinion about Naushad (which I find ridiculous ).

    In nutshell, RB is a highly opinionated tam bram, which almost everybody of that generation was 🙂

    • Madan Says:

      I believe in the 60s he talked up SJ a lot. So he was probably ‘practical’ and followed the way the wind blew. Yes, a huge cricket fan and considered that his real passion rather than cricket. I seldom came across his cricket articles outside sportstar and was thankful for it. There were better writers on cricket around and he had little to add except his ‘unique’ style of writing.

  2. TambiDude Says:

    In fairness his tribute to Salil Choudhary in Sep 1995 ( when he passed away) was well written.

    • Madan Says:

      Haven’t read that. His Manna De tribute was also well balanced. I do appreciate that he allowed for both sides of the picture rather than drifting into dark conspiracy theories to explain an artist’s lack of success. I have read assessments of Manna that were not so balanced and more fanboyish.

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