Tribute to a Legend: In Conversation With Salil Chowdhury in ’91 

Remembering Salil Chowdhury on his death anniversary.

12 min read
Hindi Female

It was May 1991 and I was in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to interview the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mr Jyoti Basu. Lok Sabha elections were being held. One of my journalist friends, Rajesh (Anand Bazar Patrika) told me Lata Mangeshkar was in town to record Pujo songs for Salil Chowdhury and that he was going to meet them. So I though let me take a chance and went with him to Salil Chowdhury’s recording studio. Because of her tight schedule, I could not get Lata Mangeshkar (she asked me to come to Bombay) but I did manage to convince Salil Chowdhury to talk to me.

Salil Da was a legend for me – I grew up on his songs. On a rainy day, it would be O Sajana Barkha Bahar Aayee..., in a philosophical mood Kai Baar Yunhi Dekha Hai..., the sunset was always with Kahin Dur Jab Din Dhal Jaye... and sitting by the riverside close to my home, it would be Ganga Aaye Kahan Se Ganga Jaye Kahan Re.... And I continue to sing Maine Tere Liye Hi Saat Rang Ke Sapne Chune... to my daughters .


Salil da was a much accomplished person - writer, lyricist, script writer, activist and of course musician par excellence. He loved folk music and symphonies equally and had composed in 13 languages. Here is a transcript of my conversation with him where he spoke about his many splendored life and times.

MK Jha: Salil Da, so you have finally settled in Kolkata ?

Salil Chowdhury: I wanted to be self employed number one... so I made this sound recording studio and second, I wanted to experiment with the electronic medium in music. So many synthesisers and other modern musical equipment...the scope of a composer has gone up hundreds folds... you know in my studio, there are 8 tracks with 12 channels. You can use 100 microphones... a synthesiser can give you tonality of 40-50 instruments... alone you can compose the melody and mix it. That was in my mind when I set up this studio in Calcutta. When it is not on hire, I do my own experiments. You will find, in the West, all composers, they have their own studios. Thirdly, I realise Bombay is no more for me... this kind of music... I am not suitable for. I find myself to be a misfit in Bombay’s filmy music scene. I go to Bombay just to do music for TV serials. I am doing Tamil and Malyalam films and recently composed a song for Hariharan.

MK Jha: How did you reach Bombay?

Salil Chowdhury: I went to Bombay in 1953... it was luck. Before going to Bombay, I was doing Bengali films here in Calcutta. Some of them were big hits like Pasher Baadi (1952), Poribortan(1949), Baarjatri(1951) and then I had been writing scripts for a Bengali movie about a peasant who lost his land and comes to Calcutta, to earn money and becomes a rickshaw puller.

That was liked by Hrishikesh Mukharjee and he showed it to Bimal Da (Bimal Roy). Bimal Da came to Calcutta from Bombay. So I met him and read out the script to him. He didn’t say anything and asked me to meet him next morning. Next morning when I went to meet him, I was told he was left for Bombay in the morning itself. I was frustrated and angry but within a week I got a telegram. He had asked if I can do a script in Hindi because he wanted to make a Hindi film, if I was interested. Of course, I was. I called him up, he asked me to come to Bombay and I was in Bombay with my script of Do Bigha Zameen (1953).

MK Jha: You were involved in various movements before you went to Bombay?

Salil Chowdhury: Actually, since my childhood, I was involved with student movements. I was a musician also since my childhood because I was initiated into music since the age of 5 or 6. So, I was already a musician in my school. I used to play the harmonium, flute, sitar and during my college days I started composing also. So my first popular hit (laughs) so called hit was a mass song...Jisko jan sangeet bolte hain..Bichar Pati Tomar means ‘O you judge the days of your judgement is come because people are awake...’ so this song was written and composed when the Britishers were trying INA prisoners.

After that I started living in a village with my aunt and maternal uncle. There was big peasant uprising in those areas in 24 Parganas near Calcutta... so I got involved in the peasant movement. Then I started writing songs for the peasants, for the movements. In 1944, where 50 lakh Bengali peasants died on the street of Calcutta for asking for a bowl of rice and water, I saw that with my own eyes. This was a manmade famine because of black marketers, hoardings. 

So, I jumped into the movement and before I could write my MA exams, arrest warrants were issued against me and I joined the IPTA movement as a full time Communist Party member. And for two years, I went underground in Sundarbans. I started writing and composing songs about the movement and started going to villages. Villagers, they used to love my songs. Then for the IPTA Movement, I started writing stories, plays, songs, composing songs... hundreds of them.

MK Jha: You have composed songs in 13 languages and you were not familiar with most of the languages.

Salil Chowdhury: You know through the years, film music has developed a language of its own which is understood all over the world... whether it’s North, South, East or West and I call it ‘Language of the Film Music’. So a Bengali song which is a very big hit in Bengali, can be a hit in Malayalam also. It’s my life experience and I have given hits in Odiya also because films have developed a common language, something which our “national integration” has not been able to do.

