Sheer Melody

A mole's eye-view of the Cosmos


Salil Chowdhury - a composer par excellence


Born on the 19th of November, 1922, Salil Chowdhury was one of India's most underrated yet brilliant composers. A musician par excellence, he was also a poet - a poet pained by social segregation and unsolved political issues. An archetypal non-conformist, he did try to bring about a change in the lyrical style in typical film and non-film music, in the face of strong opposition from the conformists. A master multi-instrumentalist, he was exceptionally good at the flute, piano and the esraaj. In fact it was his musical education - a conglomeration of several genres: Bengali folk, Western Classical and Indian Classical, which resulted in him having a thorough knowledge of arrangement, which by far, is the toughest part of music-composition.

A childhood spent in Assam, where his father was a doctor, exposed the young Salil to a surfeit of folk music - the music of the hills. This exposure shaped his musical thinking as a young boy. However, it was when he graduated from college and lived through the drudgery of the Bengali famine of 40s, that he became acutely aware of his social responsibilities. He joined the IPTA and became a member of the Communist party of India. This was the time when music was required to be sensitive and responsible at the same time; and was the time when he created some of his best, musically-richest, albeit rawest compositions. These songs were typically titled (in Bengali) - Mass songs of consciousness and awakening, and dealt with the rampant weakening of social structure and mass corruption all around. What was interesting in these songs was a change in the general style of musical composition. Up till this point in time, Bengali songs, just like songs in any other Indian language were pretty much accompanied by the obligatory three violins, sometimes a piano, always a harmonium and the mandatory tabla. The percussive effect of the tabla was slowly modified by introducing a strings section, a woodwind section and a bass section in percussive mode, something untried in Indian music up till then. The new music smelt different, it had a different fragrance to it, and people lapped it up. These mass songs became a part of popular thinking in Bengal. Sometime in the 1990s, Salil-da teamed up with Yogesh, and transliterated quite a few of these songs into Hindi, and they became a popular feature in Doordarshan prime-time.

This was Salil Chowdhury's initial creative phase as a music director. Primarily non-professional, this was a time when he rarely composed for money. The second phase of his musical career was his professional phase, when he shifted to Mumbai, and laid foot in the Hindi film industry. It is imperative that one studies both the phases of his music, for then it's easy to see the transition in thoughts, the change in musical styles, and the imbibing of blues and jazz into his musical thought. His objective in Bollywood was to compose for the film Do Bigha Zameen, which was incidentally based on his own story Rickshawallah. With unforgettable numbers like "Dharti kahe pukaar ke," this movie and its music was a massive hit all over the country.

Salil-da (as he was popularly known in the musical fraternity) believed that an Indian song should have a melody which is essentially Indian in color. At the same time he also believed in colorful orchestration of the non-conformist kind. An acute understanding of Western classical music and the symphonic style gave him the freedom to create arrangements for songs in multipart voicing with three-part harmonies as early as 1945. And this is what finally came to define his unique style: A rich melody, which always sounds deceptively simple, with closely-knit orchestration. For him, the prelude and interludes of the song were as important as the song itself. The interludes are so interwoven into the composition that the transition from the musical voicing to the actual song has a fluidity which is tough to achieve in real life.

Commercial success however seemingly evaded him. The only filmfare award he received was for the film Madhumati, directed by Bimal Roy. Not that the filmfare awards were any just judge of musical talent or ability. It's a point in passing. After a few commercial successes in Hindi films, he turned his attention to regional music, and composed music for his first Malayalam film, Chemmeen in 1970. This film went on to win the National Award, and made him a revered music director in Kerala. He went on to direct music for over twenty-five Malayalam feature films.

Salil Chowdhury gave us some immortal compositions over the years. I am tempted to list a lot of them, and why I like them, but somehow I feel that could be the topic of another post. A few songs which immediately come to mind is the jovial "Woh mere peechhe haath dhoke pada hai" from Half-Ticket, the folksy "Chhota-sa ghar hoga" from Naukri, the melodious "Dil Tadap Tadap" from Madhumati, the rollicking "Woh sone ke dilwala" from Maya, the sadly optimistic "Zindagi Kaisi hai paheli" from Anand, the Chopin-esque "Raaton ke Saaye" from Annadaata, the beautifully-picturised "Jaaneman Jaaneman" from Chhoti-si Baat, and of course the incomparable "Koi hota jisko apna" from Mere Apne. (A tid-bit: "Koi Hota Jisko Apna" is the melody which the saxophone plays in the last frames of Anand.)

These are just a few examples of his musical offering, just a few gems which give a momentary glimpse of a departed genius. It's a pity the rest of India never got a taste of literary skills. Deeply revered in Bengal as the "thinking-man's" composer, Salil-da always wrote his own songs. The lyrics were his, the melody was (almost always) his, and the orchestration was always his. He wrote the background, the prelude and the interlude and was considered a master arranger in higher musical circles. Adept in both Indian and western notation, he was universally loved and respected by the musicians who used to play for him. Most importantly, his songs, unlike those of his contemporary lyricists, were not about the moon, the stars and deeply ensconced romanticism. His songs were about the end of romance, stark reality, broken dreams and social upliftment. At the same time, he also wrote songs about optimism, an array of new hopes and dreams.

Studying and understanding Salil Chowdhury's music over the years has been a deeply fulfilling and satisfying experience. It's a pity he was so underrated in his time, but today, when I analyze his music, I realize, with a little bit of pity and a lot of wonder, that he was far, far ahead of his times. Behind every song, was a colorful imagination at work, an imagination which was not bounded by a gharana or a raga, an imagination which was never conformist, and most importantly, an imagination which was innately honest and caring.

6 Responses to “Salil Chowdhury - a composer par excellence”

  1. # Blogger Prashant

    A few songs which immediately come to mind is the jovial "Woh mere peechhe haath dhoke pada hai" from Half-Ticket, the folksy "Chhota-sa ghar hoga" from Naukri, the melodious "Dil Tadap Tadap" from Madhumati, the rollicking "Woh sone ke dilwala" from Maya, the sadly optimistic "Zindagi Kaisi hai paheli" from Anand, the Chopin-esque "Raaton ke Saaye" from Annadaata, the beautifully-picturised "Jaaneman Jaaneman" from Chhoti-si Baat, and of course the incomparable "Koi hota jisko apna" from Mere Apne. (A tid-bit: "Koi Hota Jisko Apna" is the melody which the saxophone plays in the last frames of Anand.)

    Also Kai Baar yun hi dekha hai....Rajnigandha.......

    Beautifully written piece....i coudnt agree more......and Happy Diwali Dude  

  2. # Anonymous Prashant Raj

    A few songs which immediately come to mind is the jovial "Woh mere peechhe haath dhoke pada hai" from Half-Ticket, the folksy "Chhota-sa ghar hoga" from Naukri, the melodious "Dil Tadap Tadap" from Madhumati, the rollicking "Woh sone ke dilwala" from Maya, the sadly optimistic "Zindagi Kaisi hai paheli" from Anand, the Chopin-esque "Raaton ke Saaye" from Annadaata, the beautifully-picturised "Jaaneman Jaaneman" from Chhoti-si Baat, and of course the incomparable "Koi hota jisko apna" from Mere Apne. (A tid-bit: "Koi Hota Jisko Apna" is the melody which the saxophone plays in the last frames of Anand.)

    Also Kai Baar yun hi dekha hai....Rajnigandha.......

    Beautifully written piece....i coudnt agree more......and Happy Diwali Dude  

  3. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Sheer Melody,

    Its a well-written article but I seriously think that you should at least acknowledge the site salilda.com where you have taken (copied) most of the contents from.Internet offers us this amazing "cut and paste" facility but one should have the moral courage to acknowledge the source. Another thing, "raaton ke saaye" was not based on any Chopin concerto. Its one of those stupid and ignorant comments made by some music journalist years ago and has been copied by everybody else ever since.

    Majorseventh
    fmajor7@gmail.com  

  4. # Anonymous Sheermelody

    @Major7th:

    Apologies.

    Biographical notes taken from salilda.com; Would also like to add that I do accept your point about acknowledging the source; since http://salilda.com is a frequent point of return for any fact/figure/hitherto-unknown-fact about Salil-da.

    However it would probably do you well to actually go through the article in detail; because what you call lifting is about stuff which are facts. I wouldn't really want to distort facts to make it original.

    But yes, I do admit to blatantly liking the line "end of romance, stark reality, broken dreams and social upliftment." I had to keep it there.

    Also regarding acknowledging the site; it's long been acknowledged as the authentic source for tidbits on Salil-da, on multiple blogs of mine: including: http://musicalpilgrimage.blogspot.com and this same blog.

    This article is not meant as a journalistic venture; if it was I would probably have been more concerned about whether the facts which I state sound the same as the original article. This article is a simple tribute to the master.  

  5. # Blogger majorseventh

    Sheermelody,

    Thanks for your reply. I did read the full article of yours and I wrote to you saying that its a well-written article. Today I read the other blog you wrote on Salilda at http://musicalpilgrimage.blogspot.com
    A small point about your comments on Calcutta Youth Choir. None of the arrangements were done by Salilda. How do I know it ? Well, I was a member of CYC for a number of years and Salilda had nothing to do with CYC. After Rumadi came back from Mumbai (she used to be with BYC) there was some misunderstanding between Rumadi and Salilda and as a result CYC was not allowed to perform any composition of Salilda. The exception was "Dur noi dur noi digonto dur noi".
    If CYC did record or perform any Salilda composition at a later date (which I am not aware of) the arrngement was definitely not done by Salilda.

    Majorseventh  

  6. # Blogger Sheer melody

    Major Seventh:

    Thanks for the clarifications. I did not know you were associated with the CYC.

    I have heard something about the misunderstanding which you talk about but never knew it really happened.

    Please do keep watching my blog. Would enjoy your comments in the music section  

Post a Comment

Links to this post

Create a Link