Last Sunday (19th November) was Salil Chowdhury’s birth anniversary. Although this multi-layered artist passed away eleven years ago, his stamp of exclusivity continues to sustain his livingness. A majority of Indians know Salil (popular among his admirers as Salilda) as a virtuoso music composer. So did I, for a good many years, leading into my college life. Salil’s music was hard to ignore for any lover of vintage-era Hindi film music. The earthy notes in Do Beegha Zameen or the Indianised version of a Hungarian folk tune in Madhumati; the poignancy of a day wearing down in Anand’s Kahin dur jab din dhal jaye or the strains of Middle Eastern music in Kabuliwallah—music, which didn’t slot Salil Chowdhury into any musician’s club, but established a separate league for him. For me, he was a genius. His versatility, the ability to make music that was internationally-influenced yet India-rooted, and his knack for getting the very best out of his singers easily made him stand out among his peers.
One day, during my college years, Salil Chowdhury stunned me again. This time, with a side of his that had remained unknown to me all this while—as a poet-composer of songs of protest and mass awakening.
Bicharpoti tomar bichar korbe jara
Aaj jegechhe shei jonota…
The public who will judge you
Has woken up today, Your Honour.
Your guns, your hangings, your prison tortures
Will be crushed by their weight.
Salil wrote this song in 1945, two years before India’s independence. It was a diatribe against the farce that was often carried out in the name of judicial hearing of Indian freedom fighters. The 1940s was also the decade when Salil Chowdhury joined the Indian Peoples Theatre Association or IPTA, an organisation of artistes and writers, born to address the conscientious role of the artistic community. As part of IPTA, Salil wrote many songs, beseeching his fellow countrymen to take power into their hands and rebel against exploitation by those in power. He wrote in simple Bengali, using words village folk spoke and voicing issues that concerned them.
O aayre, o aayere
Bhai bondhu, chal jaire…
Come o brother,
Let’s cut the paddy and
Stock the harvest in our granaries.
Thus went his anthem for poor peasants who were perennially robbed off the rewards of their toil by shrewd, profit-minded landlords. The poet-composer didn’t stop at his creation, though. He took these songs to villages and soon these became people’s songs in the truest sense.
It’s easy to see what inspired Salil to feel for the disadvantaged members of his community. As a young boy, he grew up in the tea gardens of Assam, where his father was a doctor. Chowdhury senior would routinely rope in the poorly paid coolies of the tea gardens to organise and stage plays against British exploitation. He also took part in many anti-British rallies, quite an audacious feat when the British were still ruling India.
Although in the mid-fifties this brilliant song-writer-musician matured into an exceptional self-taught composer with the onset of his professional career in film music, he never lost touch with the man within who hoped for a classless society and envisioned an India that wasn’t touched by religious differences. He wrote his last mass song in the early 1990s, shortly after the demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu fundamentalist forces.
O aalor potho jatri, E je ratri
Ekhane themo na
E balur chore ashar
Toroni tomar jeno bendho na
O traveller of the light path
It is night; don’t stop here.
Don’t anchor your boat of hope
On this sand shore.
For more information and recordings of Salil Chowdhury’s brilliant compositions, visit The World of Salil Chowdhury.
The World of Salil Chowdhury