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Salil Chowdhury: A Phenomenon in Modern Bengali Music

Manab Mitra

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In the '40s, Salil Chowdhury had the historic advantage of having such courageous pioneers in experimental music behind him. But it was the image of those same pioneers that must have stood before him, posing a great challenge to a young composer who had to prove his merit or accept the unsavoury epithet of a minor composer.

The most interesting feature of Salil Chowdhury's compositions in the '40s and early '50s is that he refused to follow any definite pattern or to be confined in any category which others could call 'typically Salil'. Every composition he made revealed a new face of the composer. He reintroduced rhythm variation in the body of a single song, a technique first introduced in modern Bengali song by Rabindranath, but virtually left unexplored by the other major composers after him. Salil Chowdhury departed from the accepted norms of modern Bengali song structure by writing complex phrases of a single movement which unfolded itself sometimes over several lines of the lyric. This was a revolutionary innovation indeed, since the prevailing tendency had been to conform to the pattern of having one melody line, or at the most two, for a unit of lyric lines constituting each segment of the song. In Salil's compositions, musical information in terms of application of notes, their combinations and movements, acquired a totally new dimension. The way in which he phrased and scanned his melody lines along with the inner movements of the rhythms he chose, vigorously syncopated them and relentlessly explored the possibilities of tonal expressions, permanently changed the face of modern Bengali song. Constant experiments with song structures have always been Salil's preoccupation - a characteristic that sets him conspicuously apart from almost all other Indian composers in the post-Tagore era.

Great artists create problems for themselves and then look for elegant solutions. This was exactly what Salil Chowdhury did. Most of his songs contain a plethora of melodious problems he created for himself, as though challenging his own capacities, problem he then solved with just a few strokes of a deft hand busy carving out new patterns of progress in music. Each of his songs, written and composed in the '40s and '50s, is a separate experience in itself.

ut probably the most striking experience in modern Indian songs had to wait until Salil Chowdhury put to tune a long poem by Satyendranath Dutta and a few others by Sukanta Bhattacharya. Here, he had the historic challenge of making songs out of poems which were never meant to become songs in the first place. 'Palkir gan' and 'Runner', to name just two, became two separate studies in modern composition. Rabindranath, that impossible wizard who was constantly minting so many first-of-their-kind in modern Indian music, did make a masterly debut in putting long poems to tune. But Salil Chowdhury's compositions contained different information altogether. They were utterly unknown experiences not only in terms of lyric but - more importantly for composition - in terms of structural modalities. The important difference was in the presence of a variety of inner musical themes, sometimes quite disparate in their tonal information, within the outer boundary of the central motif. Even the intelligent rhythm and tempo variations, a musical delight in themselves, accompanying the shifts in imagery and moods of these poems, pale in front of the stupendous array of tonal motifs and themes which arrive, establish themselves, and then smoothly dissolve into another, thus gradually revealing a total panorama of tone pictures and colours, bound together in sovereign cohesion. The degree of Salil Chowdhury's musical imagination and his authority over his tools and materials becomes equally apparent when one considers that he undertook, in both these songs, several extremely complex feats of tonic changes ('kharaj paribartan'). Tonic change, a regular and important feature of European music and widely ignored in Hindustani classical music, though the provisions are there, had already been experimented with in modern Bengali songs by Rabindranath Tagore, Dwijendralal Roy and Himangshu Dutta, albeit on a rather limited scale. But in Salil Chowdhury's compositions, tonic changes occurred in considerably wider and much more intricate applications, imparting the delightful effect of a chain of songs within a song. His compositional treatment of Sukanta's poem 'Runner' may well be compared to a serious symphony, though on a much more limited scale, owing to the fact that he was composing a song and not an orchestral piece.

