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Remembering the Maverick Musical Genius Of Salil Chowdhury

Remembering the musical genius of Salil Chowdhury on his 94th birth anniversary.

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Bhed ye gehra...baat zara si

(It’s simple… yet carrying deep secrets within)

This one lyrical line from one of most memorable songs (from Madhumati), beautifully defines the craft of Salil Chowdhury as a musician. A simple melody in the first look, carrying complex layers of orchestration with loads of nuances within, outlines Salil Chowdhury’s creativity as a composer and puts him in the league of maverick musicians of the Indian film industry. Salil Chowdhury truly remains one of the most important icons of the golden era of Indian film & non-film music. He composed memorable tunes for more than 150 films Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Oriya films.

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Salil Da Used Art For Social Upliftment

Remembering the musical genius of Salil Chowdhury on his 94th birth anniversary.
Salil Chowdhury remains one of the most important icons of the golden era of Indian film & non-film music

Salil da not only touched great heights with film music, but also penned many heart warming poems, lyrics and even stories. He made his art a medium for social upliftment, creating revolutionary music in the form of poems and songs of consciousness for an awakening of sorts, as an active member of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). Hiding a deep sea of creativity behind a set of anxious eyes and a calm face, Salil da created many immortal melodies through his career.

Salil Chowdhury was born 93 years ago on November 19th, 1922 in Sonarpur (Bengal) in an upper class family. His father Gyanendra Chowdhury was a reputed doctor in one of the tea estates of Assam. The wide range of Salil da’s musical compositions can be attributed to his childhood environment. His father and elder brother were fond of western classical music. At home he was exposed to the symphonies of western classical music. On the other hand, the tea-estate gardens introduced him to the folk of the eastern region, through the labourers singing at work. The impact of both the genres, western classical as well as Indian folk, can be clearly seen throughout Salil da’s musical evolution. Somewhere this unusual blend of the two distinct forms, establishes him in a different league, far beyond his contemporaries.

Remembering the musical genius of Salil Chowdhury on his 94th birth anniversary.
Salil da used played an array of instruments (Photo: Twitter/@Bollywoodirect)

A Maverick Of Instruments

Encouraged by his elder brother, Salil da learnt how to play the flute at the age of eight. With time he picked up many other instruments like the violin and the piano. His brother used to have an orchestra group, where Salil da played an array of instruments. Those were the days, when India was still fighting for Independence. Salil da observed the socio-economic inequality and exploitation of labourers working in the tea-estates, and that made him bend towards the communist ideology. He went to Kolkata for further studies and joined the communist party. His musical journey got a new high when he became active within the IPTA. He created many songs and poems of awakening for the common man. These were presented by IPTA artistes at mass gatherings and became a dominant medium of protest against exploitation, and a call for a social revolution.

In those days, he composed songs for chorus, as a collective voice of the masses, rather than focusing on a solo voice. Salil da named them Jan-Chetnaar Gaan or ‘songs of consciousness’. Post independence, he continued to compose for IPTA and the cause of social upliftment. Around that time, he started working in Bengali films. In 1953, he made his debut in Hindi films with Bimal Roy’s timeless masterpiece, Do Bigha Zamin. Notably, the film was based on a story written by Salil Chowdhury titled Riksha-wala. His filmi journey continued for the next four decades and Salil da created several soulful, experimental and everlasting melodies for listeners across India. Let’s enjoy some of his most unforgettable melodies to commemorate his 93rd birthday.

Remembering the musical genius of Salil Chowdhury on his 94th birth anniversary.
Lata Mangeshkar and Salil Chowdhury rehearse together (Photo: Twitter/@legends_forever)

Jaago Mohan Pyare  From Jagte Raho (1956)

A timeless melody, where Lata Mangeshkar’s voice has created a beautiful ambience, with an effective use of chorus for an amazing effect. The song actually stands out with its brilliant use in the film’s climax, taking the narrative to a new high. Raj Kapoor was so impressed with Salil da’s music, that he invited his regular musicians Shankar-Jaikishan to the song recording, to observe his creative process.

Aaja Re Pardesi From Madhumati (1958):

Madhumati is certainly one of Salil da’s finest music creations. A beautiful palette of melodies featuring Indian folk at its core, while carrying shades of Russian and Hungarian folk too. Salil da won the award for Best Music Director at Filmfare for Madhumati. Aaja re pardesi, the haunting melody was the film’s theme song and Salil da used the seventh cord in it, which signifies incompleteness of the protagonist’s character in the film, conveying the feeling of an unfulfilled life beautifully.

O Sajna, Barkha Bahaar Aayi  From Parakh (1960)

Many years ago, HMV for one of their documentations, asked legendary artists of Indian classical as well as film music, to put together a list of ten of their most favourite songs. Unsurprisingly O Sajna featured in most lists, right at the top. Lata Mangeshkar’s honey dipped voice along with the ornamentation of beautiful sitar pieces by Jairam Acharya, gives a heavenly feel every time this song plays. Interesting side note- Salil da was inspired by the swish of his car’s wipers for this composition. Another specific aspect of the song is the use of Sanchari, which is quite common in Bengali music, but rarely seen in Hindi film music.

Kayi Baar Yoon Bhi Dekha Hai From Rajnigandha (1974)

The 70s brought a major wave of change in Hindi cinema and its music. The romanticism of Rajesh Khanna, the angry young man Amitabh Bachchan and RD Burman, emerged as the new heroes of the medium, displacing many legends. At the same time, Indian films saw the advent of a new genre, which was referred to as middle-of-the-road cinema. Filmmakers like Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Chatterjee and Gulzar were leading names in this genre and Salil da emerged as the flag bearer of its music. Rajnigandha was one such film and this song won Mukesh the National award for Best Singer.

Kanha Bole Na From Sangat (1975)

Many of Salil da’s gems remain undiscovered, because he composed music for many low budget films that struggled to get a release. Basu Bhattacharya’s Sangat is a mid 70s film that had beautiful compositions by Salil da, but went unnoticed without a release. Kanha bole na is a rarely heard duet by Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey from this film. It merges the sounds of the traditionally divine with contemporary guitar strings, to highlight the contrast which was at the film’s core. This one really showcases how well he understood the medium of cinema.

(The author is primarily a technologist. Writes occasionally about films and music. Twitter handle: @p1j)

(This piece is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on November 19, 2015. It is being republished on the occasion of Salil Chowdhury’s birth anniversary.)

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