Flawless harmony in his music

Salil Chowdhury's contribution to modern Indian music is not as well known as it deserves. The composer's 80th birth anniversary fell on November 19. A tribute.



Self-taught: Salil Chowdhury's music was an adroit mix of various forms.

Self-taught: Salil Chowdhury's music was an adroit mix of various forms.  

BORN in a village in Kerala in the 1970s, I set out to face life without much of a family background. But the Malayalam film songs composed by Salil Chowdhury inspired me with self-confidence, with hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow.

Salil da's music was different from the music that I had grown up with, that was its first attraction. From Lata Mangeshkar to Raj Kapoor, many have called him "a genius". Music directors from Shankar-Jaikishen to A.R. Rahman have been struck by Salil da's felicity in matching orchestration with emotions. He is the only major composer to have scored music for films in almost all-important Indian languages. In Bengali, he was a poet, lyricist, and storywriter. A staunch communist, he went to jail many times in the course of his political struggle.

Salil da was born on November 19, 1925, in Chingripotha in 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. His childhood was spent in the tea gardens of Assam and he was greatly influenced by the songs of the tea garden workers and Assamese folk songs. His father had a great collection of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin. Salil da's love for western classical music taught him the potential of various musical Instruments and the importance of harmony in music. He was a self-taught musician and the beauty of his compositions lies in the adroit mix of folk, Indian classical and western classical music.

When Salil da came to Calcutta for his graduate studies in 1944, he was attracted by the political ethos of the day and became a communist. He started writing songs and setting tunes for IPTA, the cultural wing of the communist party. Bicharpati, Runner, Abak protibhi were songs of hope and awakening in Bengali culture. Gaayer bodhu, which he composed at the age of 20, created a new wave in Bengali music. His experiments in composition and orchestration were unique. His first Bengali film "Paribortan" was released in 1949. "Mahabharati" in 1994 was the last of his 41 Bengali films.

When Bimal Roy made Salil da's short story "Rickshawala" as "Do Bigha Zameen" in Hindi, Salil da entered Hindi films as a music director. The exceptional songs of that film, Dharti kahe, Hariyala saawan and Aaja ri attracted the attention of the nation. His songs for "Biraj Bahu", "Naukri", "Amaanat", "Taangewaali", "Awaaz", "Parivaar", "Jaagte Raho", "Apradhi Kaun" and "Ek Gaon Ki Kahaani" are still popular. Then came "Madhumati" in 1958. Its 12 songs, including Ajaa re pardesi, Suhana safar and Dil tadap, continue to be wildly popular.

The songs of "Parakh", "Usne Kaha Tha", "Chhaya", "Maya", "Kabuliwala", "Anand", "Mere Apne", "Rajnigandha", "Choti si baat", "Jeevan jyothi", "Mrigaya", "Annadata", "Anand Mahal" followed but with an intolerable gap between each. "Swami Vivekananada" in 1994 was his last Hindi film.

After about 20 years in Bengali and Hindi films, Salil da entered Malayalam films in 1964 with "Chemmeen". He scored music for 23 films in Malayalam. Some films never saw light of day in the theatres and some were big box office flops. But all are referred to just for the songs.

The flawless harmony with which Salil da used an array of musical instruments suggests a unique understanding of instruments. Raj Kapoor once described him as a genius who could play everything from tabla to sarod and piano to piccolo. Salil da showed Indian popular music the way to use quaint western instruments. He has used instruments as varied as the oboe, French horn, mandolin and saxophone in his arrangements.

Salilda's music defies classifications and never follows a predictable format. His songs charm the listener with a first feeling of simplicity. But when you try to sing it; you realise the unusual musical twining and the complex composition. It is impossible to think of his tunes without accompaniments. The skilful use of obligato, the counter melody flowing around the main melody, is an unfailing attraction of his music.

Salilda had to face the opposition of traditionalism. He was accused of westernising Bengali music. His reply was that the harmonium, the common idiom of Indian music, was itself a western instrument. "Music has to at all times, dissolve and evolve, ever renewing it into new forms to suit the tastes of the time. Otherwise it will become fossilised. But in my quest for moving forth, I should not forget my tradition". These were Salilda's words about his music.

Music lovers in Tamil Nadu too recognise Salil Chowdhury's music from Malayalam films like "Chemmeen". Kadalinakkare ponore is a song that held Tamil Nadu too in a spell for over 40 years. The background score for "Uyir"(1971), the songs of "Karumbu"(1972, unreleased), "Paruva Mazhai", a Kamal Hassan film dubbed from Malayalam (1978), were Salil da's initial scores in Tamil.

In 1979, Salil da composed the music for Balu Mahendra's "Azhiyaada Kolangal" and songs like Poo vannan pola nejam and Naal ennum pozhudu became famous. "Doorathu Idi Muzhakkam" in1980, was his last Tamil film. Five songs from this film were popular, but Ullamellam thalladuthe can be said to be his best Tamil song.

Though his contribution to Tamil films appears to be little it is not an exaggeration to say that Salil da was a trendsetter on the scene. Both Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman followed the path charted by him. Ilayaraja was introduced to the film industry as guitarist and combo organ player in Salil da's recordings and his influence on Ilayaraja is evident. R.K. Sekhar, Rahman's father, worked with Salil da as an assistant. Rahman himself testifies that attending Salil da's recording sessions at a young age left an indelible impression on him.

Salil da died on September 5, 1995 but for millions of music lovers, he will live on through his immortal music.

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