Gautam Choudhury, a collector of Salil Chowdhury’s work, talks about the man behind the music
Gautam Choudhury grew up singing composer Salil Chowdhury’s songs in college group songs. This was his earliest form of interaction with the composer, and Gautam counts himself an addict ever since; Salil’s songs were his music education.
Gautam was soon to complete studying and settle abroad, but he kept attempting to meet the composer. Finally, in 1981, a mutual acquaintance introduced them, leading to a long association. The association didn’t quite end with Salil’s death in 1995: three years later, Gautam put up a website collecting the composer’s work.
Today, the website (www.salilda.com) has undergone three redesigns, and collects a vast body of often rare work. There are the familiar film songs, of course, but visitors will also find a selection of music composed by Salil for documentary films, TV serials, and even songs in Assamese and Malayalam. Gautam, who was recently in the city, had collected Salil’s music since the early 80s. In an interview, he said he created the website fearing that Salil’s work would be lost after his death. “There is no culture of preservation,” he said.
One of the sections on the website is called ‘Mass Songs of Awakening and Protest’. These songs are all in Bengali, and span nearly 50 years; but most are composed in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Gautam explained that it took him 12 years to collect these songs, since he lives in the Netherlands and only visits India intermittently. Recorder and notebook in hand, he would set out to the villages where he knew Salil’s ‘comrades’ lived. A song would only make it to the official list if more than one person said that it was, indeed, by ‘Salil-da’, as the composer is known.
These songs were then recorded by singers of the Indian People’s Theatre Association; in 2008, the collection was released as an album, Chetonaar Gaan (or ‘Songs of Consciousness’). But Gautam isn’t done: he also an idea for a book in Bengali, analysing Salil’s lyrics, he revealed.
After the initial meeting in 1981, Gautam and Salil became good friends, he said, adding that the composer was extremely knowledgeable in person. “Once, I had gone to the shop to buy a book on ‘tantra’. He asked me, ‘why did you buy a book? Let me tell you about tantra!’ And that was my death. He gave me a half-hour lecture! But, how much he knew!”
Another time, Salil told Gautam about a guitarist who was in his orchestra. “He is from Madras. I think he’s going to be the best composer in India.” This guitarist turned out to be Ilayaraja.
The composer faced his share of obstacles in the film industry, Gautam said. When Salil first went to Bombay in the 50s, he was mocked by Goan musicians because he didn’t know anything about Western music. “So he bought all the books on Western music, taught himself, worked 15 to 16 hours a day for two years,” Gautam said. “Then he went back and hired those musicians, and gave them detailed Western notes to play.”
Salil’s tunes for films such as like Madhumati and Do Bigha Zameen have remained some of his most popular work, but all his work was subject to change and tweaking, Gautam said. “He would pick up one of his old songs and rearrange it, with a new chord progression. As he was learning, he would put those ideas into his compositions.”
Salil’s influences included Western classical music; ‘Itna na mujhse tu pyaar karo’ has a tune lifted from a Mozart symphony. “But it was just the first few bars. After that, it was his own work,” Gautam points out. “Classical music was in his psyche, it wasn’t a foreign thing, because he grew up listening to Western Classical music.”
Gautam is an accomplished harmonica player, and has released tribute albums with harmonica versions of Salil's songs. He’s convinced there will never be another composer of his ilk. “Next 50 years, no chance!” Visit www.salilda.com. Chetonaar Gaan is available on Flipkart.