Feature: SALIL CHOWDHURY-a tribute to the legend from Calcutta Tube.
“One of the seven notes of music is lost forever.” These are words uttered by the late Naushad when he heard of the sad demise of poet, lyricist, composer, instrumentalist Salil Chowdhury. So shocked was Lata Mangeshkar that she went into seclusion for three days, refusing to speak to the media or anyone else. This is what she had to say about this genius called Salil Chowdhury. “Over my more than six decades as playback singer, I have sung under more than 100 music composers. I can count around ten who really understood music and films and knew the precise demands a given situation, film or script demanded from a given song. Salil-da is one of the best even among these ten. His music was distanced from the music of any other composer. He was unique in the sense of his academic and intellectual command over every school of music – folk music of Bengal, Western classical, everything. Before shifting from Kolkata to Mumbai, Salil-da had disappeared for three months. He spent those months in some remote, little-known villages searching for folk music and to familiarize himself with their lyrics and their music. He also knew about the folk music of other Indian states. He had blended the strains of folk music and classical music beautifully. He would experiment to get just the right note and the right beat for just one song minus sleep or food for nights together. He would then decide on which fusion he would use and which ones he would reject. I have sung to his compositions for two decades. I had never met a music composer like him ever before.”
Much before A.R. Rahman appeared on the musical map of world music, before ‘fusion’ entered into the vocabulary of Indian music, before Bangla bands turned fusion into a fashion statement, these musical genres were already imbibed into, created, merged, and made immortal by Salil Chowdhury. His death in Kolkata on September 05, 1995, ended the life of one of the greatest creative poets, lyricists, writers and music composers of all time. His contribution to music reaches far beyond the confines of film music in different Indian languages. He gave birth to music for songs for the masses, he set long Bengali poems by noted poets to music, he wrote his own songs that carried powerful resonances of his revolutionary spirit like Gaanyer Bodhu, he constantly experimented with tonal variations in melody and rhythm, he scored the background music for several films when the music for the songs was scored by another music director. Salil Chowdhury is perhaps the first music director to have done the background score without giving the music for the songs of the same film. He could grasp the situation, the storyline and the emotions of a given sequence so well that very often, he created a music track that was distinctively his own irrespective of whether he composed the songs for the same film or not. It began with Bimal Roy’s Devdas where, though S.D. Burman composed the music for the songs, Roy asked Salil-da to compose the background music. Later B.R.Chopra asked Salil to compose the background music for Kanoon while Ravi was the regular music director under the Chopra banner. Kanoon was a songless film, but it is remembered for its phenomenal background music. Since then Salil-da composed the background music for a large number of Hindi, Malayalam and Tamil films and also for quite a few Documentary films for the Films Division of India.
[ReviewAZON asin=”B002RT72XU” display=”inlinepost”] The year of his birth is a matter of dispute. But according to official records Salil-da was born on 19th November 1923 in Gajipur village in 24 Parganas, West Bengal. He grew up in Assam where his father, a doctor, worked in a tea estate. A departing Irish doctor had given away a gramophone and a large number of Western classical records to Salil-da’s father. This is how he imbibed a deep love for Western classical music. As he listened everyday to Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Chopin, the soundtrack outside was filled with the mystique notes of the trees in the forest, the chirping of birds, the melody of the flute and the folk songs of Assam and other northern areas. He learnt to play the flute beautifully. Much later, when he became a revolutionary during India’s struggle for freedom, Salil-da carried his flute all the time, playing on it whenever he felt like it. Mozart was his personal favourite.
Ironically, Salil-da was forced to choose music as his vocation. One among eight brothers and sisters, Salil-da’s family fell on bad days because his father quit his tea estate job to migrate to Kolkata. His eldest brother, who worked in the railways in Lamding, could not help out because he had to support his own family on his meager earnings. His father’s retirement benefits were nothing to speak about. Then his father passed away and Salil-da’s world came crashing down. There were medical costs of his bedridden mother to be taken care of apart from the education of his little brothers and sisters and the family expenses on a day-to-day basis. Destiny forced him to transform a passion into a commercial proposition. Strange indeed, are the ways of life. This personal tragedy later turned into a milestone in the history of music in India. It gave birth to a musical genius of all time who created immortal musical compositions and even defined a completely new genre of music calls gana sangeet or mass songs of awakening and protest no one had ever heard of before in our country. Salil-da’s journey through his life and his journey through his music are so mingled into one another that it is impossible to separate the one from the other. Never before had a single person’s contribution through music and song had helped resurrect the Communist Party from total collapse. Salil-da’s music made this an unimaginable reality.
He was a person with strong political convictions and social conscience. He graduated from Bangabashi College in Kolkata. During his college life, his political ideologies and his ideas about music went hand in hand. His first-hand observation of World War II, the Bengal Famine and the impact of these on the masses turned him into a socially responsible young man. He joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and also became an active member of the Communist Party. The IPTA took the songs he composed to the masses, travelling through cities and villages of West Bengal. They were songs of protest that tried to raise awareness among the people about the rampant injustices they were being subjected to in different ways. Sadly, quite a few of these songs from the 1940s that were never recorded are lost to history. He recorded a 50-voice choir for Delhi Doordarshan in the 1990s and asked his old comrade Yogesh to translate some of them into Hindi. These songs remain all-time favourites. The songs mausam beeta jaaye and hariyala saawan dhol bajata aaya in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin are examples of this mood of protest and rebellion. These mass songs became embedded into the independence movement. They are still performed across Bengal and Bangladesh and are an integral part of the average Bengali’s musical identity.
Another unique contribution of Salil-da was his ability to set long poems to music. Satyendranath Dutta, a post-Tagorean modern poet, had a long poem. No one ever imagined that it could become a song if put to tune. Salil-da did it. Palkir Gaan, sung by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay wrote a new chapter in the history of Bengali music. He also set to music a long story-poem called Runner penned by the famous revolutionary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya. These two songs offer two separate studies in modern music compositions. Tagore had set the trend but Salil-da’s music and the poems themselves were filled with elements one had never encountered before in terms of the poems chosen, the melodies they were blended into and the structural modalities. Filled with variations in tempo, mood, resonance and rhythm, these songs are musical delights enriched by rich visual imagery that captures the shifting moods within both songs. His composition of Runner that narrates the tragic life story of a village postman before the invention of the railways, or mechanized transport, has often been compared to a serious symphony, albeit, on a limited scale than that explored in a symphony because it was a single poem being composed and not an orchestra.
Salil-da was an outstanding composer, an accomplished and gifted arranger, poet, writer and intellectual. He had a deep understanding of other instruments he needed for his creative repertoire. Even a pioneer of Hindi film music like the late Jaikishen referred to him as ‘the genius.’ “He can play almost any instrument he lays his hands on from the tabla to the sarod, from the piano to the piccolo” said Raj Kapoor once. He could also play the flute and the esraj, a stringed instrument. Since Do Bigha Zameen, Salil-da composed music for over 75 Hindi films, around 26 Malayalam films and several Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Gujarati and Assamese films. He became famous as the most non-conformist composer of the time whose relentless search for perfection towered above everything else. He chose Mukesh to lend his voice to Rajesh Khanna in one song number for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand. The number, maine tere liye yeh saat rang ke sapne chuney song is an example of how Salil-da could bring out the best in one of the most under-rated playback singers in Hindi films. We heard a different Mukesh under the baton of Salil-da in that famous song from Madhumati – suhana safar aur yeh mausam haseen.
Towards the end of his life, he translated the lyrics of around 10 compositions by the Beatles and in Bengali and recorded them. His second wife Sabita Chowdhury and their daughters Antara and Sanchari sang the songs. Those who have heard the songs say that Salil-da was totally faithful to the original sheet music. He had said that he found their compositions very interesting. He added though, that before releasing them, one needed to think again. They were never released. “He remains the only music composer till this day who could write the lyrics, compose the music, organize, compose and direct the music arrangement, conduct the orchestra, rehearse and record all at the same time,” says Bhanu Gupta who worked with him as master harmonica player and assistant for three decades. “He could change a beat, a tune, a melody in the sanchaari or the alaap or mukhda of any song, or even an entire song if the singer found it difficult to perform in say, half an hour,” says noted guitarist Soumitra Chatterjee.
“Salil-da as poet and composer was not as prolific as Tagore because he wrote and composed around 250 songs over his lifetime. What makes him stand out is that he had the rare expertise and command over every kind of music one can imagine. He was well versed in Indian Classical music, Western Classical Music, the folk music of India, revolutionary songs from across the world, symphonies and choral music, Marxian aesthetics and philosophy. Anyone wishing to familiarize himself with the creative compositions of Salil-da must first acquaint himself with all these schools of music at least in theory if not in practice,” says Sri Pranab Dasgupta, founder-director of Jeebonshilpi, an organization involved totally in researching the compositions and writings of Salil Chowdhury. Jeebonshilpi has its own choral group that sings the master’s compositions.
Veteran singer-composer-music teacher Abhijeet Bandopadhyay, a close associate of Salil-da, draws comparisons between Tagore’s and Salil-da’s music. “Tagore converted the destructive implications of elements like fire, storm and Shiva’s tandava dance into tranquil spaces through songs like aaguner poroshmoni, or, as odes to Nature through songs like neel digantey. Tagore focussed on the sublime because his belief was that conflict is not always destructive. But Salil-da was exactly his opposite. He used the same elements in his compositions as aggression against the human race. His beats carry the resonance of almost tangible emotions. His kee kori number expresses his state of constant restlessness, of feeling disturbed at all times. He believed that music demanded 24/7 dedication. Many of his songs composed with the labour class in mind incorporate beats that resemble the running of a machine. He was not against the machine per se. He was against the exploitation of the labourer who was replaced by his employer by the machine.”
Without the slightest trace of doubt, one can state that till date, Salil Chowdhury remains the most versatile musician in Indian cinema. Connoisseurs of music insist that he was a non-conformist music composer who never stopped searching for new kinds of music, orchestral, tonal and beat variations qualified by his meticulous attention to detail, a scrupulous ear for the right musical content he was looking for and a ceaseless and untiring desire for improvisation. Two years before his death, in an interview to The Telegraph, Salil-da had said, “My idea of perfect happiness is my ability to compose a musical note that will unite my countrymen and inspire them to make India one among the world’s leading nations.”
By Shoma A. Chatterji
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