With a childhood in the lap of tea gardens of Assam, young Salil indulged in sounds of nature, western songs & regional folk songs with an impetus passion that made him a prolific musician in the later years. The themes of Indian nationalism, Soviet folk songs, North Indian classical music, western classical music, and Communist Bengali Songs knitted Salil Chaudhury’s work rhythm. Music was so profoundly integrated with Salilda that he could play on any musical instrument like flute, esraj, violin, piano, tabla with ease. In the world of cinemas, Chaudhury’s versatility resonates across many languages & genres, exceptionally so in “Do Bigha Zamin”, based on his Bengali short story Ricksahwala. As India celebrated the 96th birth anniversary of the maestro– Salil Choudhury, yesterday (19th November), our talented writer Somashis Gupta pays tribute to his legendary contribution in music, writings, cinema, composition, and blending of eastern and western music traditions together
Illustration by Indro Ganguli
The Indian music industry has produced several maestros. Many have composed music to perfection. However, only a handful has endured through time with inimitable discernment of usage of its contrivances. Fewer have been able to achieve select unification of style, symphony and classicism.
One such genius was Salil Chaudhury, a world musician. His contributions to the field of music are humongous. Proficient in innumerable themes, such as Indian Nationalism, Soviet folk songs, North Indian classical music, Western Classical music and Communist Bengali songs, Chaudhury still mesmerises audience of various ages till date with equal charisma.
Born to Doctor Gyanendra Chaudhury (father) and Bibhabati Devi (Mother) on the 19th of November 1925, young Salil spent his childhood mostly in the Tea gardens of Assam. Young Salil absorbed anything and everything he heard, from western music to the folk songs of tea garden labours. Perhaps this laid the foundation of his creative excellence.
He found the first opportunity of expression through his brother Nikhil Chaudhury who was the director of an orchestra called Milan Parishad. It was here that Salil formed the core of his rudimentary work. He got exposed to instrument, composition and the finer aspects of the orchestral opus.
He shifted to Calcutta for his studies, where he experienced the tenets of Indian nationalism and the stirring of the masses against British rule, and it resulted in his first composition, ‘Bicharpoti Tomar bichar’ in 1943 and ‘Dhau uthchhe Kara Tutchhe’ in 1944.
Salil Chowdhury was not just a composer. He was a poet and a writer as well. His anti-colonial songs depicting the misery and apathy of poor and oppressed landless peasants brought him a great reputation. They dealt with themes of independence, oppression, and social injustice against idealism and romanticism, which were flowering themes in Bengali musical compositions of the day.
He was one of the founder members of the Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) where he composed ‘Ghum Bhangar Gaan’ which remains one of the most unique compositions to date. He tuned Sukanta Bhattacharya’s poems like Abak Prithibi and Runner, which are cherished to date. His most notable output from this period includes ‘Hei Samalo’ written for the Tebagha Andolan in 1948, and ‘Amaar Pratibader Bhasha’.
Later he formed the Calcutta Youth Choir along with Ruma Guha Thakurta, which traversed villages in Bengal with the IPTA, singing Chowdhury’s compositions.
Chaudhury had established a unique modus operandi by combining Western and Eastern music gave a new dimension to the music industry, and was the foundation of Bengali adhunik(modern) music.
By this time, the Bengali film industry had started rising. Salil was one of the leading playback songwriters of Tollywood. He made his advent to Bombay and the world of Bollywood filmdom subsequently. For twenty years, he contributed music to notable films such as Jagte Raho/Ek Din Ratre, Madhumati, and Kabuliwala.
He came back to Calcutta with a new aura in music. His compositions like ‘Surer Jharna’ and ‘Teler Shishi’ caught immediate attention. His symbolic style caught on to Bengali theatre as well, and Salil became one of the most popular composers for Jatra, a popular Bengali theatre.
Salil Chaudhury was an artist in the true sense. His creativity went beyond the boundaries of only music. His first short story Dressing Table was a runaway hit; subsequently, he went on writing various other stories and plays. The thematic exploration in works such as Sunya Puron, dealing with a midget’s fight to overcome the shortcomings of his height, became an integral part of his writing. Chowdhury’s first play to be staged was Chaal Chore, and he went on to write scripts such as Janaantik and Sanket.
Another significant work of Salil was translating the renowned Irish play, At the Rising of the Moon into Bengali as Orunodoyer Pathey.
Another noteworthy work was Aapni key? Aapni Ki Karen? Apni Ki Korte chaan? (Who are you? What do you do? What would you like to do?), directed by Shekhar Chattyopadhaay and staged by the Theatre Unit of Calcutta in 1972.
Salil Chaudhury entered the film industry with the script of a Bengali movie Rikshawalaa fascinated Bimal Roy, a prominent director from Bollywood, and he invited Salil to rewrite it in Hindi. The film was none other than the critically applauded Do Bigha Zameen, which established both Roy and Chowdhury as icons of the Indian screen.
The art of word is in mind, and the art of music-making is the emotion and the art of bridging the two is what defines Salil Chaudhury is not just a mere talent but an otherworldly genius. Salil Chowdhury will always be the voice and soul of India for now and for times to come.
References from Kabir Suman’s interviews with Salil Chaudhury, and write ups of Avinash Mudaliar
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A devoted foodie with keen interest in wild life, music, cinema and travel Somashis has evolved over time . Being an enthusiastic reader he has recently started making occasional contribution to write-ups.