How it happened
I am fortunate enough to hail from a culturally rich family of Kolkata. My elder brother, Uday Shankar was the pioneer of the modern dance form. I opted for the sitar for its sober tune quality and my fondness for Indian classical music. Those days, Kolkata was the hub of militant revolution against the British Raj. We witnessed the Second World War as well as the dreaded famine of 1942. Socialist ideologies inspired me to join Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA) and be an active member of the progressive group.
Other highly talented members of IPTA included Bimal Roy , Chetan Anand, K.A. Abbas and Salil Chowdhury. I developed a good rapport with Chetan who gave me my first break as a music director in his debut directorial venture “Neecha Nagar” inspired by Maxim Gorky's “The Lower Depths.” It was India's first anti-imperialist film and Chetan was highly influenced by Russian maestros, Eisenstein and Pudovkin.
How did it feel
For the music of “Neecha Nagar”, I was required to blend Indian classical ragas with the folklore of North India and western symphonies. Chetan had an excellent ear as well as sense of music. He himself was a good violinist . Those days, recording music was very difficult with as minimum technology was available. Producer Rafiq Anwar produced “Neecha Nagar” within limited budgets. Yet, within those constraints, Chetan created the desired musical effect for his first film with rare efficiency. He never interfered in my work much and was truly satisfied with what I delivered. “Neecha Nagar” went on to win the Grand Prix at the first ever Cannes Film Festival in 1946 along with Sir David Lean's, “Brief Encounters.” But it flopped miserably in India disheartening Chetan .
How life changed
My immediate film after “Neecha Nagar” was “Dharti Ke Lal” directed by K.A. Abbas based on “Nabanna” by Bijan Bhattacharya. It was a gripping film on the famine of 1942 which K.A. Abbas scripted and directed with brilliance, though I felt songs were not necessary for such a film. Of course, I got a good opportunity to prove my musical prowess in “Dharti Ke Lal” though K.A. Abbas was not that sensitive to music as Chetan was.
After jointly scoring the background for “Aandhiyan” in 1952 along with Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Panna Lal Ghosh, I received my greatest opportunity for scoring music in films when Satyajit Ray opted for me as the music director for his “Apu Trilogy” and “Paras Pathar.” He was undoubtedly the greatest director I worked with — meticulous, disciplined and an expert in every aspect of film making. Even today I feel proud when the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese appreciate my musical scores for the Apu series.
As told to RANJAN DAS GUPTA