Subho Das pays tribute to the legendary maestro of film music Salil Chowdhury on his 95th Birth anniversary
19th November 2020 marks the 95th birth anniversary of one of the greatest musicians India ever produced – Salil Chowdhury, the self-trained Bengali composer, music director, poet-lyricist and activist who had shaped Bengali popular music and left an indelible stamp on Bollywood songs.
From tiny tots to the grannies and grandpas, Salil Chowdhury’s melodies have touched every music lover, not only in India and Bangladesh, but around the world.
Salil-Da, as many called him fondly, was born in Sonarpur, (presently South 24 Parganas district) in West Bengal on November 19, 1925.
He spent most of his early years in the verdant hillsides of Assam, where his father was a forest-officer. Salilda was exposed to music, musicians and musical instruments right from his childhood.
He trained himself on the flute, piano and violin and was introduced to Western classical music, particularly Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, as well as traditional North Indian classical music at a very early age.
Salil, the Revolutionary
As a student in Calcutta University, Salilda came in direct contact with the high tide of Indian nationalism and made a mark in writing anti-British lyrics.
Two of his popular compositions for the Quit India Movement – ‘Bicharpati Tomar Bichar’ (1943) and ‘Dheu Uthchhe Kara Tutchhe’ (1944), were banned by the British regime.
Son of the Soil
A son of the soil, Salilda saw himself getting involved in the rural Communist peasant movement in the villages of Bengal. As always, Salil’s appeal for human rights manifested itself in music and dramaturgy.
In the 1940s, he was at the helm of the progressive theatre movement called Gana Natya Sangha or Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA), where he composed innumerable songs called ‘Ghum Bhangar Gaan’ or ‘Songs of Awakening’.
He was also vigorously involved in writing scores for musical squads performing in Bengali countryside.
The Musician of the Masses
Salil Chowdhury believed in what is known as ‘cultural internationalism’. He sought to unite people through a musical surge of mass songs, that were purely experimental compositions born out of a creative fusion of Western classical, Indian classical and traditional folk music.
Along with Ruma Guha Thakurta and Satyajit Ray, he was also a co founder of the Calcutta Youth Choir, which traveled around the villages of Bengal with the IPTA to sing Salil Chowdhury’s songs, many of which were translations of mass songs from around the world, including Latin America and the erstwhile USSR.
Magnificent Mass Songs
It was during this phase that Salil Chowdhury created a brand new genre of music, when he put to tune a long Bengali poem by Satyendranath Dutta and a few others by Sukanta Bhattacharya.
Faced with a daunting challenge of shaping songs out of well-known poems, most of them with irregular rhyme schemes, Salil Chowdhury gave birth to some evergreen Bengali songs, like ‘Palkir Gan’, ‘Runner’, ‘Abak Prithibi’, and ‘Dhitang Dhitang Bole’.
Salilda’s music was a rage and filmmakers found a gem in him. Directors, like Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen used his music to portray the spirit of Bengali theatre movement of the 1940s in Komal Gandhar and Akaler Sandhaney.
Salil in Bollywood
Having created a brave new style of music in the 1950s, and after a brief stint with the Bangla film industry in Tollygunj, Salil Choudhury moved to where the buzz was – Bombay.
It was a boom time for Bengalis in Bollywood, and Salilda went on to score the pathbreaking soundtrack of Bimal Roy’s Madhumati and Do Bigha Zameen and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir.
Madhumati got Salilda his first Filmfare Award in 1958. During this period, his communist activities made him a hunted man, and the busy music director had to go into hiding.
Salil Chowdhury gave Hindi film music a new dimension with his outstanding works in the musical hits of the 1970s – Anand, Rajnigandha and Chhoti Si Baat. He will also be remembered for his matchless background scores for BR Chopra’s song-less film Kanoon, and Gulzar’s Achanak, Mere Apne and Mausam.
Back to Bengal
As the days of melody waned in Bollywood, Salil Chowdhury gradually moved out from Bombay’s music scene. Towards the late 1970s, he returned to Calcutta and continued composing Bangla ‘Adhuniks’ or modern songs, with able support from his songster-wife Sabita and daughter Antara, who helped make his songs even more popular.
The Poet, Playwright and Scriptwriter
The poetry and music of Salil Chowdhury have been included in the postgraduate syllabus for Bengali students at the Rabindra Bharati University, Calcutta. His poetry is ‘unusual’, conversational and dramatic in style, but simple and straightforward.
A collection of his unpublished Bengali poems was brought out posthumously by his wife Sabita Chowdhury in a volume entitled The Poems of Salil Chowdhury. And his only poetry album, in which we hear the poet recite his own poems with his own background score, was released in 1983.
Plays and Stories
His Bengali short stories ‘Dressing Table’, ‘Sunya Puron’, plays ChaalChore, Orunodoyer Pathey (a translation of the Irish play The Rising of the Moon), and Aapni key? Aapni ki karen? Apni ki korte chaan? (Who are you? What do you do? What would you like to do?) have been critically acclaimed.
The Musician as Scriptwriter
Salilda was also an excellent scriptwriter. It is not known to many a movie buff that Salil Chowdhury wrote the script for Bimal Roy’s award-winning classic Do Bighaa Zameen (Rikshawalaa in Bengali).
His other film scripts include Pinjre Ki Panchhi, Parakh and Minoo in Hindi and Chinna Ninna Muddaduwe in Kannad. He is also one of the few music directors to work in several Indian languages – Assamese, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Hindi.
Music Never Dies
Salil Chowdhury died on September 5, 1995, but left an extraordinary repertoire of evergreen melodies and a substantial body of lyrics that have made him immortal.
Songs of Salil Chowdhury
Top 10 Bengali Evergreen Hits
- Abak prithibi abak korle tumi (Lyrics: Sukanta Bhattacharya, Music: Salil Chowdhury)
- Amay prasno kore neel dhrubo tara (Lyrics & Music: Salil Chowdhury)
- Ami jhorer kaachhey rekhe gelaam (Lyrics & Music: Salil Chowdhury)
- Dhitang dhitang bole (Lyrics & Music : Salil Chowdhury)
- Palkir gaan (Lyrics: Satyendranath Dutta, Music: Salil Chowdhury)
- Antobiheen katena aar jeno biroher i ei din (Lyrics & Music: Salil Chowdhury)
- Aaj tobe ei tuku thaak baki katha pore hobey (Lyrics: Salil Chowdhury)
- Aaj noi gungun gunjan (Lyrics & Music: Salil Chowdhury)
- Naa jeona rajani ekhono baaki (Lyrics & Music: Salil Chowdhury)
- Saat bhai champa (Lyrics & Music: Salil Chowdhury)
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Subho is a communication professional and former journalist based in Delhi NCR. He is an passionate nature photographer, music lover and known as India’s first professional blogger.