So when I am told about a particular situation, for example for a Malyalam film, I discuss it with the director and then I compose the melody. Even in Hindi I do the same, first I compose the melody giving the expression through the melody whether it’s emotional or romantic, whatever. So I make the tune and then ask the song writer to write words on the tunes. This is how I work. First, I compose the music and then lyricists write the song. Even for Madhumati (1958), I did the same. Some of the lyricists, they didn’t like this. Their arguments were why don’t you tune the lyrics, it’s like cutting the body to fit it in a coffin. So, my counter argument was, which is the dead body and which is the coffin? I think I can cut the lyrics to fit into my tune. But let me say this to you, I have been very very successful in the last 25 yrs of my career. I firmly believe, usually, lyricists they write better songs when they are given tunes or music.

MK Jha: What do you think is distinct about your compositions?

Salil Chowdhury: The most important thing is, the originality of the composer makes him stand listening to a few initial bars, one could say oh that was S D Burman or Naushad Bhai or Shanker Jaikishan and so on because they had distinctive ways to give expressions... they had their very own style. As far as my music is concerned, it was not by design, it was my own desire to express myself my own ways. So the desire to express myself as per the content, makes me choose the format. It’s my belief that content should determine the form.

MK Jha: There are distinctive Western classic elements in your music.

Salil Chowdhury: Since my childhood, I grew up listening western classical music. My father was very fond of western classical music and he had a very big collection of symphonies. My father was also a good musician despite being a physician. We used to love Indian classical also... we had collections of Fayaz Khan, semi classicals like KC Day... I have been hearing them since I was just 4 years old. So this has gone into my blood that is why these symphonies are there, I don’t consider them as foreign because I grew up with them.

When I came to Calcutta for studies, my elder brother Nikhil Chowdhary, he was associated with an orchestra club, they used to practise at our house only. During my IPTA days, there used to be conferences, where artists from all over the country used to assemble. So there used to be a big opportunity to witness different kinds of cultures and music of the entire country. I used to love these... music from south, west, north and east, folk songs from all over the country, for me it was a music university. I learned music from them, from the coolies of Assam tea gardens.

I started learning piano from the age of 6 or 7.

MK Jha: There are too many symphonies in your compositions.

Salil Chowdhury: Symphonies... well, they have influenced many of my songs...and I know what you are talking about...that symphony which can be easily recalled... Itna Tu Mujh Se Na Pyaar Jata from Chaya (1960)... was taken from the 40th symphony of Mozart... the other music, Italian music is called Obligato... the music runs in oblique, leads to the main melody. That is the western technique of using harmony and counter points. This I have been using very much but in a distinctive way and interlude music, not just for sake of interlude music but as the part of the music that is why you will find that many a time when people sing my song , they sing the interlude music along with it. It is very much a part of the song. I have a collection of western folk songs; because Russian, Hungarian, Polish, American, folk songs, folk music is my passion. I have used Indian folk music in Madhumati... that is the distinctive tea garden folk music of Assam. I used Hungarian folk tune in Dil Tadap Tadap Ke Kah Raha Hai... in Madhumati and the famous song Mausam Beeta Jaaye... in Do Bigha Zameen, that was inspired not lifted from the Russian Red Army march song.

MK Jha: I remember all songs of the film Do Bigha Zameen. Did you write the songs of the film too?

Salil Chowdhury: No, no... Shailendra wrote all the songs. We both helped each other. He knew Bangla very well. I used to write in Bangla and Shailendra used to translate it in his unique way. The concept of songs I gave to Shailendra and he wrote those beautiful songs. Remember Tak Dhina Dhin Tak, he gave beautiful expressions. For Do Bigha Zameen songs, I had approached Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey. Manna Dey had sung for me in Bangla films but this was the first time I was working with Lata and my god, the way she sang my composition, it was superb.

She used to tell me “Dada, it is very difficult to sing on compositions... it is always changing”. She is the true phenomenon. Perhaps it may be several centuries before we come across such talent again. If I knew Lata was going to sing my composition, I would go on to make it as complex as possible. It was like a challenge, a game between us but she never failed. Choti Si Baat, Rajnigandha, Anand, Annadata, Mere Apne, Maya, Chaya, Parakh... listen to her songs... no one can sing my complex compositions like her.

MK Jha: What about Jagte Raho (1956), perhaps first time bhangra was used in a Hindi song?

Salil Chowdhury: That’s right... it’s all thanks to Raj Kapoor. He wanted Bhangra to be introduced and there were too many bhangra tunes. Luckily lyricist Prem Dhawan, my friend had a good understanding of these and his contribution was more than mine. He wrote a beautiful bhangra song.

MK Jha: Raj Kapoor’s favourite was Shankar Jaikishan then how did you get Jagte Raho?

Salil Chowdhury: Let me tell you, earlier a Bengali actor was to play the lead role and Raj Kapoor was to direct the film. That was the time Shambhu Mitra introduced me to Raj Kapoor. He listened to my tunes and immediately signed me. Later, Shambhu Mitra directed the movie and Raj Kapoor played the lead role. Zindagi Khwaab Hai... was picturised on Motilal and Jaago Mohan Pyare was filmed on Nargis. Later, we made the Bengali version, Ek Din Ratre. Most of the songs were the same. Same tunes, only the words were in Bengali. Raj Kapoor and I had decided to do another film together but it did not materialise. Perhaps there was too much pressure from Shankar Jaikishan.

