Few Moments with Salil Chowdhury
Kalpana Biswas

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K.B: Is it possible that due to much more predominance of such work alienated the audience even further?

S.C: That is possible. But it happens all the time. How many good plays are there that we can you talk about these days? How many good songs are being written, what's the quality of literature these days? There's always a dearth of genuinely good writers or artists. There's only one Tagore. There were many contemporary writers during his time, but none as powerful as Tagore or Chatterjee (Sarat Chandra Chatterjee). It is a fact in every age. But does that stop anyone from writing novels? There are thousands of new novels coming out every year!

K.B: What were the ideals that the IPTA emphasized on?

S.C: Socialist revolution. And to awaken people, to make them aware of it, that was its ideal.

K.B: Was it just to make them aware, or –

S.C: Yes, to inspire them as well. To make them aware means to inspire them as well. When I say that these are your rights, and tell you that you are being deprived of your rights, then of course I'm trying to rouse you up to get your rights.

K.B: And in your experience, did you see those ideals being successfully implemented?

S.C: Certainly it has had tremendous impact on the society, a lot of things that are available today, were made possible by the contribution IPTA made. The IPTA cultural movement and the Peasant movement were mainly responsible for the rights that the peasants and workers enjoy today. The kinds of rights that a peasant couldn't enjoy even 20 years ago, they have got those rights these days, both the peasants and the workers, thanks to such movements.

K.B: Who financed those organizations that you were involved with?

S.C: People.

K.B: Did they donate money?

S.C: No, they did not donate. We used to sell cheap tickets to them. Suppose we staged a play among the peasants, they would take care of us, provide food, and raise money for us. There were some full timers in the Party, like myself. I used to get a salary of Rs. 30.00 per month from the Party. That was my earning.

K.B: What about those who were not a member of the Party?

S.C: Many of them were extremely dedicated. They would work for free. We did not face any problems with the food. The peasants would always make sure that we had something to eat. They always receive you and feed you whatever they have. It is a tradition that still exists.

We would also sell tickets for our shows at a cheap price, between 4 annas and 8 annas, and thus make some money for the organization. (annas = small coins)

K.B: Yet, there must be a nagging economic insecurity that you had to deal with?

S.C: Yes, everyone had to deal with it. There were many part-timers. They were either students or having some other profession. They came from relatively well-to-do families. They used to devote their free times for the movement. There were more part-timers than the full-timers. There were very few full-timers in the party.

K.B: So, did not the economic insecurity have an adverse effect on the IPTA movement?

S.C: Indeed, it had a terrible effect. Many of our boys had to starve for days, while working for the movement. Many of them died too. They died not only from starvation, but also from torture, imprisonment, and coercion, from being beaten up severely. But I would say that the economic insecurity could not dampen the spirits of the boys that much. Because I saw them perform in plays in the villages they traveled by foot, not having to eat anything for 2 or 3 days continuously. When people are inspired by an ideal, they do not mind those minor hardships that much. Most often I wouldn't even have 2 annas in my pocket. There would be warrants in my name. I had to walk a lot, but never thought that it was something painful. Actually we were too busy to think about personal comforts. Now we cannot think of ignoring personal comforts. Even I myself cannot think of it anymore.

K.B: What about the conflict that developed within Bengal IPTA during those years…?

S.C: I am not aware of what had happened later.

K.B: I am talking about 1946-47 periods.

S.C: No, there was no conflict at that time. Actually conflict started during the ultra-left period, from the time of Ranadive. The movement split into two camps, one that was veering toward ultra left, and the other that was opposing the extreme left group. A serious conflict developed between those two groups. And the party started to dictate as well during that time. There was no dictating before. That was a much more broad-based democratic cultural front. Next, the artists started to revolt, when party told them that they could not do anything without party's permission. That was the reason for its breakup.

K.B: But many within the Bombay chapter of IPTA believe that the Independence movement was the cementing factor among various groups in IPTA. After India was independent, the main cause was lost for the IPTA. Members of the IPTA realized that they no longer had an objective for continuing such a cultural movement. Therefore, they started to show frustration and a certain slackening of purpose.

S.C: I believe this reasoning is partly true, but not wholly. A large number of people in IPTA were politically conscious. They did not want to stop right after Independence; they wanted to take it further, aiming for a social revolution. That's why the peasant movement still exists even so many years after Independence. But they have splintered into many groups. Two groups became three. Now there are many such groups. But the artists who were for a social revolution, they could still continue to work. They are still very creative. However, artists whose only aim was to kick the British out of India, they suffered from a loss of purpose and motivation, and became confused and without a goal after Independence. Those were two very different groups of artists.

K.B: How did the reaction of the Indian Government differ towards the IPTA from pre-Independence period to the post-Independence period?

S.C: It remained same, more or less. Because our main thrust was against the capitalist class and the exploiters, the landowners. As the government predominantly sided with the capitalists and landowners, they didn't like our activities much. It was obvious.

K.B: Did they [who later formed the government in independent India] help IPTA by any means before the Independence?

S.C: Absolutely not.

K.B: Not with money or anything?

S.C. Nothing, not at all. In fact after Independence we became their bitter enemies. Even after Independence we had to face a lot of opposition and torture from the officials of Indian government. We were banned from entering the radio station building for a long time.

K.B: Because you all were communists?

S.C: That was not the only reason. Even they did not allow us to perform songs on the radio that talked about the plights of the peasants or the workers. It continued to happen even after Independence. I was allowed to enter a radio station long after I became a popular artiste. Even today, if I try to criticize the system any way through my compositions, the Censor will stop me. I cannot talk about revolution in my compositions due to the censors.

K.B: Did you have to suffer repressions and harassments at the hands of the police in post-Independence period as well?

S.C: Yes, that happened a lot. A lot.

K.B: Do you remember such incidents?

S.C: It's hard to pick a specific incident since there were so many. We were on tenterhooks all the time. We were in the underground at the time. Here's an example of such an incident. Once we gathered under the Monument [in Calcutta] and started to sing songs. We saw a list of banned songs pasted everywhere by the police. It specified songs, such as "Naker Bodole Norun" or one that Hemanga-da composed, “Mount batten Saheb”, or "Bichar Pati Tomar Bichar", etc. There were about 20 songs that they banned according to the list. About a hundred thousand to hundred and fifty thousand people had come to listen to those songs. The police were there as well. Our boys cordoned off the stage and assured us to continue, saying, "Salil-da, please continue singing your songs, we will not allow those bastards from stopping us!" And we sang those songs, defying the police.

K.B: Then what happened?

S.C: We sang defying them, and after it was over we went home. The police couldn't do much at that time, because there were so many people who came to listen, and only a handful of police. I guess the police would give up, and listen to those songs after they had done the "job" of pasting the list [of banned songs]!

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