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Salil Chowdhury — so much more than a Hindi-Bengali film music composer

Salil Chowdhury passed away on 5 September 1995, after a five-decade-long career in cinema, theatre and political activism. ThePrint looks back at his life.

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New Delhi: The history of Hindi cinema is studded with memorable music composers, from the venerable Naushad to the Burman father and son, Madan Mohan, O.P. Nayyar, Hemant Kumar, Shankar-Jaikishen, Kalyanji-Anandji, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Roshan and many more. And then there was Salil Chowdhury — not just a musician par excellence, but also a writer, poet, theatre personality and staunch Leftist.

‘Salil da’, born on 19 November 1925 in Gazipur village of Bengal (modern South 24 Parganas district), spent his childhood in the tea gardens of Assam, listening to his doctor father’s collection of Western classical music. This training, combined with the Bengali and Assamese folk music that surrounded him, imbued in him a style that was not just different to his legendary contemporaries, but also completely distinctive.

On his 26th death anniversary, ThePrint looks back at the long, distinguished career of this multi-talented artiste.

Also read: 8 songs that prove Anand Bakshi was Hindi cinema’s lyricist for the common man

A political man

Salil Chowdhury was a young man stepping out into the world when Bengal was struck by the infamous famine of 1943. The period shaped his life’s politics, drawing him to the Communist ideology and, in particular, the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). He wrote street plays and songs to perform for people from the villages and districts.

He once said in an interview: “I was active in student movements since childhood. I also joined the farmers’ movement in 24 Parganas near Calcutta and wrote songs for it. About five million people lost their lives in the terrible tragedy that hit Bengal in 1944, which I had witnessed with my own eyes. That’s why I joined the movement and IPTA. In the meantime, I lived underground, in the Sunderbans, for two years, and even then, I continued to compose and write songs for the movement.”

His journey in cinema began in 1949 with the Bengali film Poribortan, and he was soon seen as a rising star of the industry, with hits like Pasher Bari (which was later remade into the Hindi film Padosan) and Barjatri.

Salil da’s entry into Hindi cinema was not by design. He recalled in the same interview cited above: “I was writing the script for a Bengali film about a farmer whose land is forcefully snatched, and he migrates to Calcutta in order to earn some money, and there he is forced to pull a rickshaw. Hrishikesh Mukherjee liked this script very much and then he told Bimal da (Bimal Roy) about it. Bimal da wanted to make a film based on it in Hindi, and thus Do Bigha Zameen (1953) came into existence.”

He also composed the music for the all-time classic movie, marking the first of his 75 film soundtrack compositions in Hindi. He also gave music for 45 Bengali and 26 Malayalam films, apart from at least 10 other languages.

Also read: 5 songs to remember Shakeel Badayuni, Hindi cinema’s romantic poet

Musical stylings

Salil Chowdhury was one of the earliest proponents of East-West fusion in Indian cinema, and would experiment not just in terms of tunes but also instrumental arrangement.

He was one of the pioneers of introducing folk forms into Hindi film music on the one hand (Dayya re chadh gayo paapi bichhua from the 1958 film Madhumati) and Western classical music, such as Mozart’s 40th symphony (Itna na mujhse tu pyaar badha from 1961’s Chhaya) on the other. Another song from Madhumati, ‘Dil tadap tadap ke’, is said to have been based on a Hungarian folk tune.

‘O sajna barkha bahaar aayi’, a classical-based composition, is often considered one of Lata Mangeshkar’s greatest performances, and Salil da’s melody is a big reason why.

‘Aye mere pyaare watan’, the soul-stirring Manna Dey song from Kabuliwala, has Arabic-Afghan tones, while the music of Kishore Kumar’s cult comedy Half Ticket didn’t just feature Western stylings, but also a unique duet — Aake seedhi lagi. Unique because both the female and male parts are sung by Kishore himself in different voices.

In the 1970s, Salil Chowdhury provided more amazing music for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand, Gulzar’s directorial debut Mere Apne, and Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha and Chhoti Si Baat, among others. Each of these soundtracks is considered a classic in its own right. He also scored Yash Chopra’s Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Kala Patthar (1979).

Salil da left an indelible mark on the minds of fans across languages, with songs of love, happiness, sadness and longing. And the fans are still singing his tunes to this day.

Also read: 5 songs and 5 moods to remember Khayyam, Bollywood’s versatile music composer


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