MK Jha: Dada, you have done that many times – same tunes but different language. Hindi to Bangla – Bangla to Hindi. For example Parakh songs are in Bangla also. Kahin Dur Jab Din Dhal Jaye... the beautiful Mukesh number from Anand (1970). I heard the same in Bangla but in Hemant Kumar’s voice.

Salil Chowdhury: You could make out because you listen to Bengali songs and why only in Bangla and Hindi? I did the same in Odiya, Malayalam, Tamil, Assamese, Gujarati. You will find the same tunes in all these languages.

That is what I have been telling you, music is a universal language. That Rajnigandha (1974) song Kai Baar Unhin Dekha Hai Ye Jo Mann Ki Seema Rekha Hai... I used in Malayalam film in Yesudas’ voice. I used in Bangla also and they were hits.

Salil Chowdhury: Now, I am getting nostalgic... I remember all my songs and music. I remember the song from Naukari (1954); Chota Sa Ghar Hoga Badalon Ki Chaon Mein...that was a Nepali folk song and the mukhada which I learnt in my childhood from a Nepali Durban. He used to sing... tra tra ra re... like that and I remember the tune and used it when I got the chance. So I gave this tune to Shailendra and he immediately he wrote it, he was a genius. Can you believe how he wrote Chad Gayo Papi Bichuwa? I had given him the tune, then he put the word “bichuwa and what a song it turned out to be! I still sing the song.

MK Jha: You talked about Lata Mangeshkar, what about other singers?

Salil Chowdhury: I like all of them. Manna Dey is a classical singer with a vast range. Listen to his song Aye Mere Pyare Watan... from Kabuliwala (1960). Mukesh was my favourite but his octave range was limited, but he could sing with a mood and pathos that was unique. Listen to songs of Anand, Mukesh and Manna Dey, they were superb.

Mohammad Rafi was a versatile singer, he had a god-gifted voice. Talat Mehmood, he sang for me in Chaya, Usne Kaha Tha. I heard now he cannot speak after a paralysis attack. Kishore Kumar, well, I was not impressed earlier. Though, I first worked with him in Naukari. Later, we became good friends. I remember while recording a song for Annadata, it took Kishore two days to get the composition. The song was Guzar Jaye Din Din. You know Dilip Kumar’s only Hindi song was my composition for the film Musafir (1957). It was a duet and he was to sing with Lata. He was in tears and very nervous. The song was Lagi Nahi Chote Rama Chahe Jiya Jaye... it was thumri. But after that, Dilip never sang.

MK Jha: You didn’t talk about Hemant Kumar? I had read somewhere that you both had a tiff and didn’t speak to each other for months?

Salil Chowdhury: Not for years. Na re baba, it was for a few weeks. There was some misunderstanding and we sorted it out. Now he is no more, and I miss him very much. We were together in IPTA. He sang for me in Bimal Roy’s Biraj Bahu and then Kabuliwala. Remember the song, Ganga Aaye Kahan Se... such a soulful voice.

MK Jha: Apart from being a genius composer, you are also known as an ace background music composer. There was movie Kanoon, there was no song but your background music was great.

Salil Chowdhury: I love every part of music and it requires a certain degree of skill in timing the length of footage with the duration of the piece to be recorded. After Kanoon, I had acquired this reputation and did many films including Madhumati. Much before Kanoon, I was forced by Bimal Roy to provide background score for four reels of Devdas.

MK Jha: Which one of your tunes do you consider your most favourite?

Remembering Salil Chowdhury on his death anniversary.
Remembering the musical genius of Salil Chowdhury. 
(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

Salil: Which one is my best? That’s very difficult to say, all compositions are my children and for a father to say which one is my best...

MK Jha: But even then...

Salil Chowdhury: Given a situation which gives the vast scope to experiment like Parakh (1960) the song O Sajana Barkha Bahar Aayyee... it has super melodies, remains evergreen, and there is also Madhumati - Aaja Re Pardesi...

Should I tell you something about the Aaja Re Pardesi... tune? It was used in the background music in Jagte Raho. It was a scene where Raj Kapoor was trying to drink water but whenever he was trying, something would happen and he is unable to drink water. So in his helplessness... him being unable to quench his thirst.. I used this background tune in the scene. Later, Shailendra told me, why not use this tune for Madhumati? That’s when he wrote the first line of Aaja Re Pardesi...

MK Jha: Now you are, as you say “self-employed”, away from Bombay, are you satisfied?

Salil Chowdhury: An artist cannot be satisfied. I feel I could have done much better. I have not given even 30 % of my imagination... so that remains. But I have a sense of fulfilment. I have got tremendous love from all over the country and that satisfies me. And my feeling reflects in the song, Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli... sung by Manna Dey for Anand.

(Mrityunjoy Kumar Jha is a broadcast journalist with over 25 years of experience. He worked for Newstrack and AajTak (TV Today) and IBN7 (TV18 Group). He has two passions News and Hindi music. He can be reached on twitter @mrityunjoykjha)

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