Elements of orchestral composition were very much there in his songs, especially in those which did not use the idioms of folk music. And it was just a matter of time for Salil Chowdhury to use real orchestral back-up on a larger scale. In composing the instrumental parts, the preludes and interludes as well as accompaniment, he started showing much unique imaginativeness as he did in his songs. And it was a 'total producer' of modern songs - as lyrist, composer, as well as orchestral arranger - that Salil Chowdhury emerged as the most important figure in the post-Tagore Bengal. This unity of the three very important capacities is, in fact, highly noteworthy. Since the '30s, the production of modern songs in Bengal, especially in the culture industry, has been marked by a division of labor. The lyrist and the composer have not necessarily been the same person. With the passage of time, the divided responsibilities have tended to become the rule rather than the exception. The introduction of the orchestra in recording brought in its wake another personality that was previously unknown - the arranger. Systematic practice of this division of labour, an historic product of the capitalist mode of song production in the culture industry, has consolidated all over India the typical constellation of three personalities to a song: the lyrist, the composer, and the arranger. Salil Chowdhury had to give up his lyrist identity when he started working for the film industry in Bombay and in South India primarily for reasons of language. But in Bengali songs - apart from those in which he collaborated with other Indian composers like Hridaynath Mangeshkar - he has, by and large, maintained his three-in-one identity which is exceptional in contemporary popular music in India.

It is true that back-up orchestra had been used in India long before Salil Chowdhury came on the scene. But most of the pre-Salil orchestra work in Bengali songs on gramophone disks was simple accompaniment or, at best, a kind of instrumental respite. In some exceptional cases the accompanying orchestra did display a richness of sound, but very seldom did it have any statement to make of its own. In Salil Chowdhury's work of orchestra achieved its much needed liberation. He accorded the accompanying instruments the status of voices capable of making statements qualify or modify those made by human voice. He started 'voicing' his instruments. This did not, of course, happen overnight, but it did happen soon enough after the Gramophone company started recording Salil Chowdhury's songs. Should one listen to the recorded versions of his songs chronologically, one could easily trace the growth of his thoughts and work in instrumentation and orchestration. His early discs impart a sense of economy regarding instrumental back-up. But despite the quantitative thinness of the accompaniment, a qualitative difference can be noticed. It can be clearly seen that, economy notwithstanding, the instruments are trying to 'say' something on their own. They are neither repeating, nor are they just embellishing it. Rather, they are supplementing the melody of the song with related or independent lines of melody. This gives the disc versions of Salil Chowdhury's songs a dramatic dimension that was absent before.

One of the salient features of Salil Chowdhury's instrumentation has always been his own way of using rhythms, percussion, and percussive instruments. He clearly defines the rhythms and the rhythmic thrusts of his songs with instruments, sometimes a whole group of instruments, more suited to the purpose than just a Tabla which had been, for a long time, the standard rhythm instrument used in the production of modern Bengali songs. His innovative application of percussions other than the obligatory Tabla in the early '50s was not only a welcome relief but a pioneering work as well. Moreover, he sharpened and enhanced the edge of the rhythm by using the piano which, in many of his early recordings, played rhythmic chords, accentuating the percussiveness of the accompaniment. In one of his songs in the late '50s or early '60s, 'Surer ei jhorna', Salil used a group strings as percussive accompaniment - an experiment which was surely the first of its kind in the subcontinent. In that same song he introduced, for the first time too, the technique of a dialogue between the lead singer and the accompanying chorus. He had already done successful experiments in harmonized choral singing before, but this particular song, in its recorded form, was a different matter altogether. Here the chorus is a harmonized vocal back-up as well as a separate entity by itself. In the second movement of the song, the 'antara', there is a sudden reversal of roles. It is the chorus that takes the lead while the lead voice replies and resolves the tension resulting from the inversion of the voice set-up. This was, again, a major experimental departure from the traditional and accepted norms of vocal arrangement in which the lead voice asserted its leading role throughout the song with the chorus condemned to a marginal existence. As the vocal dialogue goes on in 'Surer ei jhorna', a single accordion supplies yet another line of continuous run, adding a third dimension to the tonal picture. If one puts all these elements and factors together, one gets to know the mind of a composer who has constantly been trying to reshape his work and heighten the dramatic impact of his songs